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Continuous partial attention and the presence deficit

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The art of staying focused in a distracting world.

That is the title of an article I dumped into to my Evernote "Must Read" folder five years ago.

Five years ago.

Someone sure is distracted.

This article from The Atlantic is actually an interview between James Fallows and a longtime tech executive Linda Stone.

Stone has been working on technology longer than many of us reading this were even cognizant of activities beyond our neighborhood, and our only escape was playing floor hockey, reading the latest issue of National Geographic or mastering the foreign lands of Dungeons and Dragons.

She began working on emerging technologies for Apple and then Microsoft in the 80s. 

In the early years of this century, she coined the term "continuous partial attention" to describe the modern predicament of being constantly attuned to everything without fully concentrating on anything. 

Stone isn't critical of this paradigm stating that "continuous partial attention is neither good nor bad. 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."

This ability to execute an attention strategy is within all of us.

Most of us learned this skill in our childhood when engaging in sports or crafts or performing arts. However, some of us might need additional training that involves managing our breath and emotions—what Stone calls "bringing one’s body and mind to the same place at the same time."

She reminds us self-directed play allows both children and adults to develop a powerful attention strategy, a strategy she calls "relaxed presence."

As a kid, 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 naturally.

Stone says" when we learn how to play a sport or an instrument; how to dance or sing; or even how to fly a plane, we learn how to breathe and how to sit or stand in a way that supports a state of relaxed presence. My hunch is that when you’re flying, you’re aware of everything around you, and yet you’re also relaxed. When you’re water-skiing, you’re paying attention, and if you’re too tense, you’ll fall. All of these activities help us cultivate our capacity for relaxed presence. Mind and body in the same place at the same time."

Maybe this is why I long for a black diamond ski run on a daily basis?

I find propelling my middle-aged body down a deep, steep, heart pounding, and knee grinding ski run to be the ultimate state of relaxation - it's just so darn fulfilling.

Descending a ski hill is by far when I am at peak relaxed presence.

How do you get into peak relaxed presence? 

For me to find this state, I must put it on my calendar. I put this relaxed presence time there today, this week, this month, and this year.

I find being constantly attuned to everything without fully concentrating on anything hurts my performance, my relationships, and my health.

Making relaxed presence a habit you'll find getting offline for a spell is fine. All the noise from a distracting world you left behind will be there when you get back.

I promise.

No need for FOMO.

But there is a need for peak relaxed presence.

-Marc A. Ross

Marc A. Ross is the founder of Brigadoon and specializes in developing winning communications, content, connections, and commerce for entrepreneurs and thought leaders.