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Distracted? Use This Hack to Get Back On Track

by Katie Moritz
February 7, 2018 | Work

We all have days at work when we feel that, try as we might, we just can't get anything done. Constant interruptions—by meetings, urgent tasks or technology—can leave you feeling stressed at the end of the day. Hopping from one task to another and back again can make your head spin.

Experts on distraction have discovered an easy method for staying focused on whatever you need to accomplish in that moment. It's called a "ready-to-resume plan," and you can make one today.

Scrubbing away attention residue

Distracted pbs rewire
Source: University of California, Irvine

For a lot of people, getting into a groove at work is the most satisfying feeling in the world; and for most, a groove like that doesn't happen too often. If your job requires constantly jumping from task to task, you may find yourself ruminating on something you were doing 30 minutes ago.

Sophie Leroy, an assistant professor in the University of Washington Bothell School of Business calls those lingering worries "attention residue," and they can prevent you from focusing and hitting your deadlines.

The brain is like a computer that slows down when too many programs are running, she said in a UW news release.

“It’s like windows staying open in our brains, and it makes it hard to focus on the intervening work," she said. "As I am still thinking about Task A while trying to do Task B, I don’t have the cognitive capacity to process those two tasks at the same time and do a perfect job on both tasks. It’s not cognitively possible.”

Leroy and Theresa Glomb of the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management conducted research about the best ways to eliminate attention residue. A ready-to-resume plan can help, and it can also help you transition back to the first task more seamlessly.

How to create your ready-to-resume plan

It's easy, and it only takes a minute. When a new priority pushes its way to the top of your agenda, simply jot down where to pick up later, what challenges you're still facing and what actions you need to put off now. Keeping a small notebook and a pen easily accessible saves you time when you need to make the transition.

Distracted pbs rewire
Source: University of California, Irvine

Leroy and Glomb conducted a series of studies to determine the effectiveness of this little to-do note. By asking more than 300 people across four different scenarios to either write a ready-to-resume plan or not, the researchers learned that taking this small step does make a big difference in productivity.

“What I show is that people who have done the ready-to-resume plan make better decisions and recall more information... that they just read,” Leroy said. “It’s an improvement in performance, both in quality of information retained and in the ability to make decisions with complex information.”

In other words, the people who wrote down their plans focused more on the next task and performed better overall. The next time someone asks you to suddenly switch gears, ask for a minute and write your future self a note.

“We have to proactively manage the way we transition between tasks to help our attention be more focused and less distracted or divided among everything we have on our plate,” Leroy said. “The ready-to-resume plan is one simple way to help when dealing with frequent interruptions.

“In doing so, we actually also help the person who interrupts—because we will be more present in that interaction and our input will be of higher quality.”

Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz was Rewire's senior editor from 2016-2020. She is a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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