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Why Something Called ‘Attention Residue’ Is Ruining Your Concentration

Why Something Called ‘Attention Residue’ Is Ruining Your Concentration
Why Something Called ‘Attention Residue’ Is Ruining Your Concentration
Fri Apr 26

Most jobs require employees to juggle several tasks or projects at the same time.

Workers in these roles often have to randomly switch between different activities throughout the workday, taking phone calls, meetings, reading emails and so on.

Researchers have discovered that this approach to work may be flawed because of a phenomena called ‘Attention Residue’.

Attention residue occurs when a person switches to a new task while still being mentally engaged in the previous task.

It can also happen if a person’s mind drifts to a task that they must complete in the future.

Attention residue is a problem because it has the potential to lower productivity and reduce the quality of the work that is produced.

To help you avoid this common problem, this post will identify some common scenarios where attention residue occurs and share some useful strategies for focussing your attention.

When does attention residue occur?

Attention residue occurs because of the way the human brain works.

It takes time for the brain to completely shift its attention from one task to another, particularly if you are working on unfinished tasks.

Any rapid shifts between tasks will make it very difficult to perform your best.

The root cause of the problem is the fact that the human brain is incapable of multitasking.

If you are thinking about numerous unfinished tasks, your mind will rapidly move between the details of each one sequentially, causing you to work in a suboptimal way.

In an office environment the most common situations where attention residue occurs include:

Flicking between an unfinished task and another task

If you quickly switched between an unfinished email and an unfinished report that you are writing, your attention may remain partially focussed on the first task.

Being interrupted by a distraction

Let’s say you are working on a report and a text message appears on your phone.

After you finish reading the text message and return to writing the report, your mind will still be partially focussed on the message.

Thinking of a new task while performing another

If you were processing emails then read something that caused your focus to turn to another unfinished task, you may experience attention residue.

Strategies for managing attention residue

According to the author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport, the solution is ‘deep work’.

Deep work involves focusing on challenging tasks for longer periods of time instead of rapidly moving between tasks.

Newport argues that this approach will boost your productivity and help you create work of a higher standard.

It can also encourage you to enter into a state of “flow”, where the task you are performing feels effortless and enjoyable.

Here are a few strategies for incorporating deep work into your workday.

Work in chunks

One of the best approaches for avoiding attention residue is to work in chunks using a timer.

Start by installing a Pomodoro app like Pomodone or FocusBooster.

Set the timer for 40 minutes with a 10 minute break (or whatever length of time you need to work effectively).

Work on your task for a solid 40 minutes without any distractions.

You can then give yourself a 10 minute break to get a cup of tea, take a toilet break or perform a few stretches.

Working in this way is much more productive as it keeps you completely focussed on a single task.

Turn off all automated distractions

Eliminate any visual popups, alerts, noises, and other distractions which shift your focus from the work.

Start by sending phone calls to message bank, turn off text message noises, and turn off incoming email notifications.

By removing these automated noises and alerts, you will be able focus far more easily on a single task and complete it to a much higher standard.

Avoid social media

Social media can be a significant distraction and is one of the leading causes of attention residue.

Stick to this simple rule – I won’t use social media when working – ever.

Don’t have Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram open in a background tab, because you will constantly be tempted to flick to it.

Remember that it can take a lot of time to refocus your attention after spending a few minutes on your Facebook feed because of attention residue.

Plan calls and appointments

Allot a certain part of the day for calls and appointments so you don’t randomly get bombarded with them throughout the day.

This will allow you to block off a portion of the day for solid, focussed, and ultra-productive work with no calls and no meetings.

Work through a to-do list

A to-do list will make it easier to progress through the tasks you need to complete in a sequential manner.

You can avoid the attention residue caused by randomly jumping between different tasks.

Clean up attention residue with movement

Researchers have found that movement can be very useful for focussing attention and improving creativity.

If you want to clear up any attention residue, consider going for a quick walk before starting a new task.

Avoid talking to people as you move about, as they may mention other tasks which can create more attention residue.

When you sit down, your mind should be a lot clearer and you will be ready to engage a new task with complete focus.

Thanks for reading Why Something Called ‘Attention Residue’ Is Ruining Your Concentration.

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