Do You Have Attention Residue?
I’m currently working through Cal Newport’s excellent book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Fair warning: if you have a love for the Twitters and multitasking and the ability to drop one thing and work on another thing because you’re just so indispensable and doggone it, people need you, then this may not be the book for you. Every chapter brings a fresh wave of ouch moments that prove we are a distracted people.
One phrase that I’ve been wrestling with for a few days is attention residue. It comes from a 2009 paper by University of Minnesota’s Sophie Leroy. Leroy researched the modern worker’s propensity to multitask, and discovered it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be.
The problem this research identifies with this work strategy is that when you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow—a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task. This residue gets especially thick if your work on Task A was unbounded and of low intensity before you switched, but even if you finish Task A before moving on, your attention remains divided for a while.
…the attention residue concept …implies that the common habit of working in a state of semi-distraction is potentially devastating to your performance. It might seem harmless to take a quick glance at your inbox every ten minutes or so…[but t]hat quick check introduces a new target for your attention. Even worse, by seeing messages that you cannot deal with at the moment (which is almost always the case), you’ll be forced to turn back to the primary task with a secondary task left unfinished. The attention residue left by such unresolved switches dampens your performance.
Like I said, I’m wrestling with what the research by Leroy, observations by Newport, and common sense dictates. But here are a few things I think this means for those of us who suffer from attention residue disorder:
Chunk the day in work blocks.
I talk about this concept in the post Mapping Your Ideal Week. But even in looking at how I’ve set up the “ideal” week, I recognize there is way too much room for switch-offs and multitasking. Better to spend several hours knocking out one project than to come back to that same project in thirty minute scraps every day for a couple of weeks.
When you focus on a task, focus on a task.
Even in writing this post, I’ve stopped three times to answer “time-sensitive” emails that popped up. Could it have waited 20 minutes until I finished writing? Yep. Did I like the dopamine rush I received from feeling like I was on top of my inbox? Ouch.
Closing my inbox tab or simply using an inbox pause tool is a much better option. Because I don’t set myself up for success, I’m usually doomed to failure.
Put hard dividers between tasks and people.
This is the one that gets me right in the feels. How many times have I had a co-worker drop by or a church member call, but my computer screen is still up or in my peripheral vision? Yes, there are times that we need to go into the “alone zone” to actually do deep work and not be interrupted. But we must acknowledge that much of the leader’s life is lived in the ministry of interruption. When those (necessary) interruptions happen, know that the people are always more important than the current task. (Some might even say that the people are the mission. *clears throat*)
If I’m spending a conversation glancing at my growing inbox or peeking at the clock, the person I’m talking to knows that they’re not anywhere close to the top of my priority list.
How do you deal with deep work, multitasking, interruptions, and getting things done? Deep Work is causing me to rethink several practices and habits. Maybe it’s time for us to get rid of our attention residue.