Attention Residue Is Sabotaging Your Flow
Scott D. Clary | Mental Models, Performance, Business & Entrepreneurship
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Attention Residue Is Sabotaging Your Flow
Picture this: you've just started the workday. Your first port of call was to check Slack or Teams for any urgent messages. It took a while, but you've finally managed to clear your inbox – and now you're one hour into the first major project of the day.
Your focus playlist is playing at the perfect volume. The keyboard is on fire, you're typing so fast; thoughts flow seamlessly from your brain to the screen. It's the fabled flow state. Nothing can stop you now.
But a thought suddenly occurs to you: what about those concert tickets you forgot to buy last night? Better get them now before they sell out. It'll only take a few minutes and then you can get back to work.
There's a problem, however. When you've purchased the tickets and turned back to your project, it feels as though your entire psyche has shifted. Which part were you up to, again? What was that detail you wanted to remember for the next slide? And wait – who else should you invite to the concert?
...Oops. It's safe to say that the flow state is gone for the day.
Let's talk about exactly what's going on here on a psychological level.
Attention Residue: Your New Worst Enemy
If any part of that opening POV resonates with you, you're not alone. Teamstage found that 98 percent of the workforce gets distracted about 3 to 4 times each day; it's estimated that distractions cost US businesses around $650 billion every year.
So, yes – distraction in the workplace is a widespread problem. But why is it a problem? What's a quick phone check here and there, or a brief intermission to reply to messages on Slack?
In my travels this week (internet travels, of course) I stumbled across a concept called attention residue. It's a term first coined by Dr. Sophie Leroy, and it describes what happens when your focus on one task is interrupted – even if only for a few seconds – and you find yourself trying to return to the same level of concentration as before.
The issue here is that our brains don't switch tasks instantly; instead, they linger over the previous job for some time afterwards. Even though you may have finished replying to messages or checking your phone, part of your mind remains focused on those activities still.
I suppose Dr. Leroy calls it 'residue' because of the way in which it builds up over time. The more frequently you switch tasks throughout the day, the more of this residue accumulates in your mind. As it builds up, so too does your mental fatigue. Reaching the flow state becomes next to impossible.
It was fascinating to dig into Dr. Leroy's research on this topic. She's been studying attention science for 17 years. That's a long time – and it shows her depth of passion for the subject.
The good news is that she's unraveled a lot of mysteries in this area. We now know, for example, that attention residue:
- Reduces your effectiveness when working on complex projects;
- Interferes with decision-making processes; and
- Makes it more difficult to switch between tasks.
In Dr. Leroy's words: “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.”
The Multitasking Myth
You might have heard people say that multitasking is a myth, since our brains aren't designed to handle more than one task at a time. Attention residue is the concept proving this theory right. We can create the illusion of multitasking by juggling several tasks, but in reality, we're just creating mental fatigue.
For any neuroscience enthusiasts in the room, this piece of research explains that our frontoparietal control network and dorsal attention network are more active when we attempt to multitask. There's an increased demand on important mental systems – and most of the time, the demand is simply unsustainable.
"While engaging these systems can partially mitigate its behavioral costs, multitasking is not free—we pay a price in increased demands on these systems and some performance deficit typically occurs."
What makes this even trickier is the fact that, when we 'multitask,' we're under the illusion that more work is getting done. (Hint: no, more work is not getting done.)
What Attention Residue Feels Like
You might be reading this, thinking to yourself, "But I'm the exception to the rule. I really can multitask without going off the rails."
If that's the case, I'm sorry to break the news – you're probably just unaware of what's happening psychologically.
Attention residue isn't always obvious. Sometimes it's as clear as day; you feel your brain fogging up as you switch from one task to the next. Other times, it's more subtle and hard to pinpoint.
You could be feeling overwhelmed, or having difficulty making decisions. You might feel frustrated because you're always starting tasks but never finishing them, or struggling to focus on something for a prolonged period of time. Some people experience strange energy slumps (even if they've just had a coffee.)
In all likelihood, this is caused by attention residue – not just from multitasking, but from any distraction that interrupts your workflow.
Time Pressure Makes Things Worse
An interesting piece of research in Dr. Leroy's arsenal is called "Tasks Interrupted: How Anticipating Time Pressure on Resumption of an Interrupted Task Causes Attention Residue and Low Performance on Interrupting Tasks and How a “Ready-to-Resume” Plan Mitigates the Effects."
It's a mouthful – but here's the breakdown:
- Attention residue comes into play any time you switch from one point of focus to another.
- However, it doesn't affect everyone equally; it depends on the context of the tasks being completed.
- If you are distracted from an important task, and you are aware that the distraction is weakening your chances of completing the main task once you return to it, you might experience more attention residue than usual.
Isn't that fascinating? The mere knowledge that you are on a time crunch can increase the amount of attention residue that your brain experiences upon returning to the original task.
The Solution: Create a "Ready-to-Resume" Intervention Plan
It would be nice if we could all stick to one task consistently, but that's not the reality of the modern workplace. Your boss might come in with an urgent request, and you'll have to drop what you're doing. Or you might be in the middle of a project when a colleague or mentee asks for help.
So, what can be done to reduce the effects of attention residue in these situations?
In the same study as the one mentioned above, Dr. Leroy and her team found that creating a"ready-to-resume" intervention plan can significantly reduce attention residue and improve performance on interrupting tasks.
Essentially, this involves setting a clear goal before you switch to another task and creating a plan of action for when you return. You know exactly when you'll return to the task at hand; the pressure of time is removed, and you're more likely to go back to it with a clear head.
For instance, say you estimate that the task at hand needs another two hours to be completed. Before you switch to the interrupting task, then, you could make a plan to resume work on the main task at least two hours before closing time.
By creating this plan and clarifying your goals, you reduce the risk of attention residue. The same applies to any task that is interrupted; set a goal before switching tasks and an end-time for when you'll return.
Attention Residue and ADHD
If you are someone who has been diagnosed with an attention-deficit disorder, you might be feeling a little disheartened right now. Distractions are an almost unavoidable part of your day-to-day life – so does that mean you're stuck with the effects of attention residue?
I'd absolutely hate to give you that impression. Your ADHD does not have to subject you to a life of attention residue-induced misery. But here's the thing: your attention span is like a muscle. It can be exercised and strengthened to function optimally.
When the distractions come – and they will – you can't simply block them out. But you can control how you manage those distractions. For instance:
- Instead of jumping straight over to your email inbox when you hear a 'ping,' take a second to note down where you're up to in the current task and when you're going to return. The simple act of grounding yourself in the current task will help you switch back to it with more clarity.
- If a distraction is something you can easily ignore, do so. Don't let yourself be tricked into thinking that every distraction must be attended to immediately. There are some things that can wait – and if they don't need your attention right away, then leave them until later.
- Use strategic stimulation. You'll find it uncomfortable when your brain isn't stimulated enough, and that's when the distractions start to come. Stimulate yourself strategically by playing some binaural beats or using a standing desk.
It's a challenge to go against the programming of your neural pathways, but remember that your attention span can be shaped, strengthened, and sharpened like a knife.
What If You're Just... Addicted?
Maybe it's not your colleagues distracting you, or your Slack messages. Perhaps it's TikTok. Or YouTube. Or Instagram.
The truth is that many of us are hooked on the dopamine hit associated with social media use, and it can be hard to break free from this cycle. Seriously – studies exist that compare our addiction to social media with that of drug addicts.
Then there's a theory called the Goldfish Effect. Studies are beginning to link social media use with lower attention spans (literally shorter than that of a goldfish). In other words, extensive use of social media platforms is impacting our ability to focus on important tasks, and that can have serious implications for our productivity.
There are many rabbit holes you can go down when trying to cut out social media use. You can download app blockers, delete accounts, and even switch your phone to 'grayscale' mode – but there's only one strategy I've found effective personally, and that's physical removal.
(In other words: get your phone out of your workspace. Out of sight, out of mind.)
Attention residue is a real problem, and it's one that can be managed (or even conquered) with the right strategies.
It doesn't matter if your distractions come from external sources like colleagues or environmental factors, or internal sources like addiction to social media platforms. What matters is that you take proactive steps to manage them – and use the power of your own focus to increase productivity.
If you enjoyed this article, I’d love to hear from you.
Have you noticed the effects of attention residue in your own work life?
If so, I'd love to hear your strategies for managing it.
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That’s a wrap for today, ladies & gents. See ya next week!
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