Do you often find it hard to focus on your current task because your mind keeps drifting to something else? If so, you might be suffering from attention residue, a common 21st-century challenge.
In this article, we’ll explain what attention residue is, what causes it, how it affects you, and how you can avoid it for better focus.
What is Attention Residue?
Attention residue is the term used to describe the phenomenon of having your attention stuck on a previous task when you switch to a new one. It happens when you don’t fully complete or resolve the first task before moving on to the second one.
For example, imagine you’re working on a report, but then you decide to check your Instagram for a few minutes. Eventually, you return to your report, but your mind lingers on what you saw on your Instagram feed. This is attention residue.
Attention residue reduces your cognitive capacity and impairs your performance on the current task. According to a study, this phenomenon can cost as much as 40% of your productive time. That’s huge. Attention deficit can also make you feel stressed, frustrated, or unhappy with your work. Likewise, it can reduce the quality of your work, making you miss important details, overlook errors, forget instructions, or produce subpar results.
In a world where we constantly have to juggle several things, understanding the causes of attention residue and how to deal with them may as well be a life-saving skill.
What Causes Attention Residue?
Attention residue can be caused by various factors, such as:
- Unfinished tasks: When you leave a task unfinished or unresolved, it creates a mental ‘open loop’ that keeps nagging at you until you close it. This can prevent you from fully transitioning your attention to a new task.
- Interruptions: When you get interrupted by someone or something, such as a phone call, a notification, or a colleague, you lose focus and momentum on your current task. It can take several minutes before you get your flow back.
- Anticipations: When you’re looking forward to something important or stressful, such as a deadline, an exam, a meeting, or feedback, you’ll get worked up and anxious about it. This can distract you from the present moment and reduce your attention span.
- Switching contexts: When you switch from one type of task to another, e.g. from a creative work like writing to an analytical work like accounting, you need to adjust your mental mode and expectations. This can take time and energy and lower your mental resources for the new task.
How to Achieve Better Focus
Fortunately, there are some practical strategies that we can use to avoid or reduce attention residue for better focus. Here are some of them:
- Schedule time for deep work: Deep work is the state of being fully immersed and focused on a cognitively demanding task. To achieve deep work, you can block out distractions and interruptions and dedicate uninterrupted time to your most important tasks. I use the focus mode on my Samsung to help me achieve deep work sessions. You can also use calendars, timers, or anti-distraction apps like RescueTime to help you plan and stick to your deep work sessions.
- Finish or resolve tasks before switching: To avoid leaving open loops in your mind, try to finish or resolve tasks, before switching to new ones. Breaking up larger tasks into micro chunks that you can complete at a sitting is one way to do this. E.g finishing a paragraph of a novel is a micro-task for a sitting.
- Take breaks between tasks: When switching between tasks that require different types of thinking or skills, take a break. Use this break to refresh your mind, relax your body, or do something enjoyable.
- Manage your expectations and emotions: To avoid obsessing over future events, focus on doing what you can to prepare for the future. You can also use mindfulness techniques, meditation, or breathing exercises to help you calm your nerves and stay present.
- Use transition cues: You can set up definite cues or signals to help your brain quickly recognise you are switching tasks. For example, I shut my laptop down every time I finish a writing task. Otherwise, I stand up from my workstation and walk to the next room, only to return immediately and start something fresh.
Stay Focused and Stay Productive
Attention residue is a silent enemy of your productivity. It robs you of your mental energy and creativity and prevents you from doing your best work. But you can’t let it win. You can fight back by adopting the simple habits and strategies discussed above. That way, you can stay focused on what matters till you’re done. Do this and you’ll thank yourself later.
Featured Image by wayhomestudio on Freepik