You probably don’t have a bad attention span. It’s more likely that you’re suffering from ‘attention residue’.
What do you think your chances are of reading this entire article without your attention being pulled elsewhere? My guess? Slim to none.
It’s not that I have such little faith in you. It’s that I know you’re a human being and humans are inherently terrible at keeping their mind on one single track – especially in this day and age.
I’d fairly confidently say that in that time it has taken you to read these few sentences, you would have been presented with an opportunity to be distracted (I got three text messages).
We try really hard to focus on the task at hand, but the context in which we’re trying to do that works against us. The ping of a text message; the disruption of a colleague seeking assistance; and the incessant pop ups creeping into our eyeline are all demanding our immediate attention (sometimes all at the same time) meaning we don’t have a chance in hell of getting into a steady flow of thought.
Respite is sometimes available when we’re able to lock ourselves away on a WFH day to get into a deep work state, but even then many fall victim to the needy pet, the hungry child or the pile of dirty dishes beckoning from the kitchen.
When we try to attend to these distractions, we can suffer from what’s known as ‘attention residue’. This is when our attention capacity is slowly watered down over the day as we move from task to task without completing, or gaining closure over, the previous piece of work we were buried in.
It’s pervasive and difficult to overcome. I would know, I was speaking to the very woman who coined the term – professor Sophie Leroy – and during our conversation I was experiencing the very thing we were talking about.
During our 30 minute phone call, I received ten Slack notifications, two event reminders, two texts and a pop up reminding me to update my computer (I’ll get around to that never). While I tried my best to be present, focused and listen to the wonderful advice she offered, the fact I was able to list all of the above proves that I didn’t 100 per cent succeed.
If you’re like me – and I’m betting you are – then you’re likely in need of some tools to overcome this attention-draining phenomenon. Even if you’re one of those people who can enter a state of deep work on a daily occurrence, you can bet your bottom dollar that someone in your team will benefit from Leroy’s advice.
We’re cognitively drained
Leroy is an associate professor of management at the University of Washington’s Bothell School of Business and has been researching attention residue for many years now. It all started when she was working at a consultancy firm (before mobile phones, she says) and during meetings she noticed her colleagues’ minds wandering. They were thinking about work, but not about what they were there to discuss.
“I was looking at peoples’ notepads and they’d be covered in those little blocks that say ‘remember to do this’ or ‘idea for X, Y, Z project’. It just showed me just where our minds go in these circumstances. It came down to the fact that we had multiple projects going on. There was so much complexity [surrounding those projects] – we never had any closure.
“[People] have a really hard time switching between tasks from an attention standpoint. Even when we actually complete a task, that doesn’t mean our attention will follow us. Our mind keeps things active in our brain and when they’re active, they attract attention.”
This prevents us from using our full cognitive resources towards the task at hand.
So if you started making dot points for a report you’re writing right before you jumped into a strategic meeting, your brain might be subconsciously busy trying to flesh out those report ideas rather than actively listening to what’s being said in the meeting.
“We have a fundamental need for cognitive completion, so when things aren’t completed or when we don’t have full closure, our brain is going to fight us to complete that.”
Leroy says we can also experience attention residue on tasks that we’ve completed, but aren’t satisfied by. For example, we might worry that we didn’t do a good enough job or question the results we arrived at. One way to allow our brains the cognitive closure it desires is to add an element of time pressure to the equation.
“Time pressure works really interestingly in terms of the way it affects cognitive processes. Because the journey you took to complete ‘task A’ was under time pressure, you took the fastest route to get to your deadline. When it’s done, you have less cognition about how you could have done it differently. When you have less time pressure, you’re more aware of the different ways in which the task could have been completed,” says Leroy.
People then experience an artificial sense of confidence about their accomplishment, she says, which isn’t always present when people work under lower levels of time pressure.
We can also suffer from attention residue when we’re preempting something that’s coming up. If a manager says, “When you’re done with X, I need you to do Y”, Leroy says that’s like “opening up another tab in our brain” and creating an opportunity for attention residue.
When you approach a task with less than the desired amount of brain power, you won’t process information properly because you’re not listening or thinking as deeply as you need to.
This means you’ll be more prone to making errors and your performance levels will likely decrease. Not only do outcomes suffer, so can your mental health.
“Even when we actually complete a task, that doesn’t mean our attention will follow us. Our mind keeps things active in our brain and when they’re active, they attract attention.”
“Having attention residue can be exhausting. We also become less productive and are more likely to make errors. Instead of making significant progress in our work, we are slower than we would like… and that can be extremely stressful.”
Think about all those times you’ve shot up in bed during the middle of the night with the thought of replying to an email or preparing for a meeting. That’s attention residue lingering from the day. And we know that poor sleep quality can perpetuate mental health concerns.
What’s the solution?
In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Leroy and her co-author Theresa Glomb point to research which suggests employees are interrupted every six to 12 minutes. In their own survey, they found 40 per cent of respondents reported being interrupted 10 times per day.
Our work context frustrates our innate need for completion, says Leroy. We’ve got attention pulls coming at us left, right and centre – and that’s on top of the major stressors taking up our brain space this year – COVID-19, mass job losses, political instability, natural disasters and general day-to-day distractions, like home schooling.
Also, the “always on” culture that many workplaces have inadvertently fostered means our autonomy can feel worn down.
“You can choose not to reply to an email, but if you don’t you might start thinking, ‘Who was it? Was that important? Do I need to answer quickly?’ And now that’s a chunk of your resources that have been cognitively busy since that intrusion came in.”
This often happens on a subconscious level, she says, which is why it can be hard to spot, and harder to combat.
If attention residue is one side of the coin, deep work is the other. This concept, coined by professor Cal Newport, is the state of work we dream of in a Utopian world – one where we can tend to mentally demanding tasks without distractions and in a way that optimises our creativity, innovation and critical thinking.
While I’m sure you can certainly recall a time when you’ve experienced one of these distraction-free, blissful deep work days, it’s not something we come by every day. The concept seems so far out of reach, in fact, that design and architecture firms dream up almost farcical concepts for work chambers and secluded booths to facilitate a deep work flow – remember when HRM wrote about the deep work chambers that encouraged people to shower before entering? Imagine!
Even though it seems out of reach, the first step towards getting there is to put boundaries in place to slay your attention-draining monsters.
Getting your mind back on track
If it makes you feel better, even Leroy, who has spent hundreds of hours researching, explaining and teaching this topic, sometimes finds her attention resources depleted. She shares some handy tips for overcoming attention residue.
When you’re interrupted during a workflow, she suggests you implement a ‘ready-to-resume’ plan to help manage the transition from one task to another.
When someone interrupts you, before you transition to the next task, spend a quick moment writing down what stage you’re currently at in the project and what you plan on doing when you resume the task. This puts your brain at ease because it knows you’re going to return.
(Ah, the irony. I was literally interrupted with a meeting mid-way through writing this paragraph. Here’s what I wrote down: ‘I’m at the part of the article about ‘ready-to-resume plans’ and next I plan on finishing transcribing the audio for this section’).
To prove the effectiveness of these plans, Leroy conducted an experiment with two groups of people who were given a task but were interrupted before completion.
One group was asked to complete a ‘ready-to-resume’ plan before transitioning to their next task, the other group was not. Those who put a plan in action didn’t suffer from attention residue as they moved away from their interrupted work. They more easily returned to their initial task after addressing the interruption.
In the secondary part of this experiment, participants were also 79 per cent more likely to choose a good candidate when presented with applications for a job, which shows that the plans also helped them to increase their decision-making abilities.
Another tip, she says, is to think about how you’re using your technology.
When Leroy’s phone was on vibrate, she’d subconsciously worry about missing out on an important message. She was checking it all the time. Now she leaves the ringer on but makes sure to only distribute her number to a limited few (and people know only to call for important things).
“When I talk to people about this, their first reaction is feeling anxious about being disconnected. So I encourage them to create a mechanism where people can reach you if it’s urgent.”
One way to do this, she says, is to have two email accounts – one for your everyday emails and another for urgent matters. Only key people will have access to the latter.
“You’d just turn notification for this [urgent] email on when you don’t want any distraction, but you still don’t want to feel disconnected.” You’re connected but not opening the floodgates to unwanted communication.
She also suggests re-thinking your to-do list.
“If you’ve got a list of all these things to do, and you don’t schedule the time to do them, that means you’re walking around with this heavy, stressful load and a constant reminder of the things that aren’t complete. This is the perfect example of the context that would drive your attention residue up.”
You also want to avoid context switching as much as possible. That means instead of answering emails intermittently throughout the day, for example, you should allocate dedicated chunks of your day to this admin work. Productivity enthusiasts have been saying this for years and Leroy’s research backs it up.
Finally, Leroy says in our current circumstances it’s critical that we reset expectations – both for ourselves and our teams.
“My husband is an essential worker, so [since working from home] I’m the primary caregiver during the day for our nine-year old and seven-year-old. I had to move away from feeling frustrated about interruptions towards accepting them and being really comfortable with them. When my kids interrupt me, they genuinely need help and I can’t expect them to function independently for the whole day. They just learned that I had to do my ‘ready-to-resume’ plan before I could answer them.”
The same goes for colleagues, she adds. Set expectations with your colleagues about your uninterruptible hours and clarify what you deem as important enough to be interrupted for. By the same token, make sure you’re respectful of their uninterruptible time.
If you read this whole thing without getting distracted, you’re miles ahead of me. And if you didn’t, don’t stress – we’re only human.