Why Is It So Hard to Do My Work? The Challenge of Attention Residue when Switching between Work Tasks
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Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, vol. 109, no. 2
If you’ve ever found yourself at the office answering e-mails while on the phone, or setting up a second meeting to discuss everything that didn’t get decided in the first, this is the paper for you. Employees have too many tasks competing for their attention, the author asserts, and switching between them or worrying about one while working on another can often lead to inefficiencies. Not surprisingly, she concludes that completing one task makes it easier to focus on the next one. But, intriguingly, it seems employees enjoy this advantage only if they complete the first task on a tight deadline. The author conducted a pair of studies asking people to complete a word puzzle and appraise a candidate’s resume, giving different participants different deadlines. She found that finishing a task did not necessarily cause people to disengage from the initial job and move on to the next one. Instead, when people had no time pressure, they tended to have more “attention residue,” meaning that thoughts about how they performed on the first task affected their performance on the second. But when people finished a job on deadline, it gave them more confidence and a sense of closure. They were better able to disengage and shift their attention.
Performance improves when employees stop thinking about the last task they performed. Adding time pressure to task completion helps people shift their focus and move on effectively.