Jane Austen, legend has it, was continually interrupted by visitors while she sat in her family’s living room secretly writing the novels that would make her famous. Most of us, though, probably wouldn’t do our best work in that setting.
Now it's a fact. A team of researchers at George Mason University has found that people who are interrupted while writing end up producing lower-quality essays than writers who are allowed to work undisturbed. Researchers have known for a while that interruptions inhibit our ability to carry out many tasks—from detecting traffic signals to performing surgery. This study is unique, though, in looking at—and quantifying—how distractions affect the caliber of creative work.
For the initial experiment, the researchers recruited 54 students and assigned them to write a short SAT-style essay in response to a prompt on whether lying can be justified in certain circumstances. Volunteers were given twelve minutes to outline the essay and twelve minutes to write it, and were randomly assigned to one of three conditions. In one condition, the students were left undisturbed throughout the task. In another, they were interrupted during the outlining phase; in the third, they were interrupted while writing.
For students working under interruption conditions, every three minutes researchers would place a piece of paper over their work and ask them to complete arithmetic problems or word puzzles for a minute. (These interruptions didn’t count toward the total time limit.) At the end of the experiment, the researchers had two independent graders rate each essay on a scale of 0 to 6—and found that students who were interrupted produced essays that were both poorer quality and shorter. Students who weren’t interrupted at all wrote essays that scored best: an average score of 3.71, and at a length of approximately 315 words. Students who were interrupted while planning their essays scored 3.13 and wrote 307 words, and the ones who had to deal with interruptions while trying to write fared the worst, scoring an average of 3.06 points and turning in just 282 words.
“When people come back after an interruption, they move on to the next major point and don’t fully flesh out what they were working on before,” said Cyrus Foroughi, a doctoral student who co-authored the paper.
In a follow-up experiment, the researchers made a couple tweaks to the methodology, and found that the same pattern held. This time around, rather than interrupting the students at predictable, three-minute intervals, they interrupted them at random times. They also gave students 20 minutes, rather than twelve, for each portion of the task. Again, students who weren’t interrupted wrote the best essays, while those who were interrupted mid-writing performed the worst. Scores across the board were slightly higher, ranging from 3.17 for those who were interrupted while writing to 3.74 for the ones who didn’t get disturbed; giving students extra time seems to have more than made up for the unexpected interruptions.
This research, though, is not necessarily an indictment of multitasking. “There’s a difference between multitasking and interruptions,” explained Foroughi. “When you’re multitasking, you’re in control: You’re switching between tasks on your own. When you’re interrupted, someone else is structuring your train of thought. While those might seem very similar, those are two completely different paradigms. Multitasking for a lot of individuals can be entirely effective and may not have any impact on what you’re doing.”
Unfortunately, outside communications such as Gchatting and texting while you work don't count as multitasking. “Every time e-mail comes in, every time a text messages goes in, a little time goes,” said Deborah Boehm-Davis, a professor of psychology who co-authored the paper. “People think they can work and be productive in the face of all those interruptions. This work suggests that they can’t.”
“If you’re doing something important, try to reduce external interruptions as best you can,” suggested Foroughi. “Turn off your cell phone. Turn off your Twitter and e-mail notifications. You can live without them for an hour or two.”
Foroughi might be able to, but for many of us, e-mail and Twitter are integral to our jobs. We can’t lay all the blame on ourselves. Instead, we'll just have to blame it on the system.