Taskus Interruptus: Good Writing Requires Concentration

(Editor’s Note:  This is a guest post by M.H. Sam Jacobson, Legal Research & Writing Instructor [Retired] at Willamette University College of Law in Salem, Oregon)

Good writing requires knowing what you want to say. Knowing what you want to say and how to say it requires concentration. And concentration requires managing distractions, no small task in today’s multimedia world. Never before has the ability to pay attention been challenged to the extent it is being challenged today.

The Cacophony of the Modern Workspace

Consider what happens when you just want to type a document. You open the file and begin working when a pop-up message says you have a program update. You can stop what you are doing and then restart your computer, or you can ignore the message, only to have the pop-up return over and over until you give up in frustration, save what you are doing, update the program and restart your computer.

Then another pop-up appears. Now you have e-mail. You try to ignore it, but the pop-up is obscuring part of your document. So, you check your e-mail. Half an hour later, you get back to your document, but now you have forgotten what you wanted to say. Sigh. Just as it comes back to you, the phone rings.

Fortunately, the conversation was only 10 minutes long, but 20 minutes later, you are still trying to get your thinking back to where you left off. As you start to type, a co-worker knocks at the door with a question. And so it goes.

Soon it is time for a lunch appointment, and you have only a paragraph to show for all of your mental effort. To add insult to injury, the paragraph needs considerable revision.

The Consequences of Minor Interruptions

This illustrates taskus interruptus, a modern malady that prevents the human brain from concentrating on the task at hand.
While you might enjoy being interrupted while doing a repetitive or boring task, interruptions while engaged in cognitively complex work, such as legal writing, can be quite costly. First, interruptions will cost you accuracy. Each time attention shifts from the task at hand, the risk of error increases dramatically, between 20-40 percent.

In addition, each interruption costs time, including the time to switch between tasks and the time to resume the original task. For those who think they are masters at juggling and multi-tasking, guess again. Doing more than one task at the same time takes longer than doing the tasks serially, one at a time.2 Practice can reduce the time involved in switching between tasks, but practice cannot eliminate the time.

In addition to the time it takes to switch between tasks, time is lost to get your thinking back to where you left off. When I am engaged in deep thinking, I envision my thoughts to be like spinning plates, like those the entertainer on the Ed Sullivan Show used or more modernly, those used by the Chinese acrobats.

One plate at a time, I get each plate spinning at the end of a stick until I might have 20 or 30 plates spinning away. At that moment, I feel like every neurotransmitter is firing in sync, and the cognitive juices are flowing freely. Exciting!

If I am interrupted before I have a chance to memorialize my ideas on paper, all of my plates crash to floor. To resume the task after the interruption requires getting each plate spinning again and back in the air, one plate at a time. This takes time, a great deal more time than just resuming the task.3 The more complex the task being done, the more time it takes to resume it.

To complete a writing project in a timely manner, then, requires limiting unnecessary interruptions and managing interruptions that cannot be avoided.

Turning the Tide of Distraction

While the interruptions that are particularly disruptive will vary from person to person, everyone can benefit by controlling distractions created by technology, including e-mail, telephone calls, instant-messaging, texting and Skyping. You can control if and when you will respond them. Most of us do not do this, however.

For example, workplace studies indicate that people handle e-mails as they arrive, attending to 70 percent of them in less than six seconds from the time of arrival and 85 percent of them within two minutes of arrival.4

If that describes you, stop it. Now. You can avoid the costs of taskus interruptus, plus allocate your time more efficiently, by checking for messages less frequently. Let technology serve you, not the other way around.

If you cannot avoid an interruption, then limit its impact. One way you can do that is to preserve your thinking as you go along: the fewer plates in the air, the fewer plates that can crash to the floor.

I suspect that most of us already use a note-taking system to gather information. While that preserves information gathered, it does not preserve analytical thinking about the information. Preserving that higher level thinking is often overlooked because we think we will remember all of our (brilliant) ideas. But, we do not.

Even after a 20-minute interruption, some of our brilliance will have escaped us. After a six-month interruption, such as the time elapsing between motions or between a motion and a trial brief, almost all of our brilliance will have dulled.

A handy tool for preserving analytical thinking is a T-chart.5 Make a big T on the page for each analytical point. One side of the T represents what establishes the point and the other side represents what is insufficient to establish the point.

Start with the law: how do the authorities help to define what is sufficient or insufficient to establish a point? Then add the facts: what facts exist that support each side of the T?

When completed, you can quickly measure up the strengths and weaknesses of your case on that point. When incomplete, you have preserved your thinking so you can easily pick up where you left off to finish the job. You can leave a T-chart for days, months and even years, but when you return to it, you will immediately recognize the analytical and factual nuances as if you had just done the work.

Not only does a T-chart preserve your thinking, but it also makes writing a snap. All the pieces you need to complete your argument or evaluation are there for the waiting, ready to be plucked from the T and inserted into your document. Voila! The effects of taskus interruptus disappear!


1. See e.g., Joshua S. Rubinstein et al., Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching, 27 J. Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance 763, 776 (2001).
2. Id. at 783.
3. Gloria Mark et al., CHI ‘05: Proceedings of SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems 321, 324, 326 (2005) (on average, study participants took 25 minutes 26 seconds to return to original task after interruption).
4. Thomas Jackson et al., The Cost of Email Interruption, 5 J. Sys. & Info. Tech. 81, 85 (2001).
5. For more information on creating T-charts, see M H Sam Jacobson, Legal Analysis & Communication 225-228 (2009).

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