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How 'attention residue' affects the way we work

Shot of a young businesswoman looking stressed while being overwhelmed with requests from her colleagues in a modern office
Research suggests we aren’t actually built to multitask successfully. (Getty)

Much of our working day is spent trying to multitask. You’ve got dozens of emails to answer, meetings to prepare for and a project to finish, as well as an employee and an intern to manage. To try and get things done, you switch from task to task — but end up doing a botched job on your work, while scribbling some rushed notes for your presentation.

Many of us pride ourselves on our ability to juggle several things at once. But research suggests we aren’t actually built to multitask successfully. In fact, having lots of tasks and projects to think about at once divides our attention in a way that reduces our performance.

Sophie Leroy, an associate professor of management at the University of Washington, calls this problem “attention residue”. In a 2009 paper, Leroy studied how people are far less productive when they are constantly moving from one task to another, instead of focusing on one thing at a time.

READ MORE: Should we be taking microbreaks to get us through the day?

This is because we are still thinking of a previous task as we start the next one, even if the first is completed. Without your full focus and attention, the quality of the second tasks suffers.

“We live in a world where we are bombarded with stimuli from the moment we wake until the moment we sleep,” says Lee Chambers, an environmental psychologist and wellbeing consultant. “And with the tasks involved in our everyday lives increasingly diverse, and our attention constantly being fought for by an innumerate amount of applications, we have been gradually been led to the fallacy that we can multitask effectively.”

When we are focused on a task, we are thinking about both the task, and subconsciously the rule set for that task, Chambers explains.

“When we switch, we have to disconnect from the previous task, load up the new rule set, and then connect to the new task,” he says. “This often feels like the flick of a switch, as a modern human in society today we are often endlessly switching like a light, on and off hundreds of times a day.”

Although we can multitask, Chambers explains we can only do this effectively when one activity requires a very low level of focus. For example, we can walk and talk. “But as soon as both tasks require some level of focus, we are ineffective and we start to shift focus between each task, which not only causes us to context switch but to lose focus on one task. This quite often leads to mistakes,” he says.

Constantly switching between tasks is also mentally draining, too. Over the course of a typical day, constantly moving focus from one thing to another takes its toll, which can make us feel tired and cause us to make mistakes.

READ MORE: How to practice self-care when you're self-employed

So what can we do to help improve our ability to focus and concentrate on the task at hand?

According to Chambers, training our focus is similar to training our bodies at the gym. “We don't spend two minutes on the treadmill, then run to the exercise bike, then straight to the weights, throw them around, run and jump in the swimming pool, swim a length and then go jump into the squat rack,” he says. Instead of trying to do too much, it’s better to get fewer things done to a higher standard.

We should plan our schedules for sustained attention by taking regular breaks. “For every ten minutes we are deeply focused, we should look to disconnect deeply afterwards for two minutes,” Chambers says. “In that time, we should be avoiding technology and further stimulation so we can fully disconnect.”

While it might be difficult, remove distractions if you know you have to do something that requires more focus. This might mean putting your phone on airplane mode, closing all other browsers and logging off Slack.

READ MORE: Five ways to reduce screen time when working from home

It can also help to bunch together tasks that have similar “rule sets” so the cost of switching is less, Chambers adds. “Look to utilise our deep work blocks for meaningful work, and save our smaller less focused tasks for when we have already worked deeply,” he says.

“This advanced planning, along with clear communication of your boundaries will give you the space to practice your concentration.”

⁠Careers clinic
⁠Careers clinic