It Takes Only Seconds to Destroy Your Focus (and what to do about it)
It’s just a quick phone call. Or a co-worker stops by to ask a question. Or you take a minute to check Facebook. Just a little interruption that barely feels like an interruption, and then you’ll get back to work. But it doesn’t work that way. Those small interruptions massively sabotage your focus. Knowing how to handle them could be the most important step you take to reclaim your productivity.
They call it “attention residue,” a term first coined by Professor Sophie Leroy back in 2009. Attention residue is what you get when you interrupt one task in favor of another, and then return to your first task. The attention you devoted to that other brief activity follows you and interferes with your ability to focus on the first task.
How much does it interfere? A lot more than we think. We assume that when we take “just a few seconds” to check an email, take a phone call, handle an interruption by a co-worker, or check Facebook (which never is just a few seconds), we return to our initial task with the same level of focus.
But we don’t. Even when that interruption lasts "just a few seconds," your mind remains partially focused on it long after you return to your initial task. The attention residue from the interruption can stay with you for 20 minutes or more, compromising your focus, your ability to finish your work and your overall performance.
Our minds are designed to focus on one thing at a time. So every time you switch gears, your attention suffers as it struggles to adjust to the new object of focus. This is true even if you aren’t aware of the attention residue or don’t think it happens to you. If you’re human, it happens to you.
So are you doomed to a life of distraction caused by inevitable interruptions?
Getting Rid of Attention Residue
Fortunately, you have a number of tools at your disposal to minimize or eliminate attention residue and consequently optimize your focus and productivity.
1. Become aware that attention residue is real. The first step to minimize the negative impact of attention residue on your productivity is to become aware of it. If you don't know that you’re experiencing attention residue and don’t understand that it is undermining your concentration – and most of us don’t – then you can’t begin to work on removing or minimizing it.
The first step is to notice whenever an interruption occurs. Then notice your level of focus when you return to your initial task. The simple act of noticing interruptions and the ensuing attention residue can work wonders.
Once you become more fully aware of just how many times interruptions occur, you’ll become less tolerant of interruptions. You’ll start to fend them off. And by noticing the attention residue following the interruption, you will be better able to escape from its grip and move back to your task with full focus.
It is important to note that your interruptions can be external or internal. You can fend off external interruptions by turning off the ringer on your phone while you work or telling your co-worker that you can’t speak now but will get to him shortly.
But internal interruptions can be harder to notice and easier to rationalize away. You’ll tell yourself that it’s ok just to check that one email or WhatsApp, you’ll only spend a few minutes on Facebook or checking the news, or you’ll make just that one phone call and then get back to work. But the attention residue will follow you into your task just the same.
We’re not talking about legitimate breaks such as refreshing your concentration when it begins to wane by stretching or taking a short walk. Those kinds of activities, when applied strategically, will help boost your ability to focus. However, the “I’ll just do this quick and get back to work” kinds of activities – which usually involve your phone or other electronics – almost always cut into your ability to concentrate.
2. Schedule interruption-free zones. It seems obvious that if you work on a task without interruption for an hour, you’re going to get more done than if that hour is punctuated by five short interruptions. Nevertheless, many of us plod along, passively accepting the interruptions as a fact of life. There’s a better way.
If you want to get more done, and avoid the negative effects of attention residue, then the best solution is to strategically schedule blocks of time during which interruptions are not permitted.
Schedule an hour. Or if that seems daunting, then start with just 20 minutes – even a short time, interruption-free, can do a lot for your focus and productivity.
During that time, turn off the ringer on your phone. You can create an automatic reply that says you are busy or “in a meeting” and will respond as soon as you’re finished. If there are certain people in your life who must have access to you (for example, you’re expecting some time-sensitive family news), you can program your phone to accept calls only from certain callers during that time.
Turn your phone face down. There’s research showing that just the presence of the screen in your visual field will distract you, even if you don’t check your phone.
Better still – place the phone out of view and slightly out of reach. There’s also research that, not surprisingly, temptations that you can’t see, and that you need to get up from your desk to access, don’t tempt you nearly as much.
Obviously, if someone bursts through your door to tell you there’s a fire in the building, you’re not going to ignore it. Interruptions that are true emergencies are the exception – but they must be the exception. Absent a true emergency, this is a non-negotiable, interruption-free time period to do your work.
Some environments can make it challenging to create an interruption-free zone. Co-workers and family members will continue to interrupt you (“I know you’re busy, but this will only take a minute”) regardless of how many times you ask them to refrain. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to your productivity to find a way to create an interruption-free zone anyway.
I have clients who cannot stop the interruptions at work or at home, and so they take their laptop to a coffee shop or a secluded park or a library for a period of time so that they can be in an environment that gives them the interruption-free space they need. Do whatever works for you to keep the interruptions at bay.
3. Create a buffer routine when you can’t eliminate an interruption. Sometimes, it really is impossible to avoid an interruption. In that case, the first step is to keep the interruption as short as possible. That means telling a co-worker or a spouse or child that you really need a few more minutes to finish whatever it is you’re doing, and that you’ll be able to give them your undivided attention as soon as you finish.
But knowing now that even short interruptions will create long-lasting attention residue, it’s important to have a routine that will return you to your task with as little attention residue as possible.
There’s a simple method that I find to be effective. Rather than dive into your task immediately following the interruption, take a few slow, deep breaths. Tell yourself that you are now leaving the interruption behind and instead focusing exclusively on the task before you (yes, I know that sounds corny, but it works).
By taking 30-60 seconds to mindfully transition from the interruption back to your work, you will create a buffer between the two. The ideal is not to have the interruption at all. But when the ideal is not possible, taking that minute to affirmatively move back to your task will give you back many more minutes of focused work.
Unless you affirmatively take action to remove attention residue, it will steal your ability to perform your best work in the shortest time. Become aware of attention residue, take active steps to eliminate interruptions, and develop a buffer practice to neutralize the impact of interruptions when they occur. These three steps will exponentially magnify your ability to get things done and get them done well.