Tech June 2013

The Art of Staying Focused in a Distracting World

The tech-industry veteran Linda Stone on how to pay attention
Stephen Vuillemin

A longtime tech executive, Linda Stone worked on emerging technologies at Apple and then Microsoft Research in the 1980s and ’90s. Fifteen years ago, she coined the term continuous partial attention to describe the modern predicament of being constantly attuned to everything without fully concentrating on anything. Since then, she has frequently written and lectured about the challenges of living in an always-on, hyperconnected world.

James Fallows: You’re well known for the idea of continuous partial attention. Why is this a bad thing?

Linda Stone: Continuous partial attention is neither good nor bad. We need different attention strategies in different contexts. The way you use your attention when you’re writing a story may vary from the way you use your attention when you’re driving a car, serving a meal to dinner guests, making love, or riding a bicycle. The important thing for us as humans is to have the capacity to tap the attention strategy that will best serve us in any given moment.

JF: What do you mean by “attention strategy”?

LS: From the time we’re born, we’re learning and modeling a variety of attention and communication strategies. For example, one parent might put one toy after another in front of the baby until the baby stops crying. Another parent might work with the baby to demonstrate a new way to play with the same toy. These are very different strategies, and they set up a very different way of relating to the world for those children. Adults model attention and communication strategies, and children imitate. In some cases, through sports or crafts or performing arts, children are taught attention strategies. Some of the training might involve managing the breath and emotions—bringing one’s body and mind to the same place at the same time.

Self-directed play allows both children and adults to develop a powerful attention strategy, a strategy that I call “relaxed presence.” How did you play as a child?

JF: I have two younger siblings very close in age, so I spent time with them. I also just did things on my own, reading and building things and throwing balls and so on.

LS: Let’s talk about reading or building things. When you did those things, nobody was giving you an assignment, nobody was telling you what to do—there wasn’t any stress around it. You did these things for your own pleasure and joy. As you played, you developed a capacity for attention and for a type of curiosity and experimentation that can happen when you play. You were in the moment, and the moment was unfolding in a natural way.

You were in a state of relaxed presence as you explored your world. At one point, I interviewed a handful of Nobel laureates about their childhood play patterns. They talked about how they expressed their curiosity through experimentation. They enthusiastically described things they built, and how one play experience naturally led into another. In most cases, by the end of the interview, the scientist would say, “This is exactly what I do in my lab today! I’m still playing!”

JF: When people talk about attention problems in modern society, they usually mean the distractive potential of smartphones and so on. Is that connected to what you’re talking about in early-childhood development?

LS: We learn by imitation, from the very start. That’s how we’re wired. Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl, professors at the University of Washington I-LABS, show videos of babies at 42 minutes old, imitating adults. The adult sticks his tongue out. The baby sticks his tongue out, mirroring the adult’s behavior. Children are also cued by where a parent focuses attention. The child’s gaze follows the mother’s gaze. Not long ago, I had brunch with friends who are doctors, and both of them were on call. They were constantly pulling out their smartphones. The focus of their 1-year-old turned to the smartphone: Mommy’s got it, Daddy’s got it. I want it.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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