Beware of attention residue when you’re writing

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This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss a blog post written by Cal Newport…

I discovered Cal Newport (pictured above) five or six years ago via a post headlined something like: “MIT postdoc does work, writes three books and never gets home later than 5:30 pm.” Of course I read that story! Since that day, I’ve been regularly following his blog called Study Hacks.

Now an associate professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, Newport recently wrote a blog posts, headlined, “A Productivity Lesson from a Classic Arcade Game.” In it, he makes the point that allowing your attention to waver, even for a few seconds, has a big impact on productivity. Here is what he says, drawing a comparison to the arcade game “Snake.” I don’t play such games but Newport tells us that if you pause..

… the game for a quick interruption (e.g., answering a text or talking to someone who walked into the room), [you become] significantly more likely to fail soon after returning to play. These arcade struggles might not sound that surprising, but they turn out to be a great example of a psychological effect that every knowledge worker should know about: attention residue.

The research literature on attention residue, which was pioneered by business professor Sophie Leroy, reveals that there’s a cost to switching your attention — even if the switch is brief. When you turn your attention from one target to another, the original target leaves a “residue” that reduces cognitive performance for a non-trivial amount of time to follow.

This concept also acts as (another) argument for separating the tasks of writing and editing. I’ve long suggested to my clients that editing WHILE they write will simply slow down the writing process and make it more difficult. Now I know another reason why: attention residue. When you stop writing, and switch to the totally different task of editing, you’re forcing on yourself an intellectual residue (from editing)  that will reduce your cognitive performance.

Another reason to keep these two tasks — writing and editing — entirely separate!