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What Multitasking Costs Us as Writers

Yesterday I was teaching a writing class in Sunnyvale, California. In the morning, an executive car picked me up at my hotel to take me to the client company. At the start of the trip, the driver and I talked for a couple of minutes, and he offered to pick me up later in the day and drive me to the airport. I accepted his offer, and we set a time for him to arrive.

Then things changed. While driving me through city traffic, the man took several phone calls. He wrote down addresses and credit card numbers while he drove. He made calls. He made notes. He checked his email—sometimes at stoplights but often while moving.

When we arrived at my destination, I told the driver I had changed my mind about his picking me up later. “I’m just not comfortable with all the things you do while you are driving,” I said. He said okay and drove away.

His multitasking cost him a profitable trip to the airport.

The situation made me think about what the same kind of multitasking costs us as writers. How many times do we let an email that pings or pops up get in the way of an important piece we are working on, taking our eyes off the road so to speak? How often do we stop our productive thinking to click open a message and bang out a quick reply? I believe this happens continually, since so many people respond to my emails within moments. And sometimes I do the same. Yet I don’t believe we are all sitting at our desks waiting for an email to bring us something meaningful to do. 

Yes, sometimes responding to email IS the task we choose to focus on, as my driver might have done between fares. But often the drip, drip, drip of emails, texts, and feeds costs us our focus on other important things.

Beyond the cost to our concentration, moving from a project to an email and back to a project and back to an email makes our emails suffer. We all know those oops messages where we overlook the attachment, the person we should have copied, the correct spelling of the recipient’s name, and other details that make our communication professional.

I have fallen into a bad habit lately of letting my inbox rule my day, so my driver’s behavior made me reflect on my own. Tomorrow, when I have some important writing and thinking to do, here’s my plan: I will check my email first thing in the morning and then once each hour or more. I will either
handle the messages that have come in during that hour, or drag them to folders I will handle later. Then I will get back to my writing.

How do you focus on projects when your virtual inbox beeps and flashes? Can you keep your eyes on the writing road?

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

14 comments on “What Multitasking Costs Us as Writers”

  • Ah, distractions. Let me count the ways. 🙂

    I found a simple way to refrain from checking my email so much. I shut off my smartphone when writing. My cell phone is my work phone. Its incessant, blinking red light often distracted me from my writing. I finally had a head-slap moment. Turn it off!

    I did not have the email distraction problem when I was on my desktop computer. I keep my email program closed until I set aside time to check emails. It was that darn red light that bothered me. Now – problem solved. 🙂

  • I was a victim too!I kept losing control of my focus especially when I was an active member of FB. I only recovered when my smartphone broke. Then I started using a really primitive sort of phone until I bought a new smart phone. It was hard in the beginning. And now I check my mail only once or twice a day on my laptop. Not only has it made my life feel orderly and serene, but feels like I’ve relieved myself a lot of stress. And now to be honest, I feel reluctant to buy a smart phone again. 🙂

  • Btw, can u say “His multitasking *caused him* a profitable trip to the airport.”? Isn’t it *costed him*
    I’m not a native English speaker,so please correct me if I’m wrong.
    just curious.

  • I used to check emails every hour. I stopped that practice about 2 years ago when I found my day was governed by this habit. Now I check my emails once in the morning and once in the mid to late afternoon. If I am expecting some urgent emails, I may check during lunch hour. I never check emails at night because I do not want to be thinking of any issues before retiring for the night. I find that I have never lost any business deals or suffered reduced productivity because of my checking my emails 3X a day. On the contrary, I am able to be “present” with the people I am with, and more focused on my tasks at hand.

  • Thanks for your comments, Cathy, Phil, VT, Dinithi, and Chee.

    Cathy, thanks for sharing your easy, effective suggestion.

    Phil, perfect example!

    VT, I’m glad to be helpful.

    Dinithi, I appreciate your story and your correction of the verb “caused.” It should have been “cost,” and I have corrected it above. I had edited the sentence from “caused him to lose,” but I did not correct the verb. (I was multitasking and finishing the blog post during commercials of a TV program!) “Cost” is the present tense, past tense, and past participle of the verb I used. But when “cost” means “to determine the cost of,” the past and past participle form is “costed.” Example: “The renovation has been costed at $2 million.”

    Chee, I like being present with people too. Thanks for your ideas.


  • Dear Lynn,

    I am a new subscriber of your blog articles and want to share my opinion on your topic.

    As a legal assistant, I always check my email to make sure that urgent inquiries are promptly handled and therefore I would not let any unopened email stayed on my inbox for the following working days. However, it doesn’t mean that I have to reply each email at the moment but at least I can make my priority for email which should be responding first.

    When I am in the middle of client meeting or in legal research, I try to concentrate only to my current assignment, but sometimes I do multitasking jobs too. I make a short emails reply to client and will revert with more details after the meeting or my assignment is done.

    Sorry Lynn if my english is not perfect. I am not a native.


  • dear Lynn
    i am happy to read your article
    actually, this is happen every day when i pick my kinds to school , i call their teacher, my colleague on my work , and so on

    i will keep to read your article for improving my English language

    all best


  • Hi Lynn,

    This was so timely for me to read! I recently started working from home, providing remote administrative support to a previous employer – and my home is a sailboat always on the move! This means sometimes my internet connectivity is great (when we’re near a population center), and other times nonexistent or painfully slow (when we’re “out in the boonies!). The other day we were experiencing the latter, and I was amazed at how much work I got done – writing, planning, and even just organizing my thoughts around upcoming work (what a luxury!) – when I was unable to constantly check my e-mail.

    Thanks for further prompting me along to make sure I devote the time and focus to producing quality work, by minimizing my distractions – even if it means voluntarily disconnecting for a while.


  • I appreciate the continuing discussion.

    Sabina, thank you for sharing your perspective as a legal assistant. As you note, some emails may be urgent in your business, so turning off email is not a realistic choice.

    S, watch that multitasking while driving!

    Leigh, thanks for sharing your important realization. You have me wondering whether just being on a sailboat makes it difficult to focus on a computer screen, when there is so much to see.

    George, I am happy to report that my afternoon driver did no multitasking. I was very pleased with his driving and his habits.

    Thanks, all, for taking the time to comment.


  • Hello Lynn.

    What I do is wake up 1 hour earlier in the morning to try to advance tasks then I have time to attend email or calls. In extreme cases I close the door of my office and do not answer every phone call but urgent during two hours until I finish my task.


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