How to Reduce Attention Residue With ADHD

Let’s face it… staying focused for an extended period of time is challenging for most human brains.

With today’s distracting environment constantly vying for our attention, it’s no wonder we feel pulled in so many directions. 

Add ADHD to the mix, and our challenge to focus goes next level.

So what can we do?

person multitasking

First, it’s important to remember that distraction is literally a symptom of ADHD, which means it IS going to happen.

Sorry.

But there are also ways we can support our brains to increase focus and mitigate distraction. 

How?

By reducing a phenomenon known as “attention residue.”

Want to learn how?

Then tune into episode 167 of the I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast.

You can listen to the episode above or stream it on any of your favorite podcasting apps. Simply search for “I’m Busy Being Awesome.” 

Prefer to read? No problem! Keep scrolling for the entire podcast transcript.

In Episode 167: How To Reduce Attention Residue With ADHD, You’ll Discover… 

  • What attention residue is
  • How to recognize when it shows up
  • Strategies to reduce attention residue and increase focus

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Episode #167: How to Reduce Attention Residue With ADHD (Transcript) 

What is attention residue

Hello, everyone! How are you? Today we’re talking about attention and focus though the lens of something called attention residue, which I think you’re going to find fascinating.  

Here’s what I’ve found to be true for us as humans on the planet – whether we have ADHD or not. Giving our undivided attention to something – quite frankly – happens very rarely, except when we’re in hyperfocus.

Now, this isn’t news, right? I mean, for us ADHDers, trouble focusing is literally a symptom of ADHD. But again, I think we see this with most people in our world right now, which makes sense when we take into consideration our incredibly distracting environment. 

In any given day, we’re constantly transitioning from one activity to the next. We go from checking our email to attending meetings, answering phone calls, replying to text messages, and then returning to those never-ending emails.

Now, when we switch from task to task, we probably assume that our attention will follow, right? But here is where things get interesting… because that assumption is rarely accurate. Rarely do we take our full attention with us when we switch. 

In fact, this constant task switching due to all of these external distractions has worsened our attention span overall, largely due to this concept of  “attention residue.”

For those of us with ADHD, we already deal with short attention spans, so when we add attention residue to the mix, it’s simply making things even harder. 

And that’s exactly why we’re shining a spotlight on this today. I think it’s important that we have awareness of it.

So today, we’re going to explore what attention residue is and what methods we can use to reduce attention residue so that, in turn, we can support our focus and complete the things we want to do each day.

Before we begin, I want to highlight two important reminders:

  1. Attention is a mental muscle. Just as we need to lift weights to strengthen our physical muscles, we need reps and practice to strengthen our attention muscles. It takes practice. This isn’t a one-in-done thing. 
  2. If you have ADHD, distractibility will be there at times. That’s what it means to have ADHD. So as you hear me talk about the potential impact of task switching and distraction, please don’t use this information against you thinking, “well crap… I guess I’m screwed since I have ADHD.” That is not the message I’m sharing today. 

The message I’m sharing is to raise our awareness of the external distractions that pull us from our focus so we can reduce them as much as possible. 

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What is Attention Residue?

Let’s start with talking about what the meaning of attention residue is.

Specifically, I want to illustrate this by thinking first about one of its biggest contributors: multitasking. 

So many of us secretly think we can multitask. We believe that we can be more productive by doing two things at once. But I promise you, for 98% of the world’s population, this isn’t the case. 

The truth is that, as remarkable as the brain is, multitasking is not a thing it can do. Instead, it constantly switches back and forth between tasks, resulting in a whole lot of lost time.

In fact, multitasking is one of the most unproductive activities we can do.

We think we can treat our attention like a light switch and simply turn it on and off on certain tasks or ideas. But this isn’t the case. 

Example

Let’s say you’re reading an article, and then you decide to go and write a “quick” email to your kid’s teacher.

As you switch from reading to writing, your attention is now in two places.

A part of your attention remains with the article, while the rest is with the email. In other words, you can’t give your full attention to the email because your attention is spread across two different tasks.

Your cognitive capacity is now compromised. 

In fact, even if you decide to return to the article, you won’t come back with the amount of attention you had initially, because you left another part behind with the email. At that point, you would officially be experiencing the phenomenon called “attention residue.”

Attention residue, is a term coined by Professor Sophie Leroy, and it’s – quite frankly – entirely at odds with how we would like to operate. It happens when part of your attention remains fixated on another task instead of focusing fully on the current task at hand. 

As we’ve talked about in other episodes, it’s like having a bunch of open, unfinished loops all vying for your attention.

Or it’s as if your mind has way too many “tabs” open in your brain, and they each take part of your attention.

This is exactly why jumping from task to task makes giving anything our full focus impossible. Our attention leaves a residue on each of the individual things. 

Dr. Leroy, who’s an associate professor at the University of Washington, published a paper in 2009 on this very topic. She demonstrated how constant task switching due to external distractions from our environment ultimately affects our performance.

In her experiments, she ultimately found that people struggled to transition their attention when switching away from an unfinished task because part of their attention remained on the original. In return, the next activity they were going to work on also took a hit.

The Relevance of Attention Residue Today

Now, it’s no secret that today we constantly have distractions and demands vying for our attention. And because of this, our attention capacity is watered down over the day as we switch from one thing to another. 

It’s not surprising that by the end of the day, we look at our planner or think back on the day and wonder what on earth happened. We’ve spent the whole day running around to finish things, but don’t have much to show for it.

Since this distractible behavior has been normalized, we consider it harmless. But the psychologist Gerald Weinberg, each switch can take anywhere between 20 to 80% of your daily productivity supply.

That’s a HUGE amount. And it builds up so much attention residue. 

The Consequences of Attention Residue

As you may have noticed yourself, when we start building up this attention residue, it not only impacts our productivity but also starts creeping into other areas of our lives.

Attention Residue Can Impact:

  • Our ability to deeply connect with others and listen to their stories because we’re always focused on something else.
  • How we think and problem-solve at a high level. We might have a hard time doing deep work and have reduced accuracy and more errors in our work.
  • Decision making and processing information.

I tend to think of attention residue like looking out a super dirty windshield into the sun vs. a windshield straight out of the car wash on a clear day. That residue makes a difference.

Since it’s safe to say most people listening to this deal with attention residue on some level, we want to begin by building our awareness of what attention residue is, which is exactly what you’re doing right now.

Once we know about it, we can start observing our own actions and thoughts and feelings throughout the day when we notice ourselves switching from one thing to the next, creating that additional residue.

We can get curious about those thoughts and feelings and then they pop up most often,  driving us to distraction.

How to Reduce Attention Residue

woman focusing on computer

Then once we raise our awareness, and we find the common places attention residue most often shows up, then we can start putting supports in place to curb it as much as possible.

Here’s what I believe to be true: Distractions and interruptions are not going anywhere. So, we want to equip ourselves with strategies to help mitigate them as much as possible.  

1. Practice Mindful Switching

Dr. Leroy has found that by asking yourself two specific questions, you could increase your focus and performance the next time you return to a task after being interrupted. Part of her research has looked at what happens when people take a second to note where they are and what they want to do when they return. This takes less than a minute to do.

Next time you find yourself transitioning from one task to the next, stop for a second and write down:

  1. Where you are
  2. What you want to do next when you return

I think this is especially important and helpful when you have clear interruptions. Someone needs you, you get a phone call, you have to jump on a Zoom meeting, etc.

An important factor here is writing these notes down.

By writing them down, you allow your brain to let go of one task and allow it to relax so you can focus on the next.

Plus, it’s easier to return because you’ve left yourself the map to get back into it. This little bit of active awareness will help you perform much better on the interrupting task as well as the one you’ll eventually return to.

2. Schedule Your Time

Our society loves to-do lists, and for the right reasons. There’s no way we can keep everything we have to complete by the end of the day organized elegantly in our minds. The issue is many of us stop at a list. 

For many brains, however, it can be really helpful to have clear containers of time when you’ll work on your separate tasks.

When you’re working from a never-ending to-do list, knowing you can work on anything at any time, you’re opening up so much room for attention residue.

However, when you create blocks of time, whether you’re time blocking, batch working, or choosing three things to work on that day and guestioning the time you’ll work on each one, you’re reducing the residue by making active decisions on what you will and won’t focus on that day.

3. Batch Your Tasks

Another powerful way to reduce your attention residue is to practice batching your work. This isn’t possible with all roles, but if you have this available either at home or at work, it can be impactful.

For example: I might batch write my email newsletter for a few hours because once I get into that flow I can practice single tasking on that same type of task without needing to shift gears as much.

From there, I can build in a break to stretch me legs and clear my mind and then come back for the next batched task of recording podcasts or editing recordings. 

When we can batch our projects and focus only on them, that’s again reducing the chance for external distractions and unnecessary transitions and residue building up as you move from one thing to the next.

4. Manage Your Phone & Notifications

I would argue that most attention residue is caused by the hundreds of distractions emitted from our phones and computers.

The solution: Don’t give your phone or other computer applications the chance to grab your attention in the first place.

When working, you can try switching all notifications off. Not on a lower volume, not on vibrate, off. We get so intrigued by a ping that we quickly put aside our current task to reply to a message. So, next time, try putting your phone on airplane mode, “do not disturb,” or use an anti-distraction app.

The same goes for all the beeps, dings, badges, and red dots on our computers as well. These notifications continually create attention residue, pulling us away from our current focus.

So I encourage you to be intentional about the apps you have on your phone and computer in the first place.

  • Do you want them there?
  • Do you use them?
  • Are they supporting you?

If so, how can you reduce the notifications – at least during work hours and connection time with people – so you can focus on what you want to do with greater ease?

We already have ADHD, our brain is distracting enough on its own. Let’s do ourselves a favor and cut out the additional distractions, too

5. Add Stimulation

This one is mainly for ADHD brains. For some people with ADHD, it can be helpful to enhance the existing stimulation with some kind of automatic task.

This is because doing mundane, boring activities leave our brains feeling understimulated, which can lead to physiological discomfort.

This, in turn, makes it more challenging to stay engaged and complete tasks, which is was propels us to start seeking distractions by scrolling Instagram or getting a snack or checking our email, etc.

Adding stimulation while working can help our ADHD brains stay focused on a more demanding task for longer. So you might try:

  • Playing with a fidget or a worry stone.
  • You could use a standing desk
  • Listen to binaural beats
  • Crochet
  • Play with a rubber band or paper clip while you’re working on a task.

As long as they are truly automatic tasks that aren’t pulling away your focus (not grading responses or answering emails – but truly automatic), this can be a great way to provide the stimulation your restless brain needs while helping you zoom in, reduce your attention residue, and maintain greater focus.

Recap & Next Steps

This was a lot of information that I threw at you today, but I think it’s important.

So thanks for sticking with me. Let’s do a quick recap.

Attention Residue happens when part of our attention remains fixated on another task instead of focusing fully on the current task at hand.

It shows up in so many different ways in our current life – both at home and at work – and it’s impacting not only our productivity levels, but also our problem-solving, decision-making, and ability to connect deeply with others.

To help Deal With attention residue:

  1. We want to gain awareness of when and how often it happens.
  2. Make notes to ourselves when switching tasks.
  3. Use mindfulness strategies such as scheduling our time rather than working from a to-do list, managing our phone and computer notifications, and for those of us who benefit, incorporating some additional stimulation through an automatic task so you can focus deeply on the important project at hand.

If you’re ready to take the concepts you’ve learned and apply them to your life, as well as support your ADHD in a way that works for YOU within a small, supportive community, check out my group coaching program, We’re Busy Being Awesome.

You Learn How To:

  • Work with your brain in a way that’s best for you
  • Create that optimized schedule that fits your brain
  • Coach yourself with self-compassion, so that you’re able to step out of procrastination or distraction and into action so you’re finishing the projects and tasks that matter most to you
  • Truly boost your productivity through an increase in your effectiveness and efficiency while working with your ADHD brain

If this sounds like your jam and it’s what you’re looking to do, be sure to head to imbusybeingawesome.com/group. We are enrolling now for the next cohort, and I’d love to have you join us.


Want To Join Our Group Coaching Program?!

I will be opening the doors for the next cohort of We’re Busy Being Awesome in a couple of weeks!

Add your name to the waitlist so you’ll be the first to know about program dates and times, plus how you can sign up if it’s a great fit for you.


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