Evidence shows that the methods we use to multitask are significant drains on productivity, and may be stressing our brains more than we realize.

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Multitasking is a requisite skill in today’s workplace. Sophie Leroy knows there’s no getting around that.

But Leroy, an associate professor with the University of Washington Bothell School of Business who specializes in organization science, has collected evidence that the methods and habits we use to multitask are not only significant drains on productivity, but may be stressing our brains more than we realize.

The problem, she says, is the way we rush headlong from one task to the next without attaining true closure on any of them. This creates what she calls “attention residue” where competing distractions of the past and the future prevent our being fully present to respond to the interruption.

The answer, she says, is to take 30 seconds and create a “ready-to-resume plan” when interruptions intrude on our thinking.

“The way we can survive this environment is by creating some kind of temporary closure. We all have this need for completion,” she says. “When we’re interrupted, we shouldn’t hesitate to ask people to wait 30 seconds. Take a moment, make your ‘ready-to-resume plan.’ Then they can have your full attention.”

Leroy developed the “attention residue” model by observing volunteer test subjects in a laboratory setting. By introducing a variety of interruptions in a variety of controlled settings, she was able to measure attention residue.

Leroy, who earned a Ph.D. in organizational behavior at New York University, has research interests in self-regulation as it relates to attention, leadership and ethics, with a particular focus on the effects of interruptions on attention and task performance.

Her techniques for coping with distraction have been featured on NBC News and in Time magazine.

Her tips for dealing with interruptions:

Ask for a moment.

“It may surprise people at first but it can also be appreciated because people know they have your full attention,” she says.

Make a “ready-to-resume plan.”

Think of this as a “bookmark” for your brain so it knows to pick up where it left off.

Put it in writing.

Forget about mental notes. (They tax the brain and cause attention residue.) Use paper notes, like the colorful to-do lists that festoon Leroy’s workspace.

Be mindful.

Rather than pepper colleagues with questions, write them all down and ask the person, “Is it a good time?”

“We have to create a culture where we are mindful, and ask ourselves, ‘Do I need to interrupt this person right away?’ Sometimes we have to interrupt, and it’s OK for that person to take 30 seconds to make their own ‘ready-to-resume plan,’” she says.

Seek the right setting for the task at hand.

Wide-open, shared workspaces may be the trend in office design, but they’re not always the most conducive for work.

“In an open environment, it’s very difficult to have focused attention,” Leroy says. “The brain quickly goes back and forth between the task at hand and listening to what’s going on in the room, because we can’t process two things at the same time.’’

In this sense, the distracted brain multitasks without being told to multitask.

Conserve your cognitive resources.

We have a finite amount of brain power, and every distraction and bit of attention residue drains those resources, affecting your performance.


Learn more about the University of Washington Bothell’s Executive Leadership Certificate Program for Women, Inclusion and Diversity at www.uwb.edu.