Small Distractions Are Making You A Terrible Writer, Says Science

Close. That. Tab.

A new study finds what we've suspected all along: Interruptions are terrible for your writing. Consider this incentive to close your tabs.

Researchers, led by Cyrus Foroughi, a PhD candidate at George Mason University, designed a simple writing experiment to test the assumption that even small interruptions can quantitatively hinder the creative process. It consisted of two similar experiments with a few small design differences, which we'll get to in a bit.

The first experiment

In one trial, researchers asked 54 students to write an SAT-style essay. Each student had 12 minutes to outline an essay and another 12 minutes to write it. Fun!

Participants were divided into three groups. The first was allowed to outline and write the entire essay uninterrupted. A second group, on the other hand, was interrupted every three minutes during the planning and outlining portion. (These interruptions consisted of easy math problems or word puzzles, each of which took about a minute each but didn't eat into the 12-minute time limit.) And a third group was interrupted every three minutes during the writing phase. Those essays were then graded on overall quality on a scale of 0 to 6 by independent graders.

The result: Researchers found that students who were interrupted during the writing phase scored consistently lower than their peers. Participants who were in the undisturbed group, on the other hand, not only received higher grades than everyone else, but also wrote more, too. (Volunteers who were distracted during the outlining phase fell in the middle.)

"People don't realize how disruptive interruptions can be," said Foroughi. "There is value in determining whether interruptions affect the quality of the tasks that many people perform regularly, such as writing essays or reports."

The second experiment

In the follow-up experiment, researchers again had a few students write an SAT-style essay, but this time they were given 20 minutes to plan it out and 20 minutes to write it. Another difference: Researchers also didn't interrupt the two control groups at regular three-minute interviews; they interrupted them at random times.

The result? Same deal. After grades were dispensed, those who were disturbed during the writing portion performed measurably worse than their peers, while participants who breezed through the full 40 minutes without interruption performed markedly better by just about every metric.

For you, vital cog of the modern workforce, the implications can be useful. "If you're doing something important, try to reduce external interruptions as best you can,” Foroughi told the New Republic. "Turn off your cell phone. Turn off your Twitter and email notifications. You can live without them for an hour or two."

In practice, though, falling into a work groove is easier said than done, especially if you have the type of boss who, say, fires off a new email every 15 minutes. It's understandable that you would want to reply right away!

And some studies have shown that, depending on the nature of the task, interruptions might even be useful once in a while, especially if task B forces you to think critically about task A.

But a little mindfulness, even if it means closing your browser for small intervals, can go a long way toward helping you produce non-half-assed work you might actually feel okay about. Twitter will still be there when you're done, yenno.

[h/t: The New Republic]

[Image: Flickr user Sebastien Wiertz]

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4 Comments

  • I think I'll be sending the findings of this study to everyone I know. Both my partner and I sometimes work from home and our friends/family often don't understand that when we are at work, we are at work and can't stop for chats, coffees, instant messages, errands etc.

    Of course even at the office it can be difficult to find a block of time where you are unlikely to be interrupted. And then there are the times when you are your own worst enemy because you just 'have to' check your email again.

    Maybe the only answer is to find yourself a cabin in the woods where there is no mobile phone coverage and no internet connection.