Daily Dispatch

How Attention Residue Is Slowing You Down

Attention residue was first presented to me in Cal Newport’s book ‘Deep Work’. Georgetown University computer-science professor Cal Newport argues that people are less productive when they are continually moving from one task to another instead of focusing on one thing at a time. Attention residue was originally coined by Sophie Leroy, a business-school professor at the University of Minnesota who studied a modern, daily workplace conundrum: switching between tasks and getting things done. She found that:

“People need to stop thinking about one task in order to fully transition their attention and perform well on another. Yet, results indicate it is difficult for people to transition their attention away from an unfinished task and their subsequent task performance suffers.”

The carryover from one task to another is what later became known as attention residue, where you’re still thinking of a previous project as you start another. An easy analogy of this would be minimising a computer application, rather than closing it before opening another. The app is still running in the background, eating up the computers processing power diverting resources away from the current task.

In ‘Deep Work’ Cal Newport suggests focusing on a single task for a long period of uninterrupted time to reach peak productivity. By ensuring the time block is truly uninterrupted (all notifications turned off, and mobile phone in another room) you don’t get attention-residue issues. A four-hour block of time is a good place to start, maintaining intense focus any longer than this can prove difficult, but of course, it does depend on the individual and the task at hand. If there’s one thing you should takeaway from this article it’s this: Don’t stop — or begin something else — until you’re entirely done.


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