Having worked as a freelance writer almost my entire career, I know a lot about multitasking. I’m usually juggling half a dozen or more projects at one time (often while traveling), and each comes with its own barrage of e-mails, phone calls, meetings and other must-be-dealt-with-now demands.
And in the midst of all these interruptions, I have to find some way of focusing long enough on my computer screen each day to, as they say in some journalism circles, “produce copy.”
When you freelance, the incentive to stay focused is especially strong, as you get paid only when you complete your work.
So, it was with considerable interest (and a bit of dismay) that I read a study published last week in the journal Human Factors. In the study, a team of researchers from George Mason University looked for the first time at the effect of interruptions on the quality of a person’s work, not just on how much longer it took to finish a task or on how many errors it caused.
And the work they gave their study’s participants? A writing assignment.
The researchers found that interruptions negatively affected the quality of the writing, even when participants were given plenty of time to finish the assignment.
Because so many people are expected to multitask at work — and at home — these days, researchers have been busily investigating its effect on the performance of various tasks. They have found, for example, that the typical office-bound employee is interrupted up to six times per hour and shifts tasks every three minutes.
They have also found, not surprisingly, that interruptions increase how long it takes to complete an assignment and that they reduce the overall accuracy of the performance of a task — drivers are more likely to fail to see a traffic light in time, for example, and doctors are more likely to skip a step during a medical procedure.
But nobody had looked, apparently, at whether interruptions caused the overall quality of work to suffer beyond the number of errors made or the time it took to finish the task.
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To study that topic, the authors of the current study chose “a complex, creative thought task that mirrors a common real-world task”: outlining and writing an essay. They recruited 27 George Mason students (18 women and 9 men) whose average age was 23.6 years and who were fluent in English.
Each student was assigned, at different times, three different essay topics from stock topics created by the College Board. They were told they would have 12 minutes to outline their essay, using paper and pen, and then an additional 12 minutes to write the essay on a computer.
During the outlining and writing of one of the essays, the students were left to complete the task uninterrupted. While working on the other two essays, the students were given “interruption tasks” at three set intervals during either the outline or writing phase of the assignment. Those tasks consisted of answering a series of unrelated questions (involving American history, math, problem solving, or unscrambling words) and lasted for one minute. Three minutes were added on to the student’s overall time so that they still had a total of 12 minutes to complete the outline or to write the essay.
Two independent graders, who had been trained on how to evaluate and grade essays, read and scored each essay, and those scores were averaged to come up with a final score.
The researchers found that the scores were significantly lower when the students were interrupted during the outline and writing phase of the task than when they were not interrupted (about a half point, on average, on a six-point grading scale). It didn’t matter if the interruptions came during the planning or the writing stage of the assignment — both led to lower scores.
In addition, the study found that the students tended to write considerably fewer words when they were interrupted during the writing stage. (Remember: They still had 12 minutes to finish the essay.)
The researchers then repeated the experiment with 27 other students. This time, the interruptions occurred at random intervals (to avoid any effects from the students anticipating them), and the overall time that the students had to complete the essay was extended to 20 minutes.
The findings were similar: When the students were interrupted, their essays received significantly lower scores.
The reduction in scores may have been due to lost time — the students “collecting their thoughts” before resuming their outlining or writing, say the researchers. But, they add,
if the reduction of quality was caused solely by resumption lags, the increased time given to participants in the second experiment should have resulted in high quality scores. Since quality did not increase in the second experiments, we believe the interruptions are causing more than just a delay in the thought process. It may be that the interruptions are causing a complete disruption in the participant’s train of thought and that this disruption is causing a reduction in the overall amount of content produced, resulting in a lower-quality final product.
The researchers note that the proctors involved in the experiment reported that they noticed some of the students returning to the beginning of their outline or essay after the interruptions.
Like all studies, this one has its limitations. To begin with, it involved a small number of participants, all of whom were students. In addition, as the authors themselves point out, it’s unclear if interruptions would affect the quality of other non-writing types of tasks.
Still, since multitasking is now a central part of the daily routine of most of us, the study’s findings are interesting — and should nudge us toward figuring out ways to eliminate, or at least contain, many of the distractions that interrupt our work.
“Interruption can cause a noticeable decrement in the quality of work, so it’s important to take steps to reduce the number of external interruptions we encounter daily,” says Cyrus Foroughi, a PhD candidate at George Mason University and one of the study’s co-authors, in a press statement. “For example, turn off your cell phone and disable notifications such as e-mail while trying to complete an important task.”
Ah. If only it were that easy.
You’ll find an abstract of the study on the Human Factors website, but the study itself is behind a paywall.