Multitasking and Continuous Partial Attention: An Interview with Linda Stone (Part One)

Many of you know the white paper I and a team of MIT-based researchers wrote for the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning initiative identifying some of the core skills which young people need to acquire if they are going to be able to meaningfully participate in the new media landscape. Perhaps the most controversial skill we included on our list was "multitasking." We knew that many regard multitasking as a form of distraction which fragments the attention of young people, but we also felt it needed to be seriously considered as a mechanism which allows us to cope with the intense information flow which constitutes our contemporary environment. Our point was that students need to be able to manage their attention, shifting it as needed between modes which involve scanning their environment for meaningful inputs (like a hunter) and focusing closely on a specific domain (like a farmer). I've since written on this blog discussing patterns of multitasking I've seen from students in my classroom while I was at MIT, further elaborating on my own thinking about multitasking. Today, I am happy to share with you the thoughts of Linda Stone, who has spent a great deal of time over the past decade reflecting on strategies for managing attention and about the educational consequences of what she has called "continuous partial attention." I met Stone years ago through the PopTech! conference in Camden, Maine, a great event, and we've stayed in touch off and on. In recent times, she's written some provocative pieces for the Huffington Post about what's she's been calling "conscious computing." Stone has been a top level executive at Apple and has led research at Microsoft on Virtual Worlds. She's now spending much of her time trying to understand the impact of new media on attention. As she writes on her blog, "Attention is the most powerful tool of the human spirit. We can enhance or augment our attention with practices like meditation and exercise, diffuse it with technologies like email and Blackberries, or alter it with phamaceuticals. In the end, though, we are fully responsible for how we choose to use this extraordinary tool."

Let's start with a basic statement. You write, "Personal technologies today are prosthetics for our minds." In what sense?

For most of us, when we sit at the computer or use a cell phone, our mind is engaged and our body is "hanging out." Have you ever noticed someone sitting at a computer, body increasingly slumped and computer increasingly animated? Have you found yourself holding your breath or breathing shallowly while you work at the computer. I call that email apnea, temporary cessation of breath or shallow breathing while doing email (or texting). We use the computer to extend our minds, while often, unintentionally, our bodies are being compromised in some way (posture, breathing, even just waiting to use the bathroom until we get yet another email done or another document completed).

You coined the term, "continuous partial attention," to describe a particular way we interact with each other in a world of mobile technologies. Can you explain this concept? How did your interest in attention emerge from the work you were doing with Microsoft on online communities?

In 1997, I coined the phrase Continuous Partial Attention (Harvard Business Review, January 2007) to describe what I observed in the world around me, at Microsoft where I was a researcher and later a Vice President, with customers, and at NYU where I was adjunct faculty in a graduate program. We all seemed to be paying partial attention - continuously. NYU students had their screens tiled to display multiple instant messaging windows, email, WORD documents, and more. My colleagues in high technology did their best to give the appearance of paying attention to a conversation, all the while, also attending to caller I.D., Tetris and BrickOut on their cell phones, and other people in range. Every stray input was a firefly. And every firefly was examined to determine if it burned more brightly than the one in hand.

As I watched the graduate students at NYU, it occurred to me that they were doing something very different from what I called multi-tasking. These students were hyper alert, ready to respond to any input coming in from any direction. They participated in four I.M. conversations while talking on the phone, responding to email, and noticing who was passing by. In those days, back at the Microsoft campus, many of us worked on two monitors - one monitor displayed email, the other displayed code or a Word document or a spreadsheet. It was no surprise to me when Microsoft's earliest version of Instant Messenger (I.M.) took up a full screen. An assumption had been made that if a user was I.M.'ing, they wouldn't choose to browse the net or answer email or prepare a document simultaneously. Digital immigrant thinking.

Digital immigrants at technology companies founded prior to 1990, were beginning to encounter digital natives. Digital immigrants had embraced technology to enhance productivity and personal creativity - PC's and Macs, word processing and spreadsheets, desktop publishing and paint programs empowered and enabled us. Digital natives took it all a step further. Technology wasn't just about tasks and productivity. New technologies enabled new types of communication, relationships and personal networks.

I mutli-tasked because I believed it made me more productive. I ate a sandwich while I filed papers. I had an eye on email coming in while I prepared a document. To answer email, I turned my attention to the monitor displaying it and set my document aside, momentarily. I moved between tasks, in rapid sequence, or, if I was doing more than one thing, one of those activities was automatic - like eating a sandwich - it didn't take much thinking, and one of those activities required some thinking - like answering an email.

My NYU students were hyper alert. They were asking their brains to do something different - they were asking their brains to attend to four I.M. conversations, a partially completed paper, a news website, a text message coming in on the cell phone and a conversation with the person sitting next to them. This blew me away. I wanted to give it a name that more accurately described it. I called it Continuous Partial Attention (cpa).

These students were ahead of the curve. As anywhere, anytime, any place technologies like cell phones, Blackberries, and wi-fi, proliferated, we came to expect immediate responses to email and phone calls, and all began to use cpa as an attention strategy. It was possible to work 24/7 and we did. We took time management classes and refined our ability to create schedules and lists. Untethered technology gives us the freedom to do anything, anywhere, anytime. It also enslaves us. We feel compelled to use it where ever it is.

At Microsoft, when I moved from Microsoft Research to work for Steve Ballmer, I believed I could do everything - both proactive and reactive, and I just made my days longer to accommodate demands.

My colleagues and I struggled with the workload in an effort to stay on top of everything. Mobile devices in hand, we were now all using cpa as our primary attention strategy. And we had even amped that up - often we were continuously paying Continuous Partial Attention (continuous cpa). There was no break in the pace. 24/7, anywhere, anytime, any place.

Widely recognized as a visionary thinker and thought leader, Linda Stone is a writer, speaker and consultant focused on trends and their strategic and consumer implications. Articles on her work have appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek, The Economist, Boston Globe, Harvard Business Review, and hundreds of blogs.

Previously, she spent close to twenty years as an executive in high technology. In 1986, she was persuaded to join Apple Computer to help "change the world." In her 7 years at Apple, she had the opportunity to do pioneering work in multimedia hardware, software and publishing. In her last year at Apple, Stone worked for Chairman and CEO John Sculley on special projects. In 1993, Stone joined Microsoft Research under Nathan Myhrvold and Rick Rashid. She co-founded and directed the Virtual Worlds Group/Social Computing Group, researching online social life and virtual communities. During this time, she also taught as adjunct faculty in NYU's prestigious Interactive Telecommunications Program. In 2000, CEO Steve Ballmer tapped Stone to take on a VP role, reporting to him, to help improve industry relationships and contribute to a constructive evolution of the corporate culture. She retired from Microsoft in 2002. She is an advisor for the Pew Internet and American Life Project ( and is on the Advisory Board of the RIT Lab for Social Computing.