During the week, I came across an interesting concept called ‘ Attention residue’ and it made me quite intrigued to know this side of our brain.

Attention residue is at complete odds with the way we work: our brains simply weren’t designed to work on two mentally challenging tasks at once. This can have a serious knock-on effect on our engagement and satisfaction; leaving us exhausted with little quality work to show for all our toil. It causes us to spread our attention too thinly when to perform at our peak we need to conserve it for what matters most.

In other words, if we jump from task to task, it becomes impossible to give anything our complete focus. This limits our ability to do complex deep thinking and problem solving, so we can never perform at our best. If someone has attention residue, they’re essentially operating with part of their cognitive resources being distracted, and that can significantly harm their productivity and performance.

When it comes to improving focus, many people assume their attention span just isn’t robust enough. But more often than not, the biggest thing holding them back is behavioural: they simply aren’t working in a way that enables protracted singular attention on any task.

Too many of us unconsciously limit our productive focus by weaving small acts of interruption throughout our day. Many of these can masquerade as productive – like quickly scanning Slack and email for urgent requests before diving into a big task, checking a new comment on a document we’re collaborating on, or quickly completing a few small tasks to clear our to-do list.

This grazing approach to working quickly creates a build-up of something called attention residue –where you continue to think and process a previous task once you’ve moved on to another. While this is clearly dangerous for our productive performance, it’s not always unavoidable. 

So the moot question is –  What exactly can we do to reduce attention residue? You can adopt 6 strategies for reducing attention residue. If you are interested in taking a deep dive to increase your productivity then take a deep dive here to know more about these strategies. 

6 strategies for reducing attention residue

Avoiding attention residue isn’t as easy as ensuring you finish one task before moving on to the next. You’ll still have some lingering attention residue whirling in your brain as you crack on with the new work, so your productivity will still be at a disadvantage. So if we can’t always avoid it entirely, what can we do to at least minimize attention residue?

1. Schedule time for regular deep work

The single best thing we can do to minimize attention residue is to actively focus on one important task for a prolonged period of time to simulate flow states. The “deep work” method can help put this into practice. It essentially involves scheduling regular 90-minute periods of uninterrupted work for one complex task and gradually increasing session length to increase your attentional stamina. We’ve created a simple walkthrough guide for getting started.

2. Understand how you switch context

Context switching occurs when you flit between several different tasks and is a huge contributor to the build-up of attention residue. But we can’t break the habit until we know how we actually do it: how often and how much, at what times of day, as a result of which tasks and apps.

3. Set times for managing daily communication

Even if you just skim an email subject line without opening its contents, you can set off a chain of back-burner processing and brooding. Avoid this by setting strict times for managing your communication each day like having a “communication half-hour” in the morning and after lunch to respond to emails, answer queries and make any calls. Make sure you share these contact hours with others, so they know when to expect a response from you.

4. Time box your schedule

Timeboxing your schedule can help you stay present on one thing at a time. It simply involves breaking up your schedule into finite blocks of time for specific pre-planned tasks. For examplke – you could set 30 minutes for communication, two hours for working on a complex priority task, 25 minutes for research on an upcoming project, and 15 minutes for reporting certain issues. You can set this order as per your kind of work . It adds motivational time pressure while also keeping you entirely accountable for your schedule, knowing exactly what you’re working on and when. It also helps to contain unruly disruptive tasks like email, so they don’t leak into another task’s time.

5. Use anti-distraction apps

Planning two hours of focused deep work is all very well, but a phone vibration or Slack ping can quickly undo your best-laid plans. Be vigilant with your focus by protecting yourself from these types of low-value interruptions. There’s a suite of anti-distraction software out there to help – whether you want to automatically mute notifications that introduce anxieties and tangential thoughts, or bar access to distracting websites.

6. Practice digital minimalism

Digital minimalism is about being more intentional with your use of tech; clearing away the digital noise that doesn’t contribute anything of value, and making better use of the apps that are actually helpful. We’ve written about how to do it in full here, but just deleting all low-value apps from your devices is a great place to start. More broadly, you’ll want to become more intentional with the way you use tech – becoming more protective of your time, and stricter with the things you grant attention.

Take good care & enjoy reading your dose of cerebral happiness.


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Image Credit – Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

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