Attention residue: the reason why you can’t focus

Last updated on 
June 2, 2020

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When it comes to improving focus, many people assume their attention span just isn’t robust enough. But more often than not, the biggest thing holding them back is behavioral: they simply aren’t working in a way that enables protracted singular attention on any task.

Too many of us unconsciously limit our productive focus by weaving small acts of interruption throughout our day. Many of these can masquerade as productive – like quickly scanning Slack and email for urgent requests before diving into a big task, checking a new comment on a document we’re collaborating on, or quickly completing a few small tasks to clear our to-do list.

This grazing approach to working quickly creates a build-up of something called attention residue –where you continue to think and process a previous task once you’ve moved onto another. While this is clearly dangerous for our productive performance, it’s not always unavoidable. So what exactly can we do to reduce attention residue?

What is attention residue?

Attention residue is at complete odds with the way we work: our brains simply weren’t designed to work on two mentally challenging tasks at once. This has can have a serious knock-on effect on our engagement and satisfaction; leaving us exhausted with little quality work to show for all our toil. It causes us to spread our attention too thinly – when to perform at our peak we need to conserve it for what matters most.

It’s important to note that this isn’t just another productivity theory. Attention residue is backed up by science, and a 2009 paper by University of Washington associate professor Sophie Leroy found that “people need to stop thinking about one task in order to fully transition their attention and perform well on another.” On the flipside, “results indicate it is difficult for people to transition their attention away from an unfinished task and their subsequent task performance suffers.”

“You might not be as efficient in your work, you might not be as good a listener, you may get overwhelmed more easily, you might make errors, or struggle with decisions and your ability to process information.”

– Sophie Leroy, University of Washington

In other words, if we jump from task to task, it becomes impossible to give anything our complete focus. This limits our ability to do complex deep thinking and problem solving, so we can never perform at our best. If someone has attention residue, they’re essentially operating with part of their cognitive resources being distracted, and that can significantly harm their productivity and performance.

6 strategies for reducing attention residue

Avoiding attention residue isn’t as easy as ensuring you finish one task before moving onto the next. You’ll still have some lingering attention residue whirling in your brain as you crack on with the new work, so your productivity will still be at a disadvantage. So if we can’t always avoid it entirely, what can we do to at least minimize attention residue?

Schedule time for regular deep work

The single best thing we can do to minimize attention residue is to actively focus on one important task for a prolonged period of time – to simulate flow states. The “deep work” method can help put this into practice. It essentially involves scheduling regular 90-minute periods of uninterrupted work for one complex task, and gradually increasing session length to increase your attentional stamina. We’ve created a simple walkthrough guide for getting started.

deep-work-ebook@2x

Understand how you switch context

Context switching occurs when you flit between several different tasks and is a huge contributor to the build up of attention residue. But we can’t break the habit until we know how we actually do it: how often and how much, at what times of day, as a result of which tasks and apps. Finding this out is as simple as finding the right app – try a deep work assistant like Dewo, which breaks down your daily context switching behavior to highlight your biggest offenders.

Set times for managing daily communication

Even if you just skim an email subject line without opening its contents, you can set off a chain of back-burner processing and brooding. Avoid this by setting strict times for managing your communication each day – like having a “communication half-hour” in the morning and after lunch to respond to emails, answer queries and make any calls. Make sure you share these contact hours with others, so they know when to expect a response from you.

Time box your schedule

Time boxing your schedule can help you stay present on one thing at a time. It simply involves breaking up your schedule into finite blocks of time for specific pre-planned tasks: you could set 30 minutes for communication, two hours for working on a complex priority task, 25 minutes for research on an upcoming project, and 15 minutes on reporting. It adds a motivational time pressure while also keeping you entirely accountable for your schedule, knowing exactly what you’re working on when. It also helps to contain unruly disruptive tasks like email, so they don’t leak into another task’s time.


Use anti-distraction apps

Planning two hours of focused deep work is all very well, but a phone vibration or Slack ping can quickly undo your best-laid plans. Be vigilant with your focus by protecting yourself from these types of low-value interruptions. There’s a suite of anti-distraction software out there to help – whether you want to automatically mute notifications that introduce anxieties and tangential thoughts, or bar access to distracting websites.

Practice digital minimalism

Digital minimalism is about being more intentional with your use of tech; clearing away the digital noise that doesn’t contribute anything of value, and making better use of the apps that are actually helpful. We’ve written about how to do it in full here, but just deleting all low-value apps from your devices is a great place to start. More broadly, you’ll want to become more intentional with the way you use tech – becoming more protective of your time, and stricter with the things you grant attention.

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