How I work: cleaning attention residue

This morning I cleaned my kitchen for Passover. Hours later, while I worked on a client project, I found myself turning to a list to scribble down yet one more thing I’d just thought of for holiday preparations. Now, as I edit this post after dinner, I’m thinking of the client work I didn’t complete this afternoon. It was a task that I expected to complete quickly, instead it’s taking three times as long (don’t worry, it’s a flat-rate project).

Let’s talk about why this is happening and how I’m resolving the issue.

In Deep Work, Cal Newport writes about attention residue, first studied by professor Sophie Leroy. Basically when you switch from task A to task B, part of task A is sticky in your attention and leaks all over your ability to focus on the next item. This is exacerbated if you don’t complete the task. Overall, “it implies that the common habit of working in a state of semi-distraction is potentially devastating to your performance”.

I couldn’t agree more. Further, it’s a very difficult habit to break. While I turn off notifications and work with time blocks, they’ve not been as effective as they could be. My email program would remain open all day and I’d frequently switch windows to see if there were new messages. Now I close it and have scheduled times to check it.

I’ve been crafting a new time-block schedule by grouping tasks, even for different clients, together. This allows me to focus on the same type of task, and hopefully complete it, before moving on to the next type of project.

For example, on my own sites, I would stagger the WordPress maintenance tasks throughout the week, updating the day before I published the next post. I’ve now changed to do them all of my own sites at once and find I spend less time overall doing these tasks. Of course, this schedule goes out the window if there’s an urgent security update, but for the most part, I find this working much better for me and my clients.

I’m making small incremental changes to my 2014 timeblock system.

Not all details are shown in the example calendar below, but it should help you visualize how I’m grouping work.


Are you plagued by attention residue and unable to work deeply? What steps do you plan to take to solve this problem?