SPARK

Distracted by interruptions? Science offers tips for focusing

How "attention residue" robs you of your focus (and what to do about it).
When we frequently switch from one task to another, it's sometimes hard to fully focus. (Pixabay)
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By Nora Young

It's the bane of workplace productivity: interruptions.

Sophie Leroy thinks we can get better at managing interruptions. She's an assistant professor at the University of Washington Bothell, School of Business, where she studies attention.

Sophie Leroy is an assistant professor at the University of Washington (Courtesy of Sophie Leroy)

Interruptions affect productivity because of something called "attention residue." When we're interrupted in the middle of a task, we don't immediately shift our full focus. Part of our attention is still on the task we left behind. "Sometimes we don't even realize that we're checking out," Leroy said.

Deadline pressure makes attention residue worse. "That feeling of time compression is going to make it more difficult to let go."

Take a couple of seconds to write down where you are, and more importantly, what you're going to do when you go back to that task.- Sophie Leroy

We can though, shift our focus more effectively with a "ready to resume" plan, Leroy argued. "Take a couple of seconds to write down where you are, and more importantly, what you're going to do when you go back to that task," Leroy explained.

She and fellow researcher Theresa Glomb observed that when people do this, "they become a lot more focused during the interrupting task, and their performance is absolutely higher," said Leroy. It needn't be an elaborate plan either. People in Leroy and Glomb's study did theirs in less than a minute.

Obviously, interruptions are necessary some of the time, but in our fast-paced information environment, people want answers now. And with email, social media, and smartphone notifications, we're often responsible for interrupting ourselves!


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The Center for Humane Technology was founded by a group of tech sector veterans determined to address what they call the "zero-sum race for our finite attention." Earlier this month, they launched a new campaign called The Truth About Tech, designed to lobby for more responsible tech design.

The comes as criticism mounts that digital technologies are designed to encourage compulsive use by consumers.

Elizabeth Dunn is a professor of psychology at University of British Columbia. (UBC Psychology)

Elizabeth Dunn is a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia. She's looked at the effect of notifications on our sense of well-being.

"When we're constantly being buzzed by our phones and reminded of this Facebook update and that incoming message…it makes it hard for us to focus," she said in a recent interview with CBC's Spark.

Even still, there are things we can do as users to firewall our attention and limit unnecessary interruptions.

"If I have my phone on next to me and I have my email open, I'm basically letting those notifications interrupt me," Sophie Leroy said.

If I have my phone on next to me and I have my email open, I'm basically letting those notifications interrupt me.- Sophie Leroy

"I would not say to someone who is constantly connected 'now disconnect for two hours'...but I might tell them 'start by 10 minutes and see how it feels.'" 

Leroy explained that people can build their capacity from there.

Personally, when I have to focus, I use the Pomodoro Technique. I set my phone timer (or better yet, the oven timer) for 25 minutes. When the timer goes off, I get a break for five (or, ok, 10) minutes. Somehow, that time-driven process short-circuits the tendency to distract myself by checking my phone.

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