Multitasking While You Write: Bad Idea

Photo of a stressed woman who is holding her hands to her forehead as if she has a headache, and there are yellow Post-It notes all over her laptop and the chair she is sitting on.
When you’re writing, stick to one thing: writing. (Photo: kzenon)

Hey, writers—do you like a little noise while you work?

Most of us find an optimal environment for creativity somewhere between total isolation and orchestrated chaos.

A surprising number of business writers say that silence in itself is distracting—they need at least some music playing softly in the background.

Sure, minimal sensory input such as soft background music may help your writing. However, multitasking (for example, trying to write an annual report while watching a YouTube video) will actually doom your writing efforts.

What Is Multitasking, Really?

In the case of writing, it’s trying to do other than writing: You’re at your computer or you have a pen in hand… and at the same time you’re using your smartphone to email a co-worker, while in the meantime you’ve got a browser window open to your Facebook newsfeed.

You get the picture.

Notice that trying is italicized above. This is because you actually are not doing all these things at the same time. You’re not even doing two of them at the same time.

Scientific studies have proved this: All that’s happening while you think you are multitasking is your focus is shifting with amazing speed between each of those tasks.

The more similar the tasks are, the more they compete to use the same part of the brain. Ultimately, conflict sets in. Then fatigue. You end up doing these tasks more slowly than had you worked on them sequentially. Or even worse, you do them all poorly.

Multitasking Has Another Downside

Our short-term memory can store only four or five things simultaneously. Multitasking can easily cause you to exceed that limitation—before your brain has had enough time to transfer it to long-term memory for recall at a later time.

So, if one of the things you’re doing while multitasking is trying to retain new or important information, you probably won’t be able to remember it. It has been lost.

How Important Is Your Writing to You?

If you multitask while you write, you will not write well.

Block off a nice chunk of time for writing each day and stick to it. No distractions. Turn off the cell phone and log out of Facebook.

Let’s Work Together

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Dave Baker

View posts by Dave Baker
Hi, I'm Dave Baker, founder and copy chief of Super Copy Editors. I have more than two decades of professional proofreading and copy editing experience, including work for The Nation magazine, The New York Times, and The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, where I shared two staff Pulitzer Prizes after Hurricane Katrina. Today, I have put together a hand-picked team of copy editors, and we especially love working with ad agencies, marketing departments, and education companies to make their text as polished as possible. Learn more here.

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