Managing our time — and managing to stay on task and on time throughout the day — is easier said than done. That’s mainly because in addition to making each minute count and relentlessly prioritizing, we need to manage our attention, too.
Adam Grant, author and professor of psychology at Wharton, discussed the importance of attention management in a recent New York Times piece. Rather than racing to get everything done within a certain timeframe, attention management emphasizes mindfulness and self-awareness as a way of knowing when and where you are most focused.
There’s a reason it’s so hard to switch from task to task throughout the day. When thoughts about another unrelated task persist and intrude while performing a current task, they leave attention residue, and make it difficult to focus, Sophie Leroy, Ph.D., Associate Professor at the University of Washington Bothell School of Business points out.
Just like time, attention is a limited resource, and it’s something we need to learn to manage. So how can you apply attention management into our everyday lives? Here are some expert-backed tips:
We’ve all been there: We’re in the zone, working our hardest, when our phone unexpectedly buzzes. Suddenly, we’re pulled out of our work and into a new task. With the issue of attention residue, how can we stay focused?
Before your phone unexpectedly buzzes and takes you out of a task, create a “ready-to-resume plan” — a plan to return to the interrupted task before switching, Leroy suggests. At the moment you get interrupted, take a moment to observe where you are with your current task, and what you plan to do once you return to it. Her research shows that decision quality improves 80 percent when people use a ready-to-resume plan. These plans help decrease attention residue and increase performance.
“Don’t let devices dictate what you pay attention to,” Leroy suggests. Instead, designate times when you’re open to interruptions, and schedule your most routine tasks for these time slots. This way, disruption will not affect the quality of your work as much.
For more intense tasks that require deep focus, work during times that you designate as interruption-free. Switch your email or messaging system off, even if it’s for only 10 minutes, so that you can have the focused attention you need. Also, be mindful about how social media affects your attention, and consider muting any pop-up notifications.
Attention residue applies to your personal life, too. In order to set work-life boundaries, unplug at the end of your day to effectively recover. Attention residue from work contributes to burnout, stress, and sleep quality, Leroy tells Thrive. Choose a cut-off time to unplug, and stick to it.
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