Find yourself struggling to make it through the workday without getting distracted? Whether you end up aimlessly shopping on Amazon or you’ve gotten up to make coffee for the sixth time this afternoon,
According to Dr. Sophie Leroy, a business school professor at the University of Minnesota, getting distracted and struggling to finish the tasks we have at hand is due to something called ‘Attention Residue.’
Dr. Leroy has spent almost twenty years of her career studying the brain and how we, as modern day humans, deal with having to constantly switch focus and multitask, found that while many of us brag about our ability to multitask, the brain actually finds it difficult to switch focus.
Research shows that as we switch between task A and task B, part of our attention often stays with the prior task (task A) rather than giving full attention to the next one (task B).
That exact act of having to split your thought process between different tasks rather than being fully devoted to one single task at a time is what Dr. Leroy calls Attention Residue.
What is ‘attention residue’?
“Attention residue easily occurs when we leave tasks unfinished, when we get interrupted, or when we anticipate that once we have a chance to get to the unfinished or pending work we will have to rush to get it done,” Dr. Leroy explained in an earlier release at the University of Washington.
Our brain finds it hard to let go of these tasks, and instead keeps them active in the back of our mind, even when we are trying to focus on and perform other tasks.”
In other words, going back and forth between tasks when you are experiencing Attention Residue means you may have “fewer cognitive resources available to perform task B.”
This means that—even if you think you’re great at multi-tasking—the latter task will likely suffer, take longer to complete, or not be completed as well as if you could have fully focused on it.
“People need to stop thinking about one task in order to fully transition their attention and perform well on another,” Dr. Leroy explained.
“Yet, results indicate it is difficult for people to transition their attention away from an unfinished task and their subsequent task performance suffers.”
How to correct it
So how does one go about eliminating the potentially damaging effects that Attention Residue can have on their task at hand? Making time for blocks of ‘deep work’ is a great way to start. Georgetown University computer science professor Cal Newport makes a strong case for the concept in his book of the same title.
In Deep Work, Newport suggests that anyone—whether they suffer from Attention Residue or not—make the space in their calendar to block off chunks of time to do a blitz of totally uninterrupted (no phone calls, Instagram breaks, or even stopping to make coffee) work on one given task.
Once the task is completed, and only once it’s completed, does Newport suggest moving onto the next task.
While it may sound overly simple, blocking out the time to really focus on your task at hand allows you to work through the problems without being interrupted and once completed will afford a certain stamina that will not only help you achieve more tasks but will help do so with more clarity and freed up mental space to give every single task the attention it deserves.