How ‘Attention Residue’ Is Stealing Your Focus — And How to Get It Back
Two ways (and a bonus) to stay focused without attention residue.
Another ‘urgent’ message hits the inbox. “Stop what you’re doing and take care of this task instead” it beckons.
But even as you move to work on this new task, you struggle to engage with it, struggle to really focus on the task at hand. Your attention seems to drift back to the task you had just tabled for later.
Sound all too familiar? Me, too.
The problems with multitasking are well-documented, but it turns out that rapidly switching between tasks has some serious negative impacts, too. When we have too many things to focus on, it’s nearly impossible to drag our beleaguered attention into the present to focus on the task at hand.
There’s a reason for that. It’s called Attention Residue.
Attention residue is the reason we can’t switch between tasks very effectively at rapid speeds. It happens because our attention lags behind what we’re working on.
When we move to a new project or task, our attention doesn’t get the memo right away. Instead, we remain focused on (or at least distracted by) the task that we just stopped doing. This “residue” can last for 15 minutes or more before we’re able to actually truly focus on the task at hand.
So what happens if we’re constantly switching between tasks every 15–30 minutes?
We’re never focused on what we’re doing.
Attention residue is a silent killer in most offices, with few being actually fully aware of the concept.
But not all is lost.
There are two key ways to combat attention residue and maintain productivity despite it: Batching tasks and closing loops.
1. Batching Tasks To Defeat Attention Residue
Batching tasks is the concept of taking a lot of similar tasks and doing them at the same time in groups or batches. This can be responding to emails, filing documents, filling out forms, or any other task that’s repetitive and doesn’t take that long in isolation.
Instead of addressing these tasks as they arise, responding to one email at a time, or filling out part of a form before moving on, they can distract us and take up lots of time, with our attention latching onto these tasks for even longer.
That’s why some days seem like you couldn’t ever get focused, and you finish the day wondering where all the time went.
Instead, set aside time each day to handle these sorts of tasks, and you can knock out a dozen emails at the same time and fill out all the forms at once, rather than having them peppered throughout the day.
2. Closing Loops To Decrease Attention Residue
Closing loops is a term used by David Allen in his revolutionary book “Getting Things Done: The Stress-Free Art of Productivity” that was released in the 1990s.
When projects and tasks are left incomplete and poorly documented, they leave “open loops” that continue to distract us throughout the days.
Our brains continue to think about them until they’re finished or written down outside of our head. That’s why a work journal can be so helpful when tasare too large to finish in one sitting.
These “open loops” have an even worse impact on attention residue and continually distract us from the work we’re trying to focus on and need to be doing.
By sticking on tasks until they’re finished or written down, we’re able to more effectively close the loop and deal with less attention residue from previous tasks.
One of attention residue’s best friends is social media. Social media’s constant nagging notifications interrupt our workflow all day long to knock us off track and keep us from spending real time working deeply.
To fight attention residue, I’ve disabled notifications for every app on my smartphone except for text messages, and I don’t check email throughout the day.
Instead, I check my phone and email only a couple of times throughout the day to allow my brain time to be distracted at scheduled times.
So next time you’re being badgered on all sides to jump from task to task, step back, make a list, and accomplish your tasks in batches to run into as little attention residue as possible.
Joel Sigrist is a writer, sports analyst, and media creator exploring several fields. Visit Joel’s website joelsigrist.com to find out more.