How multitasking kills concentration – Attention Residue

How multitasking kills concentration – Attention Residue

If you want to function with high productivity, work on one task at a time. By working on multiple tasks you are hampering your performance to a large extent.

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You have a presentation tomorrow and also daily errands of today to attend. As you prepare for your presentation, you check your emails, finish some daily tasks and check your texts/social media. You believe that is the best way to ensure you have your eyes on everything, right?

Wrong!

Cal Newport explains why in his best seller book, Deep Work: Rules for Focussed Success in a distracted world. Working on multiple tasks by switching between one task to another leads to reduced concentration and wasted time due to attention residue. The purpose of the book is to overcome attention residue using various methods of Deep Work.

So, what is this attention residue?

The term attention residue was first used by Sophie Leroy. She described it as the thoughts that carry over from one unfinished task into the next task.

For example, John was in a happy relationship for a year before they decided to break up. A month later, he starts meeting another woman, who is a great lady, charming and fun to be with. However, some thoughts of his previous relationship linger on. In simple words, attention residue is at play.

In a relationship, the way attention residue works is quite different from how it works while completing tasks. Take an example where you have to create a design for a website and reply to emails. Every time you reply to an email and switch back to creating the design, a part of the email is still in your head. As a result, your concentration is affected and it can take a minute to work on the design with the focus again.

Now guess happens when you do it every now and then? Yes, you guessed it right. You end up working with a distracted mind which Newport calls ‘shallow work‘.

Reasons for attention residue in the modern environment

We are working in a highly distracted world and we end up doing shallow work without any other choice. In the distracted world, if you manage to find a way to apply Deepwork as your regular working style, you will stand out and prosper. 

Here are some of the most prominent reasons for attention residue:

  • Messages and notifications on smartphones
  • The urge to check social media every now and then
  • Work-related emails and chat notifications
  • Unnecessary Meetings
  • Multiple browsers open
  • Colleagues interrupting for a casual task or questions

In the current work environment, distractions are being more and more common.

How do I reduce attention residue?

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To overcome attention residue, you have to reduce switching between tasks as much as possible. By doing so, you reduce the amount of attention residue thereby reducing reduced focus.

Oh, by the way, attention residue will exist even after you complete a task and move to the next task. You cannot avoid that because human brains are wired to think. If you complete a task and move to the next, attention residue occurs only once. If you switch multiple times and then complete a task, not only do you have residue after completion but also after each switch.

The best proposed solution to attention residue so far is Deepwork.

Deep Work and a state of flow

Deep work is about being completely immersed in the task at hand. While at Deepwork, you focus on one task at a time like an eagle focusing on its prey. As per Newport, the long stretches of focused work can do wonders to the final results.

If you have a presentation tomorrow and daily tasks to attend, you are better off working on the presentation separately. Once you are ready with the presentation, switching to attending emails and other tasks will be far more efficient.

Do you remember a time when you were working on a task and you look at the clock and gasp “Oh my God, is it 12 PM already? It was 9 AM just a while ago.”

That is what Deep work does to you. I am sure you also remember how effective your results were when you lost track of the time by immersing yourself in the task.

Now imagine working with the same intensity on a daily basis. Your results will skyrocket and your satisfaction levels will grow.

Apply Deep Work and reduce attention residue

Applying Deepwork in the modern world is not always easy. The urge for teamwork, the unnecessary meetings, and the open area workspaces make it difficult to work without interruptions.

You will have to put in some effort to apply Deep work at work. Here are a few starting points:

Do not multitask

As mentioned earlier, complete one task and only then move to the next one. You will still have some attention residue after completion, but it is far lesser compared to switching multiple times.

Eliminate distractions

There are ways you can reduce and in some cases eliminate distractions. You have to put in some effort to make it happen. For example, if possible, find a private place or a room. Wear headphones or lock yourself in a room or put up a Do Not Disturb sign or cover yourself with a blanket. You get the point. Do whatever it takes to reduce distractions.

Make it a habit

Start small and aim for an hour of deep work every working day. Even if you can manage only 30 minutes, doing it consistently every day is more important than doing long stretches. As you get the hang of it, increase the duration little by little.

Do only what matters during Deep work

Do not attempt to do all your tasks in the day with Deepwork. Neither will that work nor is that the idea. Do not reply to emails using Deep Work. The purpose of Deepwork is to utilize it only for those tasks necessary, which are your long term goals. For example, if you are a writer, use Deepwork to write content for your next book. If you are a designer, apply Deep Work only when you are designing.

A detailed post about Deep work is available at – How to eliminate distractions by applying Deep Work?

Conclusion

In the modern world, distractions are plenty. Most people have accepted it and live through these distractions leading to reduced productivity.

Do not work with distractions. Spend time and energy to eliminate distractions on a daily basis. The need to work with focus is more now than ever before. When you apply Deep Work, you will stand out.

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