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Making a Plan When Changing Tasks May Improve Focus, Lower Distraction

Posted by Lisa Cunningham | February 13, 2018 | Comments (2)

When you are interrupted from a task to switch to a new one, you may still be distracted by the unfinished work of the first task. To reduce or prevent this distracted feeling, take a moment to develop a “ready-to-resume” plan.

The distracted feeling of continued worry and thoughts about the first task is known as attention residue. Sophie Leroy, an assistant professor in the University of Washington’s Bothell School of Business, explained, “It’s like Windows staying open in our brains, and it makes it hard to focus on the intervening work. 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.”

To help the brain transition more effectively, consider where you are in the first task and where you should pick back up, what challenges are left and what actions to take next when returning to the task. This is your ready-to-resume plan.

Leroy and Theresa Glomb, Toro Company-David M. Lilly Chair in the Human Resources Department of Work and Organizations at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, conducted four studies to test the benefit of ready-to-resume plans.

In each study, participants were assigned a task with a time constraint and then interrupted for a different task. For those who had no transition plan, their performance on the second task suffered. Those who created a plan experienced reduced attention residue and improved performance, including an improvement in the quality of information retained and the ability to make better decisions with complex information.

The studies only explored how ready-to-resume plans influence the performance of the second task, but the researchers think this plan can also improve performance of the first task.

“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.”

Findings were reported in the journal Organization Science.

Lisa Cunningham headshot

Lisa Cunningham

Lisa Cunningham is ICF’s Social Media Specialist, as well as a freelance writer and social media consultant. She holds a master’s degree in professional writing with a focus on web content development from Chatham University and a bachelor’s degree in English writing and communication from the University of Pittsburgh.

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

Comments (2)

  1. says:

    Given the constancy of interruptions, especially while using a computer to accomplish tasks, I find it very helpful to write out *by hand* the high-level steps for each project I’m working on and keep them next to my computer. Then, I can check off each step as I complete it, providing me a sense of accomplishment! This is also helpful for clients who are easily distractible or diagnosed ADHD.

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