Ever feel like in spite of your best intentions, you can't seem to complete a task? Studies show that you aren't alone. Apparently, the phenomenon known as "attention residue" may be the culprit behind your inability to concentrate on your work. What is attention residue? While there's a whole lot of science behind it, it breaks down into this scenario: You know that feeling when you're almost done with a task, and you know exactly how much time you have to finish it, but instead of actually finishing it, you respond to a bunch of emails, outline your thoughts for your next task, and make a few phone calls, all the while still thinking about your original, incomplete task? The attention residue is that lingering focus on the task you started with the best intentions but have since left behind.
Cal Newport, computer-science professor at Georgetown, delves into the subject in his new book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. To combat the effects of attention residue, Newport suggests something which makes a lot of sense: Finish the task in front of you. No, seriously, it is that simple. Focus on the task in front of you with your full effort for as long a period a time as you can muster (and if you're anything like me, it's probably longer than you give your attention span credit for).
As Tanya Bau at New York Magazine's Science of Us points out, "[When] you don’t get attention-residue issues, your output is stronger, cleaner, and just plain better from a lack of distractions." The reality is, studies show only two percent of us are actually good multi-taskers, so the majority of us need to own up to the fact that we're not working as effectively or efficiently as we could be, and it might be time to work on changing that.
Here are some tips for better focus and avoiding attention residue:
1. Put Away Your Cell Phone
And I don't just mean put it out of your sight for a minute. I mean turn it off (if your job permits this), put it in your bag, or leave it across the room. If you want to reward yourself, set a timer and look at your phone only when it goes off. This may help you focus on the task at hand for longer periods of time. But seriously, putting your phone away is a great way to achieve better focus on a regular basis.
2. Stop Checking Social Media
I know this one seems as obvious as putting away your phone, but the reality is, as a collective group we use social media a lot each and every day. For example, data released from a 2013 PEW poll found that 70 percent of people check Facebook every day, including 45 percent of people who check it multiple times a day. In a similar vein, roughly half of Instagram users checked the app on a daily basis, and I wouldn't be surprised if that number has since gone up, as Instagram's popularity is currently through the roof.
Now, there's nothing wrong with using social media, but if you're having problems finishing tasks on time, it may be a good move to make social media something you scroll through on lunch-breaks only.
3. Eat Enough
Your brain needs fuel to function. For those of us who aren't robots, that fuel comes from food. Eating a healthy breakfast is a great way to fuel your brain for the day ahead, as well as making sure you give yourself time to eat lunch. And don't skimp on the hydration! Coffee and energy drinks are definitely ways to boost your energy, but having enough fluids is integral to your brain's functioning.
4. Have Passion for What You're Doing
Even if you love your job, you likely won't be passionate about every single task. And that's OK! But don't let that be a reason your mind drifts off mid-way through a project. Remind yourself of what your goals are, and how your job ultimately fits into those. If you hate your job, remind yourself why you're doing it: Money is a valid incentive in itself, as is the fact that you can always take pride in a job well done, even if it's not part of your career goals or dreams.
So yes. If you experience difficulty focusing on the tasks in front of you, you are definitely not alone. The digital age has a lot of good stuff in it, but it also holds a lot of distractions. If you find yourself tempted to work on multiple projects at once, or even just take "mini" breaks to check your texts or Instagram feed, don't. I know, it's easier said than done, but if your work is suffering, it might be time to buckle down and focus all of your energy on the task in front of you. Plus, when your day is over, you have plenty of messages and notifications to check out!
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