Understanding Attention Residue and 6 Practical Tips to Avoid it

When I first watched the movie The Dark Knight by Christopher Nolan, I was raving about it for several days after. I remember thinking about several scenes from the movie and going gaga about how well the movie was done. I remember something similar happening with another all-time classic, Shawshank Redemption. Well, no words are enough to describe how brilliant that movie was.

I also remember preparing for a professional certification called Project Management Professional aka PMP® by Project Management Institute. For several days after successfully clearing the grueling exam, I continued to relate to what I had studied and prepared for, to everyday activities.

Sheryl Sandberg in her bestselling book ‘Lean in’ comments upon work life balance and says that there is no such thing. There’s work, and there’s life and the two will overlap, she shares with us. That had got me thinking. Yes, it does overlap, we all have seen how. So when you drop kids in the morning to school and head to work and you’re attending a meeting, you suddenly remember that teacher’s comment that your kid needs more efforts in math. And then you head on for a brainstorm with your team and your mind displays the tasks left unattended from the last meeting you just finished. Soon you realize that your mind is fleeting between thoughts and not allowing you uninterrupted focus on the task at hand.

Has it happened to you, that your thoughts tend to spill over? Psychologists call this mental state as Attention residue.

The fact is that our brains are not capable of working on two challenging tasks simultaneously. In order to achieve focus, we need to detach from the previous task before we embark on the next one. But that doesn’t always happen. This results in thoughts about previous work percolating into the next one and we end up not being able to give our 100% focus on either. Researchers call this a huge hindrance in deep thinking and problem solving that requires almost 100% focus.

Few people realize that attention residue is hampering their peak performance as they end up doing everything in a haphazard manner. The increased use of computer for work has made things quite complicated. While you’re working on your task, there are invariably other tabs open on your screen which vie for your attention. Then there are the social media alerts that keep popping, the emails that pop every now and then and the colleagues who will drop by to have a word. All of this results in you not being able to concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes. Sophie Leroy, who pioneered this theory, says that there’s a cost to this attention residue. In an era when multitasking is appreciated, there are still some kind of tasks, especially those of knowledge workers, that cannot just go with that.

What happens with attention residue?

  • As you juggle between two or more tasks at the same time or one after the other, thoughts from one task spill over to the next
  • You are unable to focus on the current task because you’re still left thinking about what you just did
  • This spillover impacts everything that you do and results in loss of productivity

6 Practical Tips ToAvoid Attention Residue

  1. Time blocking:It may sound cliché and impossible at first but setting time limits for every task daily and sticking to it come what may, actually helps us in accomplishing more in less time. Set out blocks of minutes for every task. Ex. 90 minutes to work on the new proposal and nothing else. 30 minutes for reading newspapers every morning. 10 minutes every three hours to check social media and emails. 30 minutes for discussions with your team, and so on. Allocate time and abide by it. Those blocks are only meant for that task and nothing else.
  2. Digital diet:Too much of anything is toxic, digital habits included. Frequent checking of emails, messages and updates definitely distract you, steal your precious time for no important purpose and sap your focus from important things preventing you from giving your 100% focus to the task at hand. Go on a strict digital diet. Limit digital usage to bare minimum if possible. Discipline your mind that more time online does not mean you’re using it productively. You can set times and stick to them for online work.
  3. Deep work: Realizing that you’re on to some serious tasks, you should enter in a phase of deep work till you complete that what you had set out for. Once you start practicing deep work, you will find it very satisfying because the joy of accomplishing something important gives you a different high.
  4. Use apps to block your usage:Yes, that really helps. It’s like setting a child lock on your computer. Several apps today can be set on lock for a specific time till you finish what you’re doing. So you are locked out of Facebook, Instagram and such time-stealers for a specific time. With no other distractions, you have no other option but to keep doing your work
  5. Monetize and Prioritize:Set your priorities right. Know what is important and what is not. I would suggest you set a money tag to every work that you want to achieve in your daily to-do list. Say, a PTA meeting is worth a 1000 bucks, a crucial client visit is worth 2000 bucks, a social media post is worth minus 100 bucks or a casual chat with a colleague during work hours is worth minus 300 bucks and so on. At the end of the day, calculate your earnings and see if you’re in profit or loss. More earnings every day motivates you to keep losses at a bare minimum.
  6. Practice focus: Meditation allows you to develop deep focus, first on your mind and body and then on your work. Practice this deep focus in your work so that one work does not spill on to the other. Monitor your thoughts. See how they fleet between several things that keep vying for your attention. In ancient Indian iconography, a wayward mind is often depicted in sculptures as a monkey that keeps jumping aimlessly from one tree to the other.

In an era of stiff competition when our work demands more from us each day to stay ahead of the rest of them, we need to constantly monitor the way we work to minimize loss of precious time. If thoughts and worries of one task keep spilling on the other, we will not be able to achieve peak performance. That would, without having to say separately, hold us back from rising high in life and achieving our goals. It may sound impossible but is not. 

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