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This is the Best Way to Focus, Backed by Research

in Personal Productivity

I got one of my first fully functioning cell phones back in the early 2000’s.

It was a beautiful piece of technology called the Nokia 32101.

This badass phone had cutting edge features like a built-in antenna, vibrate alert function, and “picture messages” (not to be confused with actual photo messages).

But the best feature of them all was undoubtedly Snake. You know, the game where your job was to maneuver a line that grew in length for every pixel it ate?

What Snake Can Teach Us About Deep Focus

If you’ve ever played this game, you know how hard it is. The longer your snake grows, the more concentration is needed to avoid crashing into yourself and ending the round.

And if you’re interrupted and have to hit pause (for example to check out a cool “picture message”), you’ll be much more likely to fail soon after returning to the game.

As it turns out, this happens to be an excellent example of a psychological effect known as “attention residue”2.

Research has shown that there’s a cognitive cost involved with switching your attention3.

Each time you turn your attention from one task to another, the first task will leave a “residue” that reduces your cognitive performance.

And that’s the case even if the switch is very brief.

So, whenever you’re interrupted from your game of Snake, the interruption will leave a residue that affects your play negatively when you return to it.

Switching Costs at Work

Now, this article isn’t just about how to become a top-level Snake player (although that’s obviously very important, too).

The concept of attention residue is crucial to consider when you approach any kind of work.

Imagine that you’re deeply focused on a work task. Then someone or something interrupts your attention.

You might think that you’ll quickly switch back to the task once you’ve dealt with before the interruption. But, unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Each and every call, message, notification, alarm, and well-meaning colleague that knocks on your door has a switching cost.

And they’ll all leave an attention residue that gets in the way when you return to your work task.

The Myth of Multitasking

Doing a lot of things at once can make you feel highly productive. But in reality, it’s quite the opposite.

The problem with multitasking is that you’re not really doing a lot of things at once.

You’re just switching your attention between tasks in a rapid fashion. And, as we’ve learned, each one of these switches involves a cost that causes you to work slower and less efficiently.

And even if you’re usually single-tasking, it’s important to know that mixing this work with a series of small “just checks” can be just as bad as multitasking.

Every quick check of your phone, email inbox or something else leaves some amount of attention residue that affects your focus negatively.

The Best Way to Focus

The takeaway here is that deep focus requires you to work for long blocks of time without any interruptions. Here are some ideas for how to make that happen:

  • Plan proactively. Schedule time blocks for deep, undisturbed focus. Plan out exactly what you will be working on and avoid switching tasks until it’s completed.
  • Remove distractions from your phone. Take a deep dive into your phone settings and relentlessly remove all unnecessary apps and notifications. If you don’t decide your phone’s behavior, it will decide yours.
  • Remove distractions from your computer. Delete unnecessary icons, apps and programs. Remove all notifications. Have your most important programs launch automatically when you start your computer.
  • Set up commitment devices. Breaking old habits can be hard. Unless you remove the possibility of doing them, that is. Check out this list of commitment devices and implement the ones you’ll need to stay away from your usual distractions.
  • Create an interruption-free zone. Let your colleagues, family, and friends know about your deep work blocks of time. Close your office door, set your phone in “do not disturb” mode and put on some ambient music (or something else that helps you get into the zone).

I hope this helps. Now, I’m off to play some Snake. Please, don’t disturb me. 😉

Sources

  1. Nokia 3210
  2. Why is it so hard to do my work? The challenge of attention residue when switching between work tasks
  3. Multitasking: Switching costs

Thanks to…

Cal Newport, from whom I learned about the Snake example and attention residue.