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Attention residue may be killing your productivity


Look around you.

Is your phone beside you and laptop in front of you?  Do you regularly check your phone?  How many tabs are open on your laptop – work and personal emails, social media accounts, news updates?

Do you juggle all these constantly whilst trying to complete the task you are currently working on?

Being asked all these questions make our head spin, and yet this is our new normal.  We constantly divide our attention in this way to keep abreast of email, social media and other updates; but it is detrimental to both ourselves and our productivity.

In the words of Linda Stone,

“We’re so accessible, we’re inaccessible. We can’t find the off switch on our devices or on ourselves…. We want to wear an iPod as much to listen to our playlists as to block out the rest of the world and protect ourselves from all that noise. We are everywhere – except where we actually are physically.”

Attention Residue

Dr Sophie Leroy coined a term for the effect of switching our attention from one interruption and back again.  Each switch reduces our cognitive ability for a not insignificant amount of time before we can re-focus, and Dr Leroy calls this attention residue.  Multiply it by the number of times you are interrupted by someone asking you a question, quickly checking a notification on your phone or reading a new email that has popped into an inbox; and you can see how our productivity suffers, not to mention our satisfaction and wellbeing.

Dr Leroy believes we need to learn to manage our attention.  At each attention switch, our brain is fighting with us as it wants closure on the distraction before we move our attention back to the task we interrupted.  Her research asked a group to take a moment before switching back to an interrupted task and consider where they were and what they wanted to do next.  She found that using a short time between switching in this way, led to more focus and higher performance on the task when this group returned to it over the group who had switched straight back to the task.

We should acknowledge that the brain can’t work cognitively on two things at once, it wants to hold on and remember the first task whilst moving on to the second.  However, if you write down where you are on the first task before switching, you are passing a message to your brain that you are in control, it can relax, and you can now switch onto the other task, giving it your full attention.

4 tips to help reduce your attention residue and increase productivity

  1. If you are interrupted, take a moment to write down a few key words which will remind you where you were going next with the interrupted task.  If it’s a person who’s interrupting, they shouldn’t mind waiting a few seconds if you explain it means they will get your full, rather than partial, attention when you switch over to them.
  2. Devise a system within your team to stop interruptions when you each need concentrated time.  For example, you could have a special mug or a sign which you put visibly on your desk.  When other team members see it, they know not to interrupt and to field any calls.
  3. If you have an impending meeting or appointment before you will finish the task in hand, don’t take it to the wire and rush off leaving the task unfinished.  Break off 10 minutes early, make some notes as to what’s outstanding, save your unfinished work, close some tabs down, and allow yourself a short period of calm before moving on to getting ready for the meeting or appointment.
  4. Probably the most obvious – make yourself inaccessible to allow yourself time to complete the task. Remove yourself to a quiet spot, leave your phone in your desk drawer, sign out of emails and close all tabs not directly associated with the task in hand. You might feel out of your comfort zone initially but it will become easier when you discover you get a job done in a fraction of the time it would otherwise have taken, the sky hasn’t fallen in during your absence and you momentarily experience a strange sense of calm.

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