MIT Media Lab director has a good idea for "partial attention" meetings


Originally published at:


Partial attention meetings… yeah that was about 99% of my meetings.


This seems like it might be a good way to sneak more non-meeting under the radar of an institution that refuses to just cut some meetings; but it also sounds like a classic product of someone who overestimates his multitasking abilities and the cost of context switching.

With some possible, nigh superhuman, exceptions, people are always worse at multitasking than they feel like they are; and getting a cogent, contextual, answer out of the guy who has been ignoring the meeting is going to be really, really, annoying.

Again, a potentially pragmatic strategy for him to de-facto skip meetings that some procedure prevents from being just eliminated; but at high risk of becoming an “anyone important enough to be assured a ‘yes’ when they ask if anybody minds gets to tune out; meetings remain as bad or worse for everyone else; answers provided by people triaging email turn out to be obnoxiously useless” scenario.


So you use the partial-attention meetings to ask for a raise? And then the full-attention meeting is for holding management accountable for what they didn’t realize they agreed to?


If you are at too many meetings that don’t require your attention, you need to fix your meeting culture, not stop paying attention. Have shorter, more discrete, focused meetings. Not every meeting should be an hour. In fact, almost no meeting should be an hour.


I’ve got a render finishing soon, but I can fit you into a partial attention slot for a few posts, bb


About 90% of the work meetings I’ve had in the past year should have been partial attention meetings. Most of the stuff in the meetings doesn’t pertain to me, and maybe a quarter of that stuff would even catch my interest. Status reports of people I don’t work directly with shouldn’t really get my full attention if I can be working on other stuff at the same time.




I don’t see this as a very good solution, because it fails to actually solve the real problem. There are two of them, actually:

  1. Dude has too many meetings, and is a bottleneck to too many decisions
  2. Dude gets (and apparently reads) too many emails, and is probably just as much of a bottleneck via email as he is in meetings.

Both of these problems are structural, and (by the sound of it, given his position) entirely of his own making.


Could you repeat the question, please?


Yeah, good luck with that. 25 years in the tech industry tells me how well that will work.

You fail to realize that just because you’ve been told you’re required to attend the meeting doesn’t mean you get to determine whether you really should be there or not or if the meeting is even directly useful to you. Telling, say, a VP or Director that the meeting is a waste of time isn’t likely to go over well in most corporations either. So, when my boss expects me to cover regular meetings, I attend. If the meeting doesn’t require full attentions, I come here, twitter, read email, etc.

Also, I recommend reading his entire article, not just the synopsis above.


I’m a professional pilot* currently landing my United flight at YVR while simultaneously responding to a cabin “situation” and writing this response …

*no, not really.


In all seriousness, I agree fully that multitasking is almost impossible if more than one task requires serious attention. I suspect Joi had near total focus on the meeting and was almost rotely handling his email tasks.


If a technical fix is called for, wouldn’t it make more sense to create better email etiquette? If the emails came pre-ordered into urgency codes, the triage part wouldn’t take nearly as much attention. I’d think that the work would feel better addressing real human faces, instead of staring at words on a screen.


I get called to stupid meetings all the time, mostly conference calls where they really only need me for about five minutes to talk about my portion of a job. I feel no compunction to be unproductive during the portion where people are not taking about things that affect me at all.


It was even nicer when I was telecommuting. Oh look over on my personal machine, Torchlight.


By those definitions I’m not sure I’ve ever attended with my full attention. Even if you manage to pry my my phone out of my desperate grasp I can always retreat to my mind when you start blathering on endlessly.


If it isn’t a button in Outlook, it won’t work. Outlook doesn’t even have an obvious way of packaging an OOO message because Microsoft are stupid and useful idiots of the Devil.


Neat idea. How will you convince every email system to implement it?

I mean, I guess we could all use Exchange servers and Outlook, which allows for such things, right?


I think the idea of a “partial attention meeting” also fails to recognize the really important part of meetings; seeing each other, working together, learning about one another. Sure there are a lot of useless meetings in a big company, and that needs to change, but studies have shown that the real value of meetings is the intangible team-building aspect. You can’t give partial attention to team building.