Lead like Lincoln to deal with continuous partial attention

by | Jan 28, 2013 | Blog | 3 comments

You can’t ignore continuous partial attention. Nor can you fight it.

It’s here to stay.

In fact, the futurists and the experts say it’s going to get harder to get people’s attention.

However, you can take steps to protect yourself and your initiatives from the dangers of continuous partial attention.

First some background. As last week’s blog post Buy yourself some time explained, Linda Stone named the concept.

Continuous partial attention occurs when we split our attention among multiple things continuously. It’s not inherently bad, but it can hurt focus and critical thinking plus increase stress.

When you’re trying to get people’s attention about something that they don’t view as fun, novel or pleasurable—say, a complex initiative that may modify their future work world—you’ve got a challenge.

And even if you get their attention, you’ve got a further challenge to help them think through and understand the impact on them, including what they need to do differently and when.

You’ve got to meet these challenges head on.

And you can do so by taking humble, not flamboyant, actions. Just think of President Abraham Lincoln.

As leadership experts, historians such as Nancy F. Koehn and now the filmmaker Stephen Spielberg show us, President Lincoln’s actions provide important lessons for us today.

Consider these three actions that have stood the test of time:

1. Listen and engage with others. Don’t tell and sell. Be like Lincoln who made an effort to listen to those outside of his immediate circle. Conversations with a range of individuals that feature give and take help build shared understanding and support.

2. Simplify what you say and share. Don’t shovel out stuff. Keep in mind Lincoln’s Gettysburg address was only 272 words. (By comparison, these days a long online article runs 600 – 800 words.)  When you’re bold and brief, you and your messages are more memorable.

3. Make your calls to action clear, compelling and personal. Don’t expect people to read your mind. And don’t make a request that’s confusing, complicated and seemingly not applicable to them. Lincoln’s directives to his generals were specific, succinct and actionable.

Granted, we’re working on multiple fronts at work these days, not fighting one single battle that will preserve the union while abolishing slavery.

But our diffusion of attention, energy and effort has its own set of problems, such as continuous partial attention.

That’s why it’s even more important that you effectively break through the clutter and help people understand what’s at stake, why they should care and what they need to do.

Otherwise, you may observe many eyes glazing over and your initiative sputtering.  

How about it? Can you take a baby step today to lead like Lincoln? And if so, what will it be?


  1. Deb Nystrom

    Very good points Liz. “Multi-tasking” or continuous partial attention is a part of life these days.

    The three parts of 1) what’s at stake, 2) why they should care and 3) what they need to do, is a golden nugget to guide a good blog post, as well as good change communication.

    Thanks! ~ Deb

  2. Jim Smith, PCC

    Liz, this post reminds me that the best advice is timeless. You’re offering ideas for dealing with today’s VUCA world, yet all you’re doing is repeating what worked nearly 150 years ago. In the end, it’s not about the pace of change or the technology or global whatever… it’s about PEOPLE, and people have been people for a very long time.

    Thanks for the timeless tips! Jim

  3. Liz Guthridge

    Thanks, Deb and Jim. Jim, I believe Lincoln’s practices are even more important today because there’s so much more noise. You’ve got to find effective ways to cut through the clutter to get people’s attention and focus.

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