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The attention residue trap: How your brain's lingering thoughts sabotage your work

Your ability to focus might be hindered by a pesky problem called attention residue, but fear not—here are tips to combat it.

Most work woes related to getting things done boil down to one glaring problem: your inability to focus. Think of all you could accomplish if your brain miraculously found a way to monofocus on one task at a time, see it to completion, and then move onto the next.

Modern ways of working are actually making it even harder for you to hone in on the work at hand, “Our devices allow us ubiquitous access to people and information. As a result many people work through the evenings, checking their phones throughout the night. People don’t get a chance to psychologically detach from work. When you don’t get a chance to psychologically detach from work, it’s a lot harder to reattach the next morning,” explains Gloria Mark, a professor and leading researcher on attention at University of California, Irvine.

In fact, according to a study by Mark, it takes the average person a whopping 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to their original task after becoming distracted. 

So what gives? Unfortunately the inability to focus is a pesky, persistent problem. The culprit is a concept called attention residue.

What is attention residue?

First coined by Sophie Leroy at the University of Washington, attention residue is the idea that every time you jump to a new task, there is residual thought and energy from your previous focus clogging up your ability to transition to the new subject. 

Here’s a real world example:

It’s a Tuesday morning and you’re in your home office. Your company has a hybrid working model, and you’re excited for a day at home where there are fewer distractions and you can finally get things done. You are diligently working on some heads down writing when you pause to peruse news headlines.

While scanning the news you unfortunately get engrossed into reading the details of a horrific world event that has occurred. You then switch back to working on your project, but that news event sticks with you. When you get back to work, you can't just turn off or pretend to ignore the real emotional response your body just had.

Gloria Mark, in an interview on The Ezra Klein Show, compares the news event interruption to having an internal whiteboard: “Sometimes you can’t just erase it completely: you see traces of what was written on it. Same thing happens in our minds. And that residue can interfere with our current task at hand.”

Your brain’s persistence on snapping back to the news-related thoughts and emotions is attention residue. These lingering thoughts end up holding you back from accomplishing your original work task. 

How to focus (even when there's time pressure)

Leroy posits that attention residue is a result of our brain’s desire for completion. Because the first task never truly finishes, it remains top of mind in your brain, preventing you from becoming fully immersed in your next task. 

Further experiments by Leroy revealed one strong predictor that attention residue will appear: time pressure. Researchers gave two groups a task to complete, then interrupted them halfway through to start a new task. Group A was instructed that they would have plenty of time to finish the original task later, whereas Group B was told the opposite. 

Group B, the group that was told they wouldn’t have much time to complete their original task, showed significantly decreased ability to process information, notice errors, or recall information related to the new task. The group that was told there would be plenty of time to complete the original task did not experience attention residue and had an easier time executing the second task.

These results lead to the conclusion that when time pressure is a factor in the ability to accomplish tasks, your ability to focus after being drawn away becomes even harder. 

An example of time pressure you may have encountered in real life is when you’re working heads down on a project for work that requires intense focus, but then get a calendar ping that you’ve got a two hour block of meetings to go to. You know when you’re done with the meetings that you will only have 30 minutes to finish your heads down work before you need to present it. The time pressure theory purports that you will struggle to focus in your meetings, as increased attention residue from your heads down work will remain top of mind.

How to combat attention residue, and the tech that helps

While it might be easy to say, “Oh great, then I’ll just never put time pressure on my tasks. Problem solved!” That attitude is, frankly, not realistic. 

Luckily researchers took their work a step further and proved out an effective solution for combatting attention residue: A Ready To Resume plan. Leroy and her team found that if participants took a few moments to note where they were in their progress on the original task before switching to a new one, they were able to return and complete the original task without difficulty or feelings of time pressure. 

Leveraging technology to help you with your Ready To Resume plan is a great way to outsource the work of needing to remember and recall more information:

Robot notetakers for Zoom call transcription: There’s often time pressure around taking effective notes during or right after a Zoom call in order to ensure you remember what was discussed and are able to follow up. It has become increasingly common for AI notetakers to join video calls, and their summary transcriptions have become exceptionally accurate. Some popular examples are Supernormal and Fireflies.ai

Slack bot: One of the most versatile and easy to configure robots is Slack bot. With a /remind you can message yourself with “/remind me to “follow up on Brian’s message” in 5 minutes.” It’s a queue that works in plain language, and provides you the reassurance that you won’t forget about this task later. This reduces attention residue because while the task might not be complete at the moment, you’ve set an allotted time in which you will be prompted to take care of it, thus absolving yourself of responsibility until that time.  

AI summaries: Many document sharing apps like Notion and Confluence offer robust AI features, including the ability to utilize forward slash (/) command to summarize the information on a page. By queuing this feature before jumping into your next meeting, you are readying yourself for a quick refresher when you are ready to jump back into your work on that page.

The truth is, you can’t always wipe the residue off your attention span and jump from one task to another with alarming speed. Limitations to focus is merely an inconvenient part of being human. That being said, it’s important to not treat all distractions as a bad thing. Perhaps your brain needed to venture off somewhere as a break. In Mark’s research, she actually encountered this: 

“People tend to think of attention as being a binary state: You’re focused or you’re unfocused. But you can be engaged with writing a paper, which can be challenging, or you’re reading difficult material, you can also be engaged with watching a YouTube video, or playing a game like Candy Crush, what I call rote activities. You’re not exerting cognitive effort. It turns out people are happiest when they do rote activities. And so these are very different forms of engagement.”

Understanding the limitations of your brain’s ability to focus can help you to devise techniques and leverage technology to help you be more effective as you juggle everything on your plate.

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