Context Switching: Attention residue

In my ongoing random series about context switching, I found this interesting study:

Why is it so hard to do my work? The challenge of attention residue when switching between work tasks

A typical workday often entails switching between several work activities, including projects, tasks, and meetings. This paper explores how such work design affects individual performance by focusing on the challenge of switching attention from one task to another. As revealed by two experiments, people need to stop thinking about one task in order to fully transition their attention and perform well on another. Yet, results indicate it is difficult for people to transition their attention away from an unfinished task and their subsequent task performance suffers. Being able to finish one task before switching to another is, however, not enough to enable effective task transitions. Time pressure while finishing a prior task is needed to disengage from the first task and thus move to the next task and it contributes to higher performance on the next task.

The earlier promise (and theory) of “multi-tasking” is a failure, and it is impossible to engage with the hybrid tools in healthcare. You can’t have patient care, paper-based tools, and a mobile device ringing to “alert” you to changes specifically. Or a completely digital system where emails (or messaging systems) distract you from your core function.

Surprise! There’s a study from Microsoft that’s on point:

A common assumption in studies of interruptions is that
one is focused in an activity and then distracted by other
stimuli. We take the reverse perspective and examine
whether one might first be in an attentional state that
makes one susceptible to communications typically
associated with distraction. We explore the confluence of
multitasking and workplace communications from three
temporal perspectives – prior to an interaction, when tasks
and communications are interleaved, and at the end of the
day. Using logging techniques and experience sampling,
we observed 32 employees in situ for five days. We found
that certain attentional states lead people to be more
susceptible to particular types of interaction. Rote work is
followed by more Facebook or face-to-face interaction.
Focused and aroused states are followed by more email.
The more time in email and face-fo-face interaction, and
the more total screen switches, the less productive people
feel at the day’s end. We present the notion of emotional
homeostasis along with new directions for multitasking
research.

These must be factored in design principles for workplace engagement for all employees.

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