How To: Pay Undivided Attention

When it comes to the topic of productivity, I often experience mixed feelings. Here's why:


There's almost nothing as satisfying as crossing everything off of a "to-do" list for the week. When we get things done, we experience a feeling of achievement. It's pretty simple - being productive makes us feel good and allows us to be pretty efficient. It's a win-win situation. At least most of the time... 


Unfortunately, there's also another side of the coin - we function in a culture with an unhealthy obsession revolving around productivity, results, the pursuit of success, never-ending hustle, unrealistic expectations, pushing the limit and working harder every single day. 


Sometimes it seems like our very existence boils down to being an efficient little cog in the monstrous capitalistic machine - almost as if being chronically busy is the way to live a life… In this reality one can (or even should) boast about sleepless nights spent on working or worrying about work-related issues, growing stress levels, overwhelming pressure, struggling to meet deadlines, neglecting health and so on… And I'm not talking only about the reality of the corporate world. This self-imposed work-related pressure tends to be the norm in the realm of start-ups and freelancing as well causing anxiety, sleeping issues and even burnout

How to break free from this mentality? How to find work-life balance?

Many productivity gurus all over the Internet claim that the secret lays in time management. Sure, if you're spending the majority of your day procrastinating, then it's a no brainer - you need to manage your valuable resource of time in a better way. However, I feel like most people already spend more than enough time at work. The key is not the amount of time spent on working but the quality of it. The trick, in my opinion, is in working smarter not harder. 

How many times does this scenario happen to you?

You're on a productivity roll, feeling confident and focused on your mission. Maybe you're even experiencing a flow state! All of a sudden, you receive a phone call, and the moment you decide to pick up, your attention is being fragmented between the two activities. Then, when you get back to work, it's just not the same anymore. You cannot really focus, and your thoughts keep wandering back to the potentially unpleasant or confusing call you just had with a client or a partner. "Where was I?" you may ask yourself, trying to gather thoughts and pull yourself together, re-reading the same paragraph for the 5th time. 


Deep work - it's not only the ability to pay undivided attention to a cognitively demanding task but also the title of Cal Newport's book on the topic of productivity. The author says that deep work is like a superpower in our high-tech world full of distractions (e.g. social media, constant stream of news and emails). 

When we get distracted by external stimuli or interrupted by several tasks at once, our cognitive resources shrink, according to Nobel prize winner and a psychologist, Daniel Kahneman. When that happens, we start to process information carelessly, and our overall task performance is lower. It means that the glorified multitasking that everyone talks about makes us, in fact, less productive. However, when we decide to pay undivided attention to a certain task or activity, we're more intellectually alert, and our cognitive effort is increased. In short - we have the power to achieve better results in less time. Pretty cool, huh? 


The only issue is that we don't do that anymore. Statistically, our ability to focus on just one task over a long period of time is not the best. The younger the generation, the more you can observe the trend of having a narrowing attention span. Don't worry, though. We're not doomed to go down that path...


Being aware of the issue is a first step towards making a change, so let's take it together, shall we?


"Attention, just like time, is a limited resource and we need to learn to manage it well", says Dr Sophie Leroy, an Associate Professor of Management at the University of Washington, who dedicated a big part of her academic life to researching the topic of attention residue.


Attention residue is defined as a specific example of ruminative thoughts that occur when we're switching between tasks. What happens is our attention cannot easily make the smooth transition. Our focus remains located on the prior task instead of the current one. In that setting, the prior task attracts the majority of our attention, even if we really need to engage in another activity. Attention residue tends to be triggered and recur even when the thoughts are not relevant to the present moment. 

"Because people have limited cognitive resources, they must fully transition their attention from one task to another in order to maximise the cognitive resources available for the subsequent task", Leroy explains.

How to switch your attention fully from one task to another?

We usually focus on tasks that we're motivated to complete. There are two major kinds of motivation associated with attention residue: 

  • The need for completion:

This need is basically the desire to keep working on a task until it's finished. Thanks to this need, we're able to persist and keep on going despite difficulties as well as quickly pick up our task where we left it. On a cognitive level, though, the unmet goals attract our attention like a magnet. In turn, automatic and unintentional thoughts related to the uncompleted goals linger in our minds hours after work, and they spill into our personal lives (which I'm sure you all know from personal experience). Sometimes the attention residue can cause sleeping issues and insomnia. 


Naturally then, when we try to switch from an unfinished task to another one, the quality of our work is low and attention scattered all over the place since we're internally conflicted. After all, the desire to be done with the previous task is really strong. However, when we finish one task, and we move onto the next one, the transition is super smooth! Mental clarity - check, motivation levels - check, deep focus - check! We are ready to continue our deep work...


  • The need for cognitive closure:

When people want to reach cognitive closure, they need to find an answer or a solution to a given task in order to stop processing the information and disengage from the goal. It does not push us, however, to stop thinking about the completed task. Sometimes we tend to overthink the solutions that we came up with, looking for a better idea. We keep coming back to the complex issue connected to the project that we're currently working on. The extent to which people can relate to this issue of overthinking varies, depending on the strength of the need for cognitive closure that they represent.


Those who don't really want to reach closure tend to keep thinking about a finished task, conversation, meeting etc. even after the conclusion was reached. On the one hand, these people experience less confidence regarding their decisions and applied solutions. However, they're willing to continue exploring other alternatives with an open-minded posture. 


On the other side of the spectrum, there are those who represent a strong need for cognitive closure, and once it's reached, they disengage from the task and stop everything. Then they block out new ideas and ignore alternatives, but at the same time, they're very confident in their judgments and actions that were taken.


Leroy's research also proves that it is much easier to switch attention between tasks when a cognitive closure is reached under high time pressure. On the contrary, when we have a lot of time to finish a task, we're more prone to exhibit attention residue, we're definitely less motivated to reach the cognitive closure and, as an effect, our performance is of low quality. After all, isn't it why we all tend to procrastinate more or less? Nothing as motivating (and stressful) as a quickly approaching deadline! 


One last piece of Sophie Leroy's wisdom is actually a great solution to the problem of our workflow being interrupted - a "ready-to-resume" plan. When you're being interrupted, take a moment to pause. Look at your project, observe where you're at, what your next step would be and note it all down. It usually takes just a minute, and it improves the decision quality once you get back to your work by 80%. The "ready-to-resume" plan not only decreases attention residue, but it also increases performance.

Do I still have your undivided attention? I hope so because it's time for the tips on applying attention management in our everyday lives!

TIP #1: "Pay attention to what consumes your attention".

It can be a bit overwhelming to be mindful of everything we do during working hours. All the distractions that "eat up" our attention can be a start. Ask yourself this:

  • Do I sometimes catch myself mindlessly scrolling through social media even though I only wanted to make one phone call?

  • Do I sometimes end up in the whirlwind of emails even though it puts me out of the creative flow needed for my work? 

Don't give your phone the power to dictate what you pay attention to. Phone away. Emails away. When it's work time, it means giving your undivided attention to your job.

TIP #2: Create a working environment that fosters deep focus.

It really is a game-changer to be aware of your surroundings while working. Observe the quality of your work with no distractions vs when being interrupted. Ask yourself this:

  • What helps me get into the deep focus zone?

  • What fosters my productivity?

Maybe you need to pick a certain time of the day dedicated exclusively for checking emails or making phone calls?

Maybe you would like to work with music that can put you in the right mood?

Try out different things, experiment a little, have fun with it…

TIP #3: Complete a task before switching to another.

If you want to perform as good as you can, keep in mind that your need for completion will not rest until you finish a task. Only then you can switch to another task and give it all you’ve got. Try to remember that when planning out the tasks for the day.

TIP #4: Consider applying time pressure to some tasks

If some tasks make you question yourself and lose self-confidence, try working on them with self-imposed time pressure. Since it's been scientifically proven to help lower attention residue, why not try it out? It's also good to put time limits on those activities that consume too much of our attention otherwise. I love setting a timer (often burning a 15 minute incense) and focussing deeply during that time.



TIP #5: Have a mindful ritual of unplugging after work

This is an essential point for many reasons, one being the beneficial role of rituals and routines in our daily lives. 


Attention residue also applies to the personal sphere of our lives. The role of a mindful ritual here is the signal it can send to our brains that says: "It's time to relax now, work time is officially over." Once you unplug, you can recover more effectively. 


Choose a specific time, a ritual and stick to it. Whether it's burning incense, having a meditation with a linen eye pillow or even drinking herbal tea in your favourite mug, the act of performing your ritual will definitely help you manage your attention and set the work-life balance. 

There's nothing left but to ask: what are your ways to achieve deep focus at work or in personal life? Let us know in the comments below!

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