Attention Residue: The Silent Productivity Killer
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Today at a Glance
- When compared to our ancestors, our lives appear to be filled with significantly more attention-grabbing pulls in a variety of directions. Our attention is more divided than ever.
- Attention residue is the idea that there is a cognitive cost to shifting your attention from one task to another. When our attention is shifted, there is a "residue" that remains in the brain and impairs our cognitive performance on the new task.
- To fight back: (1) Work in deep focus blocks, (2) take regular walks or breathers between higher value tasks, and (3) batch processing times for messages. Implement these three strategies and you will immediately see a difference in your work quality and efficiency.
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Let’s face it: Our attention is more divided than ever.
When compared to our ancestors, our lives appear to be filled with significantly more attention-grabbing pulls in a variety of directions.
Open up your phone, tablet, or computer home screen and you'll find all the proof of this fact that you might need:
- How many apps do you have open right this second?
- How many notifications are so temptingly staring back at you?
- How many pings, beeps, and boops have you heard from your devices in the last hour alone?
We are far more connected and online than at any point in history—and yet, what do we have to show for that additional connectivity in the form of output?
One would hope that with all of these apps, productivity tools, and calendar organizers in our lives, our work would be higher quality and completed in a more efficient manner—the technology creating value.
Unfortunately, that hope is a bit misguided.
The constant, hyper-connectedness of the modern digital age has created just as many problems as it has solved.
To address these new problems and execute to our individual potential, we have to learn to "work smart" in the context of the world we live in.
In today’s piece, I’d like to talk about one secret of working smart: Identifying and eliminating attention residue.
Let's dive right in...
The Silent Productivity Killer
"Look at this generation, with all of its electronic devices and multitasking. I will confidently predict less success than Warren, who just focused on reading." - Charlie Munger
The concept of "attention residue" was first identified by University of Washington business professor Dr. Sophie Leroy in 2009.
The idea is quite simple:
There is a cognitive cost to shifting your attention from one task to another. When our attention is shifted, there is a "residue" that remains in the brain and impairs our cognitive performance on the new task.
Put differently, you may think your attention has fully shifted to the next task, but your brain has a lag—it thinks otherwise!
It's relatively easy to find examples of this effect in your own life:
- You get on a call and find yourself still thinking about the prior call.
- An email notification pops up during a video meeting and completely derails your focus.
- You check your phone under your desk during a lecture and find yourself unable to refocus on the professor's words.
There are two key points worth noting here:
- Macro or Micro Task Switch: The research indicates it doesn't seem to matter whether the task switch is "macro" (i.e. moving from one major task to the next) or "micro" (i.e. pausing one major task for a quick check on some minor task). In other words, stopping to quickly check your email or Slack messages is just as bad as jumping from call to call.
- Remote Work Acceleration: The challenge is even more pronounced in a remote work world, where we are at home and thus free to roam the internet, have our chat apps open, and check our phones all while appearing to be focused in a Zoom meeting.
With apologies to any self-proclaimed proficient multitaskers, the research is very clear:
Every single time you call upon your brain to move away from one task and toward another, you are hurting its performance—your work quality and efficiency suffer.
Author Cal Newport—who writes about attention residue in his Deep Work—puts it well when talking about the cultural propensity to "just check" on phone or email notifications:
"If, like most, you rarely go more than 10–15 minutes without a just check, you have effectively put yourself in a persistent state of self-imposed cognitive handicap. The flip side, of course, is to imagine the relative cognitive enhancement that would follow by minimizing this effect.”
Attention residue is derailing the quality and efficiency of your performance—it's causing you to spend more time working to create less output.
I've felt the pain of attention residue—let's talk about how to fight back...
Managing Attention Residue for Optimal Performance
Attention residue is a powerful psychological effect—one that we will never completely eliminate due to its wiring into our brains.
That said, I have experimented with a variety of tactical strategies for managing attention residue that have been highly effective in my life.
Three strategies to implement today:
Focus Work Blocks
This is the most fundamental strategy for fighting back against attention residue: Block time on your calendar for sprints of focused energy.
My suggestion would be to ask two questions:
- What is the most important work that I do?
- What time of day am I most productive and efficient?
Based on the answers to those two questions, you will know what you need to block time for, and when you should be blocking that time during the day.
It may mean reconfiguring your calendar a bit, but since most people do their best work early (before most daily calls start) or late (after most daily calls end), it should be doable.
Download a simple focus app for your computer (I like Flow) and use it to set a timer for a focus block length (start with 45 minutes if you're new to this). The app will restrict any apps you want from being opened during your block. I typically restrict texts, email, Slack, and Twitter, as those are my biggest time wasters and notification drivers. If you're prone to checking your phone (like I am!), put it in another room so that you physically can't see or touch it.
Note: It won't be easy to execute at first. You’re forcibly overriding a lot of the natural dopamine response that all of these apps, digital tools, and social platforms were built on creating. Build your focus muscle progressively—start with 45 minutes, once per day, and try to work your way up to 60 minutes, two to three times per day by the end of the first month.
Take a Walk (or a Breath)
We are particularly exposed to attention residue when we are forced by our calendars to move immediately from one call or meeting to the next.
For some reason, we have decided that all meetings should be 30 minutes long (and then we fill 5-10 minutes of the call with silly banter about the weather—yes, I know it's getting cold in New York, because it's October!).
This is mostly fine if we are talking about lower value tasks, but not when we enter the arena of higher value tasks.
Whenever possible, create open windows of 5-15 minutes between higher value tasks. Schedule 25-minute calls or note upfront the desire to be efficient (say you want to give people their time back so that it's about helping them!). Block those windows on your calendar.
During these windows, do one of the following:
- Take a walk without your phone. It's important that you not have any exposure to cognitive load during this walk, so don't listen to a podcast or audiobook, and definitely don't respond to texts or check email. Just walk.
- Take a breath. Close your eyes and breathe deeply in a box format (4 seconds in, 4 second hold, 4 seconds out, 4 second hold). Do 10 "reps" of that, focusing on the breath. This is a particularly good way to reset your focus when you're tight on time.
The walk or breathing exercise serves as a reset button for your brain. Use it regularly.
Ok, focused work blocks and walking/breathing sound great, but what about all of those notifications? Those emails, Slack messages, texts, and tweets aren't going to respond to themselves, right?
The answer here is simple: Batch processing.
Pick a few windows during the day when you will deeply focus on the task of processing and replying to messages. It may be one window if you're in a lower message intensity career (writer, researcher, creator) and three windows if you're in a higher message intensity career (professional services, tech).
Batch processing has multiple benefits:
- Leverages Parkinson's Law (work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion) to make you more efficient in getting through processing.
- Improves the quality of your responses, since you are focused on them rather than trying to balance them against some other task.
- Slowly trains your colleagues to not expect immediate responses from you on everything.
By the way, this change might mean giving up your self-definition as the "fast responder" in your social circles. I used to pride myself on replying to every text quickly, but not anymore. There are very few things in life that are truly urgent, and most people will call you if there is a real problem.
Attention residue is a silent killer of your work quality and efficiency. Understanding it—and taking the steps to fight back—will have an immediate positive impact on your work and life.
I'd love to hear from you:
- When have you noticed attention residue negatively impacting your work?
- How do you plan to implement the above steps to take control?
- What other strategies have you used that have worked for you?
Tweet at me @SahilBloom and I'll do my best to get back to everyone.
As always, until next time...stay curious, friends!