Why you suffer from "attention residue"

Do you find it hard to switch to a new task, leaving the previous task incomplete? There's a term for that, and it's got to do with how your brain works.

The act of being interrupted in one’s work is likely to hurt performance not only on the interrupted activity but also, as indicated by the present studies, on the subsequent work activity. This paper calls for understanding the consequences of interruptions and fragmented time beyond their effects on only the interrupted task.Why is it so hard to do my work? , Sophie Leroy

I recently finished my first read of Deep Work (Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World) by Cal Newport.

The thesis of Deep Work is that we do our best work when we’re (a) uninterrupted for long periods, and (b) pushing our cognitive abilities to their limits. Newport first establishes his position with anecdotes backed by studies, and then he presents several practical methods to benefit more from “deep work”

One of the first striking insights was the concept of “attention residue”.

What is attention residue?

Newport quotes a paper by Sophie Leroy, titled “Why is it so hard to do my work?”. In this paper, Leroy explores the notion that we all experience two needs:

A need to complete a task we’ve started:

The need for completion, which everyone experiences when pursuing a goal or working on a task, represents the need to attain a task goal (Lewin, 1926, 1935)

and a need for cognitive closure:

The need for cognitive closure is defined as a fundamental need for an answer, any answer as opposed to confusion or ambiguity on a given problem (Kruglanski, 1990)

Leroy then defines attention residue:

Attention residue represents the extent to which a person’s attention is only partially focused on a current activity (task or social interaction) because a prior activity is still holding part of his or her attention. More precisely, that prior activity has stayed active in working memory - up through the present - and keeps attracting attention even though one has had to engage in another activity.

Why do I continue thinking about a task once it’s finished?

What’s interesting is that because there are two needs which drive us to completion (actual task completion and further cognitive closure), it’s possible to complete a task but be unable to stop thinking about it:

To fully stop thinking about a task, people have to complete the task and reach cognitive closure. As a result, task completion may not always prevent attention residue from occurring when people switch tasks.

My personal experience is that this true, especially on particularly complex and challenging tasks, and tasks which if not done correctly, would cause later rework or further interruption for me. Often, after I finish a piece of design work, or deploy a new system or design, I continue thinking about its components (and ways I could improve them) for hours/days afterwards.

So what drives the need for cognitive closure? Basically the modern work environment:

Previous research has found that the need for cognitive closure is heightened under time pressure (Heaton & Kruglanski, 1991; Kruglanski & Freund, 1983), mental fatigue (Webster, Richter, & Kruglanski, 1996) or environmental noise (Kruglanski & Webster, 1991)

Achieving cognitive closure

If we can increase our need for cognitive closure on a task we actually complete, we reduce the attention residue and increase our ability to focus on our next task. Potential downside however, is that the greater your need for cognitive closure, more hastily you accept a solution, and the more closed-minded you are to revising your conclusion when presented with new information or ideas.

Once they have a solution, people who desire cognitive closure freeze on their position, stop processing information, and ignore any new or alternative ideas (Kruglanski & Webster, 1996). They also become very confident in their own judgments and past actions (Kruglanski & Webster, 1996), which further motivates them to stop thinking about the situation.

By contrast, people who are not motivated to get cognitive closure tend to keep thinking about a situation even after an answer has been found. They feel less confident in their solutions or decisions (Kruglanski & Webster, 1996), stay open to new information or alternative ideas (Kruglanski & Webster, 1996), and keep exploring competing hypotheses (Mayseless & Kruglanski, 1987, study 3).

Our unexpected ally - time pressure

Creating time pressure might therefore be an easy means to decrease attention residue.

The present findings reveal that time pressure on a completed task can be beneficial; it facilitates the process of transitioning to another task and thus contributes to higher subsequent task performance. By helping people reach cognitive closure on the finished task, time pressure incites them to let go of that task and therefore allows them to more fully switch their attention to the next task.

The time pressure needs to be managed and intentional though - enough pressure to promote a need for cognitive closure, but not so much as to actually prevent task completion.

There is, however, an ironical paradox associated with the combination of time pressure and task completion, as time pressure reduces the likelihood of finishing a task before one needs to switch to another. This suggests that task transitions are likely to occur in contexts that are often less favorable to task performance.

Coping Strategies

Leroy concludes with a presentation of the results of her experiments, and a note that since “single-tasking” is generally impractical, we should seek ways to manage attention residue:

Making people manage only one task at a time is not likely to be a practical solution either. The issue is then to understand what can aid people in switching tasks, that is, what can help them temporarily close their minds to one task when they must concentrate on another.

Time pressure seems to be beneficial when people complete their task, but it also makes it less likely that people will be able to finish that task. Could people anchor on having reached a milestone or an intermediate goal to temporarily close their minds to a task and thus be able to transition their attention to the next task? This is another question that future research should address. Research on mindfulness may also bring interesting insights

Here are the coping strategies I think can reduce the impact of attention residue:

  1. Before starting the task, clearly define the scope (goals, requirements) including a description of completion.
  2. Create beneficial time pressure by setting an aggressive (but achievable) deadline.
  3. For tasks that are likely to be interrupted, break the task into mini-tasks (milestones), to reduce attention residue when the inevitable interruptions occur.
  4. Add an “anchor” at the end of potentially open-ended tasks, to make the task completion more obvious. Example “The lounge is clean when the floor and all surfaces are clear of clutter”.
  5. Use interruption-friendly tools that you trust to maintain state (physical notebooks, editors that auto-save or devices and apps which sleep/wake and you trust to maintain state). More on this in an future blog post.

Do you have coping strategies? Comment below, or tweet me to discuss :)

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