Attention Residue and Our Digital Health

Last year, I was lax with my cell phone policy with students in class.

So by the end of the year, it wasn’t much of a policy at all. It was yours truly, nagging at students to put their phones away and focus on their reading or writing, without a clear set of rules or consequences. And even though it’s important to have clear expectations for behavior in class, rules and consequences aren’t the foundation of motivating students or classroom management.

A reason behind our actions, a “why” as Simon Sinek would say, is a more powerful motivating force. The why behind my words of “put your phone away,” was an implied…because I said so.

After discovering Cal Newport and his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, a much more clear reason emerges for things like a strict cell phone policy. And it applies to the lives of teachers as well as students.

Teachers are distracted, too

Have you ever done these things?

  • Quickly, or not so quickly, check email while students work independently on a task
  • Jump back and forth between social media, work email or personal email while reading student work
  • Sit down during your prep period and flounder between a few meaningless tasks, eating away most of your time
  • Lift your head in a meeting, feeling a digital haze, after staring at your phone for 10+ minutes

Newport acknowledges that these behaviors are symptoms of living in our distracted world. And, he says, there’s only one way to combat this distraction and success. The answer is “deep work,” or sustained, focused effort on a single task. As we try to achieve deep work, there is something called attention residue that eats away at our ability to focus on a single task at a time and succeed at working on that task productively.

Newport says, “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.”

Newport cites research on attention residue but also points to a reader example. One of his readers noticed that whenever he paused his video game for a quick interruption like checking his phone, he was much more likely to fail in the game shortly after returning to the game after the interruption.

Doesn’t that sound like the few minutes it takes to get the mental motor running when you stop reading papers to check your phone?

The Insidious Danger of Task Switching

There’s almost a high that comes from multitasking in the digital age. We fly around the computer, with seven tabs open: articles, grade book, several Google Docs, email. We zip from one task to the other, quickly editing this doc, replying to that message, skimming this text. The end result is the quick passing of time, and a sense of full engagement. After all, technology is meant to be engaging, and the constant dopamine hits that come up with task switching mean that we never have to be bored. The other end results, though? We do less meaningful work.

I’ve started the education process by simply sharing the definition of attention residue with students, reminding them that I will be vigilant about ensuring that they are focusing on the task at hand, and asking them to be mindful of their impulses to check their phones or open a new tab.

All of this might sound a little trivial to some. You might argue that this is simply the world we live in, and there is no going back. And that is correct. There is no going back to the pre-digital age, but there is certainly a going forward, as we develop new tools to help students adapt to the world they live in.

Next week, I’ll talk about strategies to manage digital distractions for personal lives and the classroom.

Do you notice attention residue in your students’ or your own life? How have you tried to “clean up” the mind from digital distractions?

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