The Dangers of Attention Residue

May 03, 2020

Multitasking is a myth. It is an idea sold to feel better about having multiple tasks to complete at the same time, but it is highly ineffective as a form of organization, task management, and goal achieving. Attention residue, distraction-prone environments, and lack of understanding of the concept of deep work are the perfect combinations to never get anything done and remain inefficient.

All of the latest articles— How to manage your energy levels, Choosing a North Star Metric & How to algorithmize peak performance—are connected and serve a purpose. The idea behind Self-Mastered is to provide for the tools, mental models, and scientific explanations of how our minds work, to then be able to work more efficiently and optimize our lives.

Following the above statement, in this article, the idea behind multitasking will be exposed as an inefficient one, and it will be replaced by a different and improved mental model.

There are two ideas behind productivity, and, specifically, becoming more productive and efficient: 1) avoid the environment and habits that make us unproductive; and 2) create the habits and actions that will make us more productive. The concept of attentional residue falls into the former.

To avoid the environmental factors and habits that make us distracted and lead to procrastination, we first must learn about them and understand them.

What is Attention Residue?

Attention Residue is a concept born from Sophie Leroy’s Why is it so hard to do My Work? The Challenge of Attention Residue when Switching Between Work Tasks. Her definition is the following: “Attention residue is when thoughts about a task persist and intrude whilst performing another task.”

The main idea behind attention residue is that if we switch between tasks (multitasking), our attention is not 100% on the task at hand, due to there still being a part of our minds focused on the previous task. This can lead to not truly performing any task efficiently or correctly, leading to poor results.

Attention residue is inevitable, and according to Leroy: “It’s not a choice, it’s imposed by the context”. According to her paper, the main reason behind attention residue is the modern workplace, an environment prone to distractions with notifications, phones, co-workers, etc.

A mind experiencing attention residue will not be able to process information as carefully. It is distracted, and distractions are the first element to reduce if we wish to succeed in becoming more productive and managing our time more efficiently.

When remnants of previous tasks remain in our scope of attention, the task at hand is less clear and harder to focus on. The possibility of entering a flow state of deep work is compromised, thus never performing to our full potential.

Whilst there are elements that an individual has no power to remove, most of them can be reduced substantially. Changing our environment so distractions are reduced is a priority, and an action every single one of us can take.

Modify your environment, reduce distractions

Modifying your environment to make it less distraction-prone is the key first step to make. It allows for the rest of the actions and strategies to beat attention residue to take place: deadlines, checkpoints and deep work.

When looking to change habits, achieve success and improve your life, half of the job is to minimize and correct the poor decisions made up until this point, whilst the other half is substituting them for better ones. Changing your environment is essential, and it is mentioned in Atomic Habits.

In How To Algorithmize Peak Performance, we mentioned how top performers and low performers differed by the number of decisions they made throughout the day. Top performers made less decisions, due to creating a system that would guarantee they could rely on their basal ganglia to make decisions, saving energy for more creative and complex tasks.

The way to do so was via creating a connected system of actions, which would turn into habits and a routine, thus reducing the amount of time spent on making decisions for low ROI activities, leaving more mental energy for the tasks that do make the difference.

The above idea is based on the underlying principle that willpower and motivation should be used to create and impose a system, which will be run independently from our energy levels, instead of using motivation and willpower to brute-force our way through our distraction-prone environment.

Our environment shapes our whole day, our productivity and our results. Attention residue is born out of an environment flooded with distractions, such as notifications, non-stop messages, noise, etc.

Whilst there may be no choice but to work in an office with others, there is the option of turning your phone off or using flight mode, using web blockers to distracting sites like social media, avoid surfing the Internet at the first hours of the morning, listening to binaural beats and related forms of music, etc.

The way you change your environment is unique to you, but know that one full of distractions prevents and limits your capacity to enter a flow state and deep work, which are successful ways to beat attention residue.

What is Deep Work?

Deep work, as defined by Cal Newport, is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It may seem like a basic idea, due to it simply meaning being concentrated on a task, but it is increasingly difficult to achieve and sustain for everyone.

Social media is designed to be addictive, as every platform and website is designed for you to spend as much time as possible on it. Our modern environments are constant distraction machines, constantly fighting for a piece of our attention.

Deep work is work that matters, it is where value is created and our skills are honed. Deep work is the work that pushes us to our cognitive limits, the one that creates the results that are deemed to produce a high return of investment.

And deep work is the answer to attention residue. Attention residue, by its definition above, is the complete opposite of deep work.

One is diffused attention, the other is focused attention. One is multitasking, the other is the contrary. One leads to inefficient results if any at all, whilst the other leads to excellent results (and personal satisfaction). One distracts you, the other pushes you to your limits.

Working to avoid attention residue and to enter deep work goes hand in hand, as whilst we won’t claim that they are different sides to the same coin, they are inversely correlated in our purpose of Self-Mastering ourselves.

How to enter deep work & reduce attention residue

Two techniques that are commonly used to beat attention residue help in entering that flow state that allows for deep work: deadlines and checkpoints.

One of the dangers that lead us to never fully switch off from a task is to stop doing it and leave no notes or checkpoints for when we eventually return to it. Before switching to a new task, a small note with a few bullet points on where the task has been paused can lead to a reduction in the mental load of figuring out where the task is at when returned to.

This action effectively frees up space in our minds. Having a short and quick reminder written down is akin to cleaning RAM space in your computer, getting rid of attention residue for that specific task, knowing that we can return to it and enter a higher level of concentration quickly.

Another technique to avoid attention residue is using deadlines. Commonly used to beat procrastination, deadlines work by narrowing down the possibilities of distraction.

According to Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception, “Deadlines do strange things to the mind. They can even reduce the attention residue problem […]. When you complete a task up against a deadline, you are forced to narrow your options and to make decisions that are cognitively less complex. This in turn decreases the hangover from that first task, allowing you to put it behind you and get on with the next job. An approaching deadline not only concentrates the mind, but allows it to clear more easily after it’s passed.”

Attention residue, procrastination, deep work and organization are all connected. Deadlines work to reduce attention residue and procrastination, thus enhancing deep work, which can only be achieved via planning and organizing your energy and time. To read more on how to achieve peak performance, read here.

Conclusions

To become more productive and achieve Self-Mastery, you must first change the habits, actions and environment that are detrimental to your journey, to then substitute them for habits, actions and environments in tune with your goals.

One of the necessary concepts to understand about productivity is attention residue, born from multitasking and an ever-so-increasing environment full of distractions. Attention residue implies that you cannot be laser-focused on your task at hand due to having your focus diffused on previous tasks.

Deep work and the flow state cannot be achieved or maintained for long enough if our mind is not 100% focused, which is why it is essential to change our environment in all the ways we can to reduce distractions: turning our phones off, using web blockers to avoid distracting sites, listening to binaural beats for concentration, etc.

Techniques to avoid attention residue and enter deep work quicker are deadlines and checkpoints. The former help narrows down focus by reducing the scope of actions to take, whilst the latter enables us to “offload” our thoughts onto a small note, to then revisit when we return to the task at hand.

Sources

https://ideas.repec.org/a/eee/jobhdp/v109y2009i2p168-181.html

https://www.thecut.com/2016/01/attention-residue-is-ruining-your-concentration.html

https://www.chieflearningofficer.com/2018/03/02/conquering-attention-residue/

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