Do I really want my attention managed?

With information overload comes a desire to manage time and increasingly managing attention as well.

Untethered technology gives us the freedom to do nearly anything, anytime, anywhere. It can also enslave us – we feel compelled to use it where ever it is. Technology is neutral. How, when and where we use it is up to us

– Linda Stone, “Is it time to retire the never ending list?” (Huffington Post)

What is attention management?

distracted There are two different concepts that are often referred to as “attention management” – one I’m not going to write about (mainly because I’m still researching what it means and its implications for my daily existence) and one I am going to write about.

What I am not referring to (just to get it out of the way) is the excellent work being done behind and around the Attention Profiling Markup Language (APML) standard, which provides a way to collect and rank the types of things you look at and store it in a portable XML format.  However, the application of APML could form a part of the bigger picture down the track.

What does interest me is attention management within the context of what Linda Stone refers to as continuous partial attention (CPA) – paying partial attention to everything around you continuously.  CPA is scanning everything constantly (possibly due to a fear of missing something).  This should not be confused with good old fashioned multi-tasking, which is often a case of combining a few simple tasks (eg talking on the phone while sorting some papers).

CPA can obviously be a good thing if you are trying to quickly absorb a lot of information on a broad topic. However, anecdotally it appears to lead to stress and fatigue if adopted as a broader lifestyle choice.  There are almost limitless sources of information, media and nodes of interaction.  It is easy to switch to an always on, 24/7 lifestyle where the current morsel of datum is snacked upon before being quickly discarded for the next morsel, with 5 more morsels queuing up for every morsel that is skimmed and disposed of.  Each morsel has its own way of alerting you to its existence and stealing away your attention, whether it be a “bing”, an on-screen pop up, a little envelope in the status tray or an ever rising number of unread items every time you look its was.

This is where attention management gets interesting.

How is my attention “managed”?

I am sure there are as many different ways to manage attention as there are attentions begging to be managed.  APML-aware applications like Particls (currently a closed beta so I haven’t actually had a chance to use it) and Engagd from Australia’s Faraday Media are one way.  From what I can see, these services use the data in your information profile to algorithmically filter incoming information so that only the stuff you are most interested in reaches you (please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong).

It could be argued that the entire lifehacking movement is another way attacking the problem. While lifehacking ostensibly seems to be about being more efficient and managing time more effectively, a lot of the techniques shared between and adopted by knowledge workers are as much about managing interruptions as they are about being more efficient with the time available.  A brief perusal of leading lifehack sites Lifehacker, 43 Folders, Stepcase Lifehack and even Ask Metafilter shows that this is a shared experience, often built upon the systems popularised by David Allen and his Getting Things Done philosophy (usually shortened to GTD).

What’s in it for me?

The theory of attention management is attractive.  Successfully applied, my life should be more tightly controlled with better targeted information, less time spent on irrelevant tasks as I work more focused with less distractions, closing mental loop after mental loop, leaving me with a mind like water.  Herein lies my difficulty. I like being somewhat distracted.  I enjoy my slightly chaotic existence.  I revel (and sometimes ROFL) in the serendipity of some of my daily distractions.

In the end, when I need to manage my attention and focus on something important, I use the easiest method of all.

Just turn it all off, people.  The world will still be there when you get back.

Original photo credit – markhillary

Further reading

Attention Profiles
APML – The open standard for attention metadata –
Explaining APML: What it is and why you want it – Elias Bizannes (
Attention Profiling: APML Beginner’s Guide – Robin Good (MasterNewMedia)
Paying attention – personal blog of Chris Saad, co-founder of Faraday Media, DataPortability Project and the APML Workgroup

Continuous Partial Attention
continuouspartialattention – Linda Stone
Is it time to retire the never ending list? – Linda Stone (Huffington Post)
Dealing with partial attention issues – Marc Orchant (Platform Agnostic)
“Zerstreutheit” and the Attention Management Cure – Merlin Mann (43 Folders)
Continuous partial attention: software and solutions – Alex Iskold (ReadWriteWeb)
Nokia and continuous partial attention – Jack Schulze and Matt Webb (Schulze & Webb)

Lifehacking (historical)
Meet the Lifehackers – Clive Thompson (New York Times) 2005 (printer friendly, all on one page version)

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2 Responses to Do I really want my attention managed?

  1. Sean Carmody says:

    I have no doubt that I suffer from CPA. I realise that I have started to use Google reader in the same way I used a photocopier when I was a student. Back then, if I found a “relevant” paper, I would photocopy it, but rarely read it. Photocopying gave me enough of a sense of achievement. Now I do the same thing with Google Reader: if I stumble across an interesting blog, I will add the feed to my reader, but may never actually read another post. Again…now where is that rss link…

  2. shane says:

    Hey Sean, thanks for stopping by.

    CPA isn’t necessarily a bad thing but people can get a little bit crazy about how they incorporate it into their lives.

    At least with Google Reader, you can skim your feeds and star or share the ones you want to come back and read later. After all, now that there is a GReader search function, every single feed item is stored in your account for you to go back and read later.

    Think of it like photocopying into the cloud :)

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