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.

We may think that kids have a natural fascination with phones. Really, children have a fascination with whatever Mom and Dad find fascinating. If they are fascinated by the flowers coming up in the yard, that’s what the children are going to find fascinating. And if Mom and Dad can’t put down the device with the screen, the child is going to think, That’s where it’s all at, that’s where I need to be! I interviewed kids between the ages of 7 and 12 about this. They said things like “My mom should make eye contact with me when she talks to me” and “I used to watch TV with my dad, but now he has his iPad, and I watch by myself.”

Kids learn empathy in part through eye contact and gaze. If kids are learning empathy through eye contact, and our eye contact is with devices, they will miss out on empathy.

JF: What you’re describing sounds like a society-wide autism.

LS: In my opinion, it’s more serious than autism. Many autistic kids are profoundly sensitive, and look away [from people] because full stimulation overwhelms them. What we’re doing now is modeling a primary relationship with screens, and a lack of eye contact with people. It ultimately can feed the development of a kind of sociopathy and psychopathy.

JF: I’m afraid to ask, but is this just going to get worse?

LS: I don’t think so. You and I, as we grew up, experienced our parents operating in certain ways, and may have created a mental checklist: Okay, my mom and dad do that, and that’s cool. I’ll do that with my kids, too. Or: My mom and dad do this, and it’s less cool, so I’m not going to do that when I’m a grown-up.

The generation that has been tethered to devices serves as a cautionary example to the next generation, which may decide this is not a satisfying way to live. A couple years ago, after a fire in my house, I had a couple students coming to help me. One of them was Gen X and one was a Millennial. If the Gen Xer’s phone rang or if she got a text, she would say “I’m going to take this, I’ll be back in a minute.” With the Millennial, she would just text back “L8r.” When I talked to the Millennial about it, she said, “When I’m with someone, I want to be with that person.” I am reminded of this new thing they’re doing in Silicon Valley where everyone sticks their phone in the middle of the table, and whoever grabs their phone first has to treat to the meal.

JF: You say that people can create a sense of relaxed presence for themselves. How?

LS: 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.

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.

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