Why we need to know about deep work and attention residue

concentration Aug 27, 2017

Have you heard of “deep work or attention residue”?  I recently had a discussion with a first year medical student about study habits, excelling in academics and high achievement.  He told me that he has difficulty staying focused while studying (he studies with his laptop open and frequently check emails!)  He is obviously a smart young man to have been accepted into medical school, but he has asked me several times to give him some study tips so he can learn more, and learn faster.  His goal is to be at the top of his class. 

A couple of days after our talk, I came across a book review for Deep Work, Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport (http://calnewport.com/books/deep-work).  Newport is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University in the United States. He earned his Ph.D. from MIT. 

Newport argues that in nearly every profession, better productivity and more satisfaction can be achieved by using an approach he calls deep work.  So what is deep work?  Newport explains that it “means committing to long blocks of highly concentrated work on cognitively challenging tasks without any interruption”.  He suggests that if we can manage to work deeply for several blocks each day, our productivity will increase vastly.

We all know that this is easier said than done.  How often do you have your email open, check Facebook, or other social media accounts while marking papers or planning the next day’s lesson?  I do this constantly!  If you are a student, do you study while watching YouTube or chatting with friends?  These are called self-interruptions – and rightly so.
There is a lot of research that suggests that multitasking does not work (e.g. studying while watching TV or texting while marking). This is not new information.  What is new is the research that suggests that it is harmful to constantly be shifting our attention frequently like this while we are working. Of course if we work/study in open spaces, there are many distractions due to the environment or external factors.   There isn’t much we can do about those kinds of interruptions but are you interrupted by external factors or because you shift your focus yourself?

Research suggests that we often shift our attention ourselves which doesn’t come as a surprise to me.  Let’s get back to deep work which requires a lot of effort. It is much easier and less strain on our brain to check Facebook than it is to study anatomy (to use the medical student as an example). 

Researcher Sophie Leroy has demonstrated that these types of self-interruptions can negatively affect our concentration and our task performance. The complete study is available at (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/46489122_Why_is_it_so_Hard_to_do_My_Work_The_Challenge_of_Attention_Residue_when_Switching_Between_Work_Tasks). For example, when you resume your task (e.g. marking, studying) after the interruption, attention residue occurs. This means that part of your attention is still focused on the thing you were focused on during the interruption. This is especially the case if you did not complete what you were doing during the interruption (I just responded to a text message while writing this blog post).

So how do we work more effectively as teachers or study better as students?  Newport suggests that we should take breaks that make it as easy as possible to get back into our deep concentration after the break. The best way to do this is to keep breaks short – around 10 minutes.  If you want a longer break, use it to eat or take a walk. Walking in nature is especially beneficial because it has the effect of restoring our attention.

Finally, Newport also argues that our brains require rest so we need to be realistic as to how much we can work, concentrate or study in a given day. Even a trained person, according to Newport, can only manage to work deeply for about four hours. 

Newport writes a blog called Study Hacks http://calnewport.com/blog/.  He has also written How To Become a Straight-A Student
http://calnewport.com/books/straight-a-student and How to Win at College http://calnewport.com/books/how-to-win-at-college/ 

I think these books might be just what the medical student is looking for.

Happy teaching!  Patrice

Patrice Palmer, M.Ed., M.A. TESL has 20 years’ experience as an ESL Teacher, TESL Trainer, and Curriculum Writer in Canada including 7 years in Hong Kong. Patrice has taught students from 8 to 80 years in a variety of programs such as ESP, EAP, Business English, and language programs for new immigrants in Canada. Patrice now works as a teacherpreneur doing the things that she loves such as writing courses, blogging, sharing teaching materials, instructional coaching for new teachers and travelling at any time of the year to conduct short-term training around the world. Visit https://patrice-palmer.mykajabi.com for free teaching resources.  



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