Please give this essay your full attention.

The other day in class we were reviewing some work the students had done and an interesting conversation took place.

As I looked at the work the students had produced, I asked one of them, “Where were you when you were working on this?” He said he’d been working on concepts while watching a movie. (Okay, in his defense, the movie was Art & Copy, one I’d handed out as required viewing.)

As we talked I began to realize other ad students might profit from giving some thought to how they go about sitting down to work. I’ll wager many of them do their advertising thinking the way my teenager would prefer to do his math: the TV’s on in the background, music’s playing on his computer, and his Facebook feed scrolls past in an endless necklace of gossip and bright shiny objects.

A very smart woman named Linda Stone coined a term to describe this very popular but ineffective problem-solving mindset: continuous partial attention.

Continuous partial attention involves skimming the surface of several incoming data streams and picking out the few details our cursory glance tells us are important. While such an approach may give us the illusion we’re being productive, we are not. Yes, it lets us cast a wider net but it also keeps us from focusing on and learning about anything.

For years I’ve heard the old excuse that “Kids are different today. They’re multi-tasking.” Oh, baloney. Our brains have been wired a certain way since we first thumped to the African plains from the trees above. We’re either focusing on something or we are not.

Poorly focused attention to work is not the providence of only students.  From The New York Times, I quote: “Employees in information-intensive companies waste 28% of their time on unnecessary e-mails and other interruptions.”

The lesson is this: When it’s time to work, quit shattering the power of your full mind with movies, emails, music, and Facebook.

Here’s the thing, people. Every creative assignment you’ll receive in this business will come with a deadline. You’ll have only a certain amount of time to come up with something great. Yet I’ll wager if any of us could watch a film of ourselves “working,” we’d turn beet red seeing how much time we waste screwing around with coffee breaks, phone calls, texting, Facebooking, Twittering, flirting, and yuckin’ it up out in the hallway.

In fact, we are so eager to be distracted that, left uninterrupted, we will interrupt ourselves.

We do this because of what’s called “resistance to writing.” It’s a sort of self-imposed writer’s block that creative people practice when faced with a creative challenge. Oh, we may sit down to work but we’ll leave the TV on and keep our email open nearby as a sort of trapdoor we can sneak through when the ideas aren’t coming and we begin to feel the anxiety that creative challenges can bring.

For today, all we need to do is acknowledge that this defense mechanism exists and when we sit down to work we commit to it completely. Unplug your land line, turn off your smart phone, turn off the email, turn off the TV, turn off the music, find a pen and paper, put your feet up, and give it your whole mind.

You may be amazed at how both your productivity and the quality of your ideas begin to improve.


  1. What about foosball tables, basketball courts, and other hip agency accouterment? What’s the difference, or is there one? What about all those fabulous excuses we creatives have been making for years about letting the subconscious part of the mind do the work while we “disengage?”

  2. It’s great to see someone from the trenches teaching. When I was in school, as great as it was, I was completely unprepared for the realities of work. Things like deadlines and client comments and turning around a script in a day or less. So your comment about assignments coming with deadlines and the need to focus is a welcome sight.
    Just to share my thoughts, when I concept I usually go in two phases: The solo part is me gathering thoughts and wrapping my head around the problem. I do this best in total isolation like in the shower or driving or as I’m falling asleep (note: a pad is always near by). Second phase is me and my partner sitting together in silence staring at each other. We throw all our ideas at each other and start from there. We are most effective in coffee shops. While this can seem distracting its less so than you think. Sure there are things to catch your eye but nothing to really catch your mind. Plus, there’s people to bring you food and drink.
    When it comes to actual writing of scripts or copy its isolation again but with headphones on. tuned to a station that has the feel I’m going for and I start pounding the keys. The music is there for mood, not to listen to.
    The only time I allow myself the luxury of a video on while working is when the writing is mechanical. Going over simple client comments. Accepting/rejecting tracked changes. Doing research for the actual writing part. But, videos are rare and only when I’m not under the gun of a heavy deadline.
    We all have our different styles but one thing is for sure. Multi-tasking is BS, every study I’ve read supports this, and coffee shops are creative goldmines.

    • I love this, Stephen, and I do almost all the same stuff. Start alone and in silence. Then to work with my partner and yes, it can be in a coffee shop. The bustle of the shop turns into its own form of white noise. As for going into execution mode, yes, it’s back to solitude again. Normally I avoid music unless I have something instrumental without lyrics and must exactly match the mood the writing/content requires. For instance (product plug coming up) when I wrote THIRTY ROOMS TO HIDE IN (which is a fairly gothic horror memoir), I loved listening to the soundtrack from that old video game called Riven.
      check it out. It’s nice and dark.

  3. shut off everything but your imagination. read the brief. then start to think. for awhile there may be nothing but emptiness. but pay attention to the random thoughts. write them down, put them on cards, pin them to the wall. step back, begin to connect the dots. with your help thoughts will find each other to become ideas. enjoy the process…really, enjoy it and the ideas are even better.

  4. One thing that I think is worth considering is that in the creative fields, a lot of us have AD(H)D. (Heck, researchers have often contemplated listing creativity as a criteria for the disorder. Just saying’.)

    The reason I bring this up is that people with ADHD deal with it in different ways, and background noise *can* be useful in certain circumstances. For example, music helps to drown out other distractions (but studies suggest it should be lyric-free music, because otherwise part of our attention is spent on the words being sung).

    I totally agree with your point about giving the task at hand “your whole mind.” I’m just saying that for some people (like me), what may looks like a distraction is actually helping me focus. (Although I don’t think Twitter, Facebook, or Star Wars count as helping anyone focus. Those things really need to be turned off.)

  5. Good stuff. Seth Godin has talked about this also. I’m usually aware of it while it’s happening, but don’t always succeed in blocking out the distractions. Good to have an articulate reminder – thanks.



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Luke Sullivan

Author, speaker, and ad veteran available to recharge, reinvigorate, and refocus marketing, advertising, and branding firms.

I give a hugely energetic series of presentations on innovation, creativity, branding, and marketing. I spent 32 years in the trenches of advertising (at agencies like Martin, GSD&M, and Fallon) and I’ve put everything I learned into my book, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. But for me nothing beats taking the message out and speaking to living breathing audiences at clients, agencies, and conferences. You can book me on the button below.