Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a kingdom where the people would go to their office every morning and there, they would begin one, single task, and merrily continue doing it until they finished — without interruption or distraction — before starting the next one.
Ha, that’s definitely a fairy tale. Here, in the real world of mostly nonlinear work, a typical day at the office more likely entails constant switching between a myriad of activities — projects, tasks, conversations, meetings — punctuated by dozens of “got a minute?” interruptions.
The problem, as business school professor Sophie Leroy notes in her research paper, Why Is It So Hard To Do My Work? is: “People need to stop thinking about one task in order to fully transition their attention and perform well on another.” At the same time, it’s difficult “to transition their attention away from an unfinished task and their subsequent task performance suffers.”
Leroy calls this “attention residue” and it’s what you experience when you’re headed into a strategy meeting still preoccupied with the email reply you started to the CEO defending your latest product feature. Or, you take an unscheduled call from a client but find you’re still thinking about the vendor proposal you were in the middle of reviewing.
Part of the reason for this is the “Zeigarnik effect” where an interrupted task sticks in your mind until you’ve completed it. In 1927, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik observed that waiters at a restaurant in Vienna seemed to remember orders which were in the process of being served but forgot the details once they were completed. Back at her lab, she set up an experiment where she asked participants to do simple tasks, like solving puzzles and stringing beads, and would interrupt them half way through some of the tasks. The participants were twice as likely to remember the tasks during which they’d been interrupted than those they completed.
So, every time we switch what we’re doing,the subsequent activity gets gypped of our full attention. And you know what that means: you miss important info, fail to make creative connections and offend others with your distractedness.
Here’s a super-simple technique to bring more conscious awareness to your transitions. To override one thought with another, you need to “think” out loud: If you’ve ever said, “I have to take this” when you’ve gotten a phone call while speaking with someone else, you’re already doing this. Instead of distractedly switching to a new activity, announce to yourself: “Now I am going to ____.” As in, “Now I’m going to answer this email.” “Now I’m going to talk with Bob.” “Now I”m going to take a break.”
Ridiculously simple, I know. But really, doesn’t it have to be to get your attention?