The concept of continuous partial attention was coined by a researcher named Linda Stone, who first began her work on the idea while working for Microsoft. She noted that many people in the technology industry tended to work with a split focus, concentrating on a top level item while also receiving partial input from a variety of other sources. It is different from multi-tasking, where people perform several tasks at once.
You can probably think of a few examples of continuous partial attention in your own life. For example, you may have noticed that social events are often interrupted with ringing cell phones, incoming text messages, or email coming in on hand-held devices. Some people find this offensive, being irritated when people interrupt a conversation to answer a cell phone or deal with a text, while others don't seem to mind, especially among the younger age group.
According to Stone, the cause of continuous partial attention is a desire to not miss out on anything. At a party, for example, someone may scan the crowd to ensure that they don't miss someone they want to see, just as an executive at a meeting checks email to see if a better deal is on offer for a product under discussion, or as teenagers text each other in class. Some people feel that this type of attention is simply the modernized form of not paying attention at all, with people focusing on too many things at once to do justice to any one thing.
Stone noted that 18-25 year olds seemed to be champions of continuous partial attention, perhaps because they were raised in an environment and culture where it is not only encouraged, but expected. She also provided numerous examples from the corporate world, where some companies now confiscate communication devices at the door in meetings to avoid the problem of partial attention.
Some people view continuous partial attention as positive, arguing that it increases flow and allows people to work more effectively. Others feel that it is less positive, contributing to stressful, high-geared lifestyles which can lead to health problems, as stress has been linked with a number of health issues, from weight gain to dandruff. It may also make workers less efficient, or reduce the quality of someone's work, depending on his or her work pattern. Critics who view split attention as a problem have also coined another term, “continuous partial friendships,” to describe the sort of relationships that some people have with each other in the age of continuous partial attention.