Staff Can't Concentrate? Eliminate "Attention Residue"

Are you getting whiplash from all the back and forth interruptions throughout your day?

From the constant ping of emails, texts or instant messages, to people popping their heads in your office door, today's workers are pulled in so many different directions it's making them less effective. One researcher called it a "perpetual state of semi-distraction" and suggested the residue of the prior tasks lingers in the mind, which lessens your effectiveness on the task at hand.

Sure, multitasking is a skill but the studies show that having 12 tabs open on a browser while sitting on a conference call and receiving a text is actually lessening your ability to perform well on the task at hand. Unfortunately, this may be a side effect of our digital society, and something that most people take for granted now as normal.

What can be done about our collective "attention residue"? How can workers change their approach when, literally, everyone is working this way now? Could focusing on just one task at a time actually improve productivity and ultimately help reduce the amount of time you spend at work?

What is "Attention Residue"?

The research highlights a common workplace problem that many people aren't even aware of: being pulled in too many directions to be completely effective on any one task. The idea of "attention residue" is that when you switch to a new task, the thoughts from the prior task linger in the back of your mind, making it harder to fully concentrate. This reduces your cognitive capacity, making the new task take longer to complete. Lab studies proved this theory and linked attention residue with lower on-the-job-performance. One article said the quality of decision-making could be reduced along with the ability to recall details.

Psychology Today agrees, and states that multitasking wastes up to 40 percent of your true productivity. They suggest that humans cannot really fully concentrate on more than one thing at a time, so "multitasking" is really "task switching." They compiled the most recent research and found:

  • It takes more time to get tasks completed if you switch between them, than to just complete one thing at a time.
  • You make more errors when task switching.
  • You lose productivity, due to the attention residue tied to your last task.

If multitasking truly doesn't work, then what should the average employee do to improve their productivity, especially with all the distractions you typically face?

Practical Productivity Tips to Kill Attention Residue

To eliminate some of the distractions you take for granted each day, here are some practical ways to help block your time to increase productivity:

  • Prioritize tasks and work on the most important things first. As the day progresses, you're likely to feel more stressed because you're behind in your task goals. By prioritizing the most important tasks first, and then focusing completely on getting them done, you'll be able to spend the rest of the day putting out fires.
  • Start slow, but concentrate fully. Now pick the first task on the list. To eliminate attention residue, start with a one- or two-hour increment where you focus on just one thing. Turn off instant messaging and email, mute your phone, and put up a "do not disturb" sign on your door if you have to.
  • Batch process your emails, texts, and instant messages. Try setting time aside at various points in the day to review and respond to emails. Do the same for any other type of communication channels you typically use. This will help you eliminate some of the multitasking that crops up all day long.

It may feel very strange at first to change the behaviors that have become ingrained in today's digital world. But it's worth trying these techniques to at least see if they help you feel more productive.

Improve Your Focus and Productivity With the Right Staffing Partner

If you and your team feel pulled in too many directions, consider the ways a staffing and recruiting partner could help. Staffing agencies can:

  • Provide qualified supplemental workers to perform tasks that distract your staff from high-priority work that adds greater value to your organization.
  • Improve your HR team's focus by handling the myriad tasks associated with finding and hiring great employees. This frees your human resource team to concentrate on more strategic functions such as performance management, training, culture improvement, and policy development.