On Blogs, Multi-Tasking and Continuous Partial Attention

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In spite of my best efforts, my blogroll continues to expand like our runaway national deficit. I prune it actively, I unsubscribe to things I like but don’t have time to read (I miss you BoingBoing), but seemingly every day there’s someone, or someones (welcome, guys), new to blogging that I’m compelled to surrender some of my precious, precious attention to.

There’s no question in my mind that blogs make me a more effective and efficient resource – just look at the example here. But as much as the net impact of them is positive, it’s necessary to recognize that the benefits do not come without a price. Time, principally. As Emerson had it, time is our most precious resource because once spent it can never be returned. Near as I can determine, he’s not far wrong. The reading of blogs is an exercise that consumes a bigger and bigger chunk of my work day. Unfortunately, because I’m not just an analyst but partner in the business, I have other responsibilities that cannot be (but often are) put off. The net result? My work day is getting longer and longer. But of course blogs are merely part of the problem; if it wasn’t them it would be IM, email, voicemail, Skype – whatever.

So what to do? Well, much as I’d like to believe that the suggestions on things like 43folders hold the answer, there’s a certain underlying reality which belies the promise of these and other self-help/organizational resources: I simply have too much to do. Too much to read, too much to write, too much everything. This fact is as immutable as the laws of thermodynamics. While there’s always room for improvement in my overall efficiency, ultimately the equation is simple: the information to free time ratio is solidly tilted in the direction of the former.

The key, at least for me, is that realization – that there’s too much. Like the B Schools that break first year students by overwhelming them with work, blogs can swamp even the most organized and responsible of us. My threshold for such a realization, however, was apparently far lower than Scoble’s, who only recently hit the wall despite an input rate that’s an order of magnitude greater than my own. Either way, most of us will have to seek a balance between sucking off the information firehose and living up to our regular, day-to-day responsibilities.

Besides being willing to acknowledge that there are some feeds I simply may not be able to keep up with, I’m actively considering more radical approaches to the problem. Here’s how Neal Stephenson deals:

My ongoing struggle against “continuous partial attention”

Linda Stone, formerly of Apple and Microsoft, has coined the term “continuous partial attention” to describe life in the era of e-mail, instant messaging, cellphones, and other distractions. This curious feature of modern life poses a problem for a someone like me. Every productive thing that I do requires ALL my attention

The bottom line is as follows: I simply cannot respond to all incoming stimuli unless I retire from writing novels. And I don’t wish to retire at this time.

Because I’m not writing novels as intricate as Cryptonomicon or The Confusion – or any novels, for that matter – my solution need not be so extreme. A couple of hours or days offline on a regular basis, perhaps, should allow my brain time to get some distance and process. 20% time for RedMonk, perhaps? As it happens, Adam Bosworth’s latest (good to have you back, sir) touches on a very similar topic:

Presence is in the air. The web because of mobile and broadband and IM is becoming real-time. Real time presence changes everything and rapidly leads to thinking about much richer ways of communicating within communities. It highlights some of the, in my opinion, few limitations of the browser as a zero deployment user interface model. But it also risks us losing those last moments of privacy. Lufthansa has announced that it will support internet on planes. I will not fly on them. I need some periods in my life where I am unreachable. Indeed, every year in August, I vanish for a month from the web, turn off email, and deal with the withdrawal and suddenly I relearn how to think and concentrate. In a world where knowledge and thinking is everything, it is ironic that increasing availability had led to decreasing time in which to reflect, ponder, and just let the mind wander and yet these periods tend to be essential to truly thinking hard. If Nokia sold a phone that reported where I was at all times through presence (as some phone vendors actually already do) I wouldn’t buy it. We’re going to have to work out how to support all this in a manner in which the customers can effortlessly and intuitively opt in and out so that, when they want, they can be left alone and vanish from view and can control who can see them when.

Adam articulates in large part why I, despite a gadget-oriented nature, decided against getting one of the Treos everyones raving about. Or why I’m happy to let calls go to voicemail if I’m busy. Because I recognize a need for time where my attention is not divided, but focused on a particular task or issue. When it’s not besieged by phones, blogs, email, IM, SMS. Maybe it’s just I as an individual don’t multi-task that well, but I suspect few people do it well enough to deal with the surplus of communication channels we all have now.

Much as I might like it to be, this issue obviously isn’t going to be like a sitcom where everything’s wrapped up and solved in a neat little 30 minute segment, nor do I have any real answers for those of you who find yourselves similarly afflicted. But I thought it might still be useful to point out that there are some very smart folks who have the same problem, and that in their respective responses you and I might find something we can use.


  1. Sorry to add yet another piece to your evidently loaded plate, but I think that you might be interested in reading this link about a 'Physics of information'. The author says a lot that applies to this situation, liuke that the most interesting information is the stuff that is changing rapidly (high velocity, or high acceleration), etc. Perhaps one day, this kind of idea can be attached to an RSS feedreader, taking lots of feeds and merging them into one feed of importance.

  2. wow, i hope the message that people took away wasn't that i don't want you to keep contributing comments and the like. that's what keeps this place interesting.

    anyhow, i've downloaded the PDF into my "To Read" folder – seriously, i have one, and yes, things are that bad 😉

    but i find the possibilities of volatile information processing intriguing, and doubtless there's a business – for the wall st types anyhow – to be built there.

  3. I've been using del.icio.us for my 'To-read' folder.

    There definitly is too much stuff out there!

  4. I feel this problem of Continuous partial attention is because the core work that we are doing (and the one that requires our continuous attention) is not so interesting to us. We are kind of forcing ourselves to do it (in very subtle ways). Sometime back, I had written about how our right hemisphere makes us do things that our left hemisphere has reasoned are wrong. The post can be found here:

    The situation that I have used as the backdrop is different but it is the same mind trick that is doing the magic.

  5. Manas: perhaps, but not so much in my case. the problem is quite the opposite for me. yes, i have things that are boring – expenses, etc – but for the most part blogs, email, IM, etc are all things that i actually like doing. the problem arises when there are simply too many things i like doing to do them all successfully. it's overload, plain and simple.

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