Library / Why is It so Hard to Do My work? The Challenge of Attention Residue When Switching Between Work Tasks


One of the main insights from this research: in switching between tasks, the performance on the subsequent tasks increases when the previous task was finished and performed under high time pressure. The statistical analysis was performed unsatisfactorily, but the effect size is decent and the results look believable. However, it is not clear to which extent the results can be generalized to other tasks and other populations (some of the possible concerns are discussed in the “Limitations” section on page 179).

Introduction

There is a nice overview of the problem with a rich set of references.

Study 1 (Attention residue)

The author introduces two research propositions:

RP1: People who do not finish Task A before switching to Task B experience more attention residue from Task A while working on Task B than do people who finish Task A prior to switching to Task B.

RP2: People who finish Task A under high time pressure exhibit less attention residue from Task A while working on Task B than do people who finish Task A under low time pressure.

Design:

  • 84 undergraduate students (26 men; 58 women)
  • random assignment to the (finished/unfinished) X (high/low time pressure) between-participants design

The participants were told that they were going to participate in two separate studies crafted by different researchers. Procedure:

  • Task A (5 minutes; framing on intelligence): solving 17 clues in a fixed number of one-word answers (Appendix A)
  • Three manipulation check questions (Table 1)
    • If Task A is completed
    • Satisfaction with own performance (7-point Likert scale)
    • Consistency with the experimental conditions
  • Lexical decision task (measures attention residue): quick distinguishing of real words from fake words (Table 2)
  • Debriefing
  • Task B (5 minutes): reviewing 4 CVs

Manipulations:

  • Finished task: Task A is completed only if all 17 clues are solved in no more than 13 unique words
  • Unfinished task: Task A is completed only if all 17 clues are solved in no more than 5 unique words (non-solvable)
  • High time pressure: “Work as fast as you can”; background timer with announcement of remaining time every minute
  • Low time pressure: “Work at your own pace”

The study design feels good and is formed according to well-established recommendations by other research teams.

The author claims that the results support RP1 and RP2, but the reported effects are not impressive (Table 3).

Study 2 (Effects on task performance)

While Study 1 confirmed that completing a task under high as opposed to low time pressure reduces attention residue on the next task, the underlying mechanism was not tested. Study 2 provides such a test.

Research propositions:

RP3: People who do not finish Task A before switching to Task B demonstrate lower performance on Task B than do people who finish Task A prior to switching to Task B.

RP4: People who finish Task A under high time pressure before switching to Task B demonstrate higher performance on Task B than do people who finish Task A under low time pressure.

RP5: People who finish Task A under high time pressure are more confident in their Task A performance than are people who finish Task A under low time pressure.

RP6: Elevated confidence in Task A performance results in higher performance on Task B.

RP7: The influence of completing Task A under high versus low time pressure on Task B performance is mediated by confidence in Task A performance.

Design:

  • 78 undergraduate students (30 men; 48 women)
  • random assignment to the (finished/unfinished) X (high/low time pressure) between-participants design

Procedure:

  • A consent form and a questionnaire with a few demographic questions
  • Task A: Identical to Study 1
  • Three manipulation check questions: Identical to Study 1
  • Task B: Like Study 1, but with surprise recall after the main part (without a time limit)
  • Final questionnaire (reporting the extent of the experienced time pressure and goal commitment for Task B)

Manipulations are identical to Study 1.

The most interesting results about the performance on Task B can be found in Table 5. Here is a relevant excerpt:

Task A CompletionTime PressureMeanSD
FinishedHigh64.5721.07
FinishedLow46.9715.17
UnfinishedHigh45.1017.39
UnfinishedLow45.1019.78

Statistical notes

  • Research propositions claim the existence of the effect without speculations of the expected effect size
  • Student t-test without comments on the normality assumptions
  • Not all the p-values are specifically reported
  • No power analysis
  • No raw data available
  • Effect size is reported

Reference

Sophie Leroy “Why is it so hard to do my work? The challenge of attention residue when switching between work tasks” (2009) // Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. Publisher: Elsevier BV. Vol. 109. No 2. Pp. 168–181. DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2009.04.002

Abstract

In many jobs, employees must manage multiple projects or tasks at the same time. 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.

Bib

@Article{leroy2009,
  title = {Why is it so hard to do my work? The challenge of attention residue when switching between work tasks},
  abstract = {In many jobs, employees must manage multiple projects or tasks at the same time. 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.},
  volume = {109},
  issn = {0749-5978},
  url = {http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2009.04.002},
  doi = {10.1016/j.obhdp.2009.04.002},
  number = {2},
  journal = {Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes},
  publisher = {Elsevier BV},
  author = {Leroy, Sophie},
  year = {2009},
  month = {jul},
  pages = {168–181}
}

Quotes (1)

Multi-Tasking and Attention

Multi-tasking (i.e. doing several things simultaneously) has often been considered in terms of what people “do” and not necessarily in terms of what people “think about” or how they allocate their attention among their tasks. The present research suggests that even when people are behaviorally focused on one task and are not multi-tasking, their minds may not be com- pletely focused on the task at hand. In other words, multi-tasking may not only be due to competing simultaneous demands, like receiving an email or a text message during a meeting, but may also be a function of how the mind operates in a context where people must manage multiple tasks, activities or responsibilities at the same time.

Page 179

  1. Deep Work (2016) by Cal Newport Has notes 6 4