Many of us work in a perpetual state of distraction. A typical workday often entails switching between several work activities, including meetings and a plethora of digital disruptions. We may be working on a report and the ping of our email disrupts us. We may be engrossed in our team Zoom or Team call, but notice our phone flashing with a stream of notifications illuminating our screen. Whilst many of us have normalised this ‘distractible’ behaviour and consider it benign, it’s potentially devastating to both our productivity and wellbeing.
When we engage in task switching (often referred to as multitasking, or continuous partial attention), our attention doesn’t always or immediately follow us. This can result in “attention residue”, whereby some of our attention remains ‘stuck’ with the original task. Sophie Leroy, a business professor from the University of Minnesota originally coined this term in 2009 after she ran a number of studies that found that poor performance was demonstrated on subsequent tasks after switching tasks. It can result in decreased efficiency, increased feelings of overwhelm, increased error rates, impaired decision making and compromised abilities to process information.
Unfortunately, modern work environments, especially as we transition to remote working options, means that our days are now full of distractions, so it is perfectly primed to create attention residue. Some of our cognitive resources may be diverted if we break off in the middle of a task or project. It leaves your brain stuck circling or ruminating on previous ideas or thoughts about a task and these thoughts intrude while performing other tasks. The lingering thoughts deplete your energy and use up critical cognitive processing power that should be deviated to the new tasks. In doing so, we function with a reduced cognitive capacity.
Attention residue commonly results when our attention is fractured from alerts and notifications, or when we feel like we have too many competing demands or obligations on our plate. We may be working on some data analysis, which is an example of what Cal Newport refers to as ‘deep work’. If an email notification slides across the top right-hand corner of our screen (and then disappears), we may resist the urge to open it, but the cursory glance may be enough for our mind to split our attention in a way that subsequently reduces our attention on the data analysis we were performing. Our lingering thoughts about what the email might be about, is enough to divert our attention.
To optimise our productivity and performance we need to build a fortress around our focus during designated periods of time. I’m not proposing that you don’t use your phone, or only check email once a day- that’s completely unrealistic advice. We need to batch our deep work (cognitively-taxing, important work) into long undisturbed stretches of time, so we reduce the amount of potential cognitive residue that might diminish our performance. We need to put strategies in place so that we can have periods of time with full concentration, free from all distractions, so we can focus on a single task.
Easier said than done in the digital world that’s been engineered for distraction.
Simple strategies to minimise attention residue-
// Disable alerts & notifications during deep work time- research suggests that batching, not banning notifications is the most effective strategy to deal with alerts and notifications. Can you have your notifications come into your device at set times of the day, when your focus doesn’t need to be protected? Ensure that your allocated time for deep work isn’t hijacked by alerts and notifications. You can read more here about notifications.
// Use physical signals to indicate you cannot be disturbed- if you’re working from home, can you work in a designated spot, wear a hat or even a uniform or even a fluro vest to signal to family members that you cannot be disturbed? Could you use a simple laminated sign on your desk to signal to your colleagues that you’re not available to be disrupted? I’ve created one you can download here. Laminate it, pop it on your laptop and watch your distractors disappear.
// Have Set Open Hours– some executives have the equivalent of a happy hour, by having a set time every day when they’re available for people to call them, or drop by their office. One executive allows people to call him at 6pm every day during his commute home, so it greatly reduces the number of incidental disruptions and disturbances that punctuate our days.
// Offload to your To Do list- niggling tasks can have negative and cumulative impact on your focus. Open loops from outstanding tasks can also have a negative impact on your cognitive residue- these tasks can follow you around like a puppy.
// Start on a downhill slope– interruptions are an inevitable part of modern work. If you do need to take an urgent call, or your colleague really does need to have an ‘urgent’ call with you, jot down your ready to resume activity. Leroy suggests that these are brief notes that give the brain sufficient information to give it closure on the former task, so it knows how or where to resume. Be ready to start again, by keeping notes on where you were at or what your thinking was. This is like starting a car on a downhill slope.