NOTE: I apologize if the timing of this post dismayed or offended anyone — I scheduled it to post on September 29 before leaving town and internet connections behind. It was only co-incidence that it appeared the same day as the horrible train crash in Hoboken, NJ.
Imagine you’re the engineer of a long train traveling at high speed when someone interrupts you to demand you attend to a different train. Even if it takes just two minutes to tend the other train, the interruption is going to cost you a lot of time. It takes time to slow and stop a train; the longer the train and the greater its momentum, the longer it takes to stop it. It also takes time to get the first train back up to speed.
If you’re the engineer of a long train traveling at high speed and you have to shift tracks, you also lose a lot of time. Not only do you have to slow the train enough to shift the engine from one track to another, you have to continue traveling at that slow speed as long as even one car is on the original track. You can’t resume full speed until the caboose is on the new track.
If the Train Should Jump the Track…
Attention, as the metaphor reminds us, is a train of thought. When you have to shift your attention between tasks or stop one activity all together to do another, you have to drastically slow your train of thought and you won’t be able to immediately get back up to full speed. Even when you stop the first train of thought and attempt to focus on the new train, your attention will be pulled back to the first.
Sophie Leroy, business professor at the University of Washington (previously at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Business) describes this phenomena:
“Attention residue represents the extent to which a person’s attention is only partially focused on a current activity (task or social interaction) because a prior activity is still holding part of his or her attention.”
The cost of an interruption is always significantly more than the time it takes to handle the interruption.
Every time you allow your Product Time (aka writing time) to be interrupted by anyone or anything, you pay the cost of attention residue.
It will take you longer to complete the interruption because you’re still thinking about your writing project. It will take you longer to return to working effectively on your writing because you’re thinking about the interruption (even if you completed it).
Do You Want Your Attention Back?
The obvious first step is to stop interrupting your Product Time with anything not related to the project you’re focused on. Switching your attention to another writing project, e.g. “I wonder if I should write about _______ instead,” can be as costly as processing email.
Mind the gap.
Stop. Interrupting. Yourself.
Don’t let others interrupt you.
Perhaps less obviously, you can minimize attention residue by optimizing when you reserve time for writing. You’ll get more out your Product Time if it is not preceded by other activities that require focus or by activities that splinter your ability to concentrate.
This may explain why so many writers recommend writing first thing in the morning. Not only are your brain waves closest to the state where creative insights occur, there is no attention residue slowing you down or interfering with your ability to “get into” your writing.
If you haven’t looked at your email, for example, not only have you avoided fracturing your ability to focus, you don’t have to keep dragging your attention back from a multitude of distracting thoughts about email.
However, if you didn’t have a sense of completion and cognitive closure at the end of yesterday’s workday (read more about the subtle distinctions between completion and closure), you probably thought about what was left unfinished throughout the evening and possibly all night as well. Attention residue while you’re trying to sleep is a bitch.
Don’t despair if you can’t carve out Product Time first thing in the morning. You can use Process or Self-care to transition out of attention residue. Fifteen to twenty minutes is usually enough time to stop fretting, give yourself closure about what you were doing previously, and reset your focus.
You can create a brain break with a long walk, a nap, a hot bath, gardening, coloring, doodling or anything else that unplugs you from what you were doing and restores your energy.
In our next post, we’ll take a look at how you can make attention residue work for your writing.