Continuous partial attention, information overload or both?

For those who haven’t heard – “To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention — CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter.” (from Linda Stone who coined the phrase)

I am definitely experiencing continuous partial attention, for which I hadn’t seen any problem, until recently.  In fact, I was quite enjoying the experiences!

I have always be a very efficient multi-tasker also, well able to do many things at the same time, being able to pick up and drop things at the drop of a hat, then pick them up again without losing any noticeable continuity. Not being a perfectionist helps with that, as long as all jobs are done adequately – I do not accept shoddy work. As long as the work is done and as efficiently as possible, I’m happy.

But I’m starting to notice some setbacks to this partial attention, especially when coupled with the information overload I also manage on a daily basis. Something has to give and it has been giving.

I can’t read a non-fiction book easily anymore.

Fiction is fine, that’s my escape from reality and I tend to only read things that engage my attention and that I truly enjoy, so I can get through one of those with no noticeable difficulty. Non-fiction however, which is more educational than purely enjoyable for me and which of course then takes more work, is a lot harder for me now.

I have some great books sitting on my bedside table, my favourite reading point, but not my only one.  Some are recently borrowed from my library and those I make a priority of because they have to go back.  I struggle with those, even with a time limit, with many having gone back to the library, mostly unstarted. Quite a few other books are personal copies and have been sitting there for up to a year, either unstarted or partially started and still awaiting their turn.

They are not boring books either, not by a mile.  But for some reason, I find my reading of non-fiction is changing to be more like snacking – small doses and very diverse content.  The majority of my non-fiction reading now is blog posts, journal articles, report summaries, conference papers etc.

I snack on this type of reading across my day – when I have a few moments to sit, when I am waiting for my kids at their regular activities, etc.  Maybe its the diversity of the reading, or the perceived urgency (won’t be current if I leave it too long), or because if I don’t take it in as soon as possible I’ll be missing out on something.  Or it could be the information overload and after reading so much professional stuff, I am full and can’t sit down to a full meal – those non-fiction books on my bedside table. I don’t know if its one of these or a combination of many, but I find myself wanting to know and caring more about it now.

I like knowing about things, it comes from being a born reference librarian, but I recognised a long time ago that there was no chance I could keep up with it all, so I have had to pick and choose.  I thought I had been doing pretty well, but maybe its time to have another look at the personal filters I have been using and adjust them a bit.

I want to read those books on my bedside table – they have excellent content, ideas and inspiration and come from authors I admire, but I believe its going to take a change of mindset and some pretty hefty willpower to make it happen in a more timely manner.

Am I the only one feeling or thinking like this?  Either way, feel free to share with me any strategies you think may help.


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  1. If you have to keep ahead a lot of things, it may just go with the territory, Michelle, as you already have noted.
    But I have found that getting some time away from the ‘Net diet and giving a book a good solid two or three hours in a quiet place, without housework or other distractions, can be a useful reintroduction to solid reading.
    Either that, or reconcile yourself to a chapter at a time, and make sure you are not in a position to be distracted while you do that. It’s aerobic reading, I guess – gradually increasing the amount of concentrated attention until you see a recognisable change.
    Good luck! attention does seem to be at a premium these days.

  2. Thanks Genevieve and Amy, good thoughts both. I think I’ll have to focus on the chapter option, there is no hope of a few hours away from it all. Getting away from the Net is another thing, easy to think of, not all that easy to do – something else to work on.

    • snail on March 25, 2008 at 3:38 am

    I have no answers and have been experiencing this for years, though for me it covers most printed matter with little distinction for fiction, non fiction, newspapers, journals, etc. I tend to read more online, it’s true, particularly news and journal stuff. But I’ve never been particularly organised at home, and time tends to get eaten up with other things.

  3. Well if nothing else, its nice to know I’m not alone in this.

    • T Scott on March 25, 2008 at 8:49 am

    You may find the work of David M. Levy (Information School at the University of Washington) illuminating. An excellent place to start is his article in the December 2007 issue of Ethics and Information Technology, “No time to think: Reflections on information technology and contemplative scholarship.” 9(4):237-49. If you have access online through SpringerLink the DOI is 10.1007/s10676-007-9142-6.

  4. Like the other commenters, I’ve found this as well, though haven’t ever found a solution. I’m studying again at the moment, and am finding my state of continuous partial attention a real struggle, as I find it difficult to focus for the extended periods of time that it takes to write a paper – I keep wanting to flit out to other tasks, and then I lose my train of thought.

    I think that librarians, to a certain extent, fall into the trap easier than some others. Our work (or mine, certainly)is often a state of continuous partial attention anyway – we move rapidly between a number of smaller tasks, and don’t as often have large projects that can focus our attention for hours at a time. Our work environment makes it very easy to be connected all the time to lots of information streams – indeed, it’s encouraged.

    Mostly I just resort to cold turkey methods to get myself to focus. Turn the computer off, or unplug the connection, or go outside to write, and force myself to focus for the period that I have to…

  5. Thank you all for your comments, there is some very helpful advice and some good reading in there that I will be following through. Thankfully, I can read them in short snatches. 🙂

    • Courtney on April 1, 2008 at 8:58 am

    I’m glad I’m not the only one! Thanks!! I, too, cannot seem to sit still and read nonfiction even though I really enjoy it. Fiction is easier since it is an escape for me as well, but I still have to really like the book to even start reading it. Since I also give priority to library books because they have to be returned, I have seriously considered checking out nonfiction books *that I already own* thinking it may better motivate me to actually finish them. Deadlines just help sometimes, and maybe I should consider this more. 😉

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