Writers, Take Note: Distractions Weaken Your Words

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In the time it took me to write this thing about a new psychology paper on interruptions, I was interrupted at least seven times. (I lost count.) This is particularly worrisome given the content of this research, which found that writers who are interrupted produce fewer words, and the words they do manage to crank out aren’t as good as they might’ve been if only they hadn’t been interrupted. 

On average, workers in open offices are interrupted up to 12 times an hour, some recent research suggests. So far, most studies in this area have focused on how distractions caused people to take longer to finish a task, or how they led to more screw-ups on busywork kinds of tasks. But this paper, lead author Cyrus Foroughi told Science of Us in an email, is the first to examine how interruptions can mess with creative work — in this case, writing an essay.

In one study, students were given 20 minutes to answer an essay prompt. But while they were trying to write, the students had to answer three randomly timed questions unrelated to their essay. Each task popped up without warning and disappeared after 60 seconds — kinda like all the times I abandon something I’m writing in order to answer an email or reply to a Gchat.

Graders evaluated all the essays using a standardized scoring guide, and the people who’d been interrupted when they were writing received an average score of 3.17. Those who hadn’t been interrupted scored higher, at 3.74 on average. They also averaged about 317 more words than the participants in the distraction group.

The true if not entirely surprising takeaway here, Foroughi said, is that you should reduce external distractions when you’re trying to complete a creative task. “Turning off or silencing your cell phone and turning off notifications (e.g., email) if possible are just a few ways to reduce them,” he said. Someday, maybe I’ll take my own advice. Today is not that day.