Multitask. Yes….Really!

Finally, what about multitasking? Isn’t that something we’ve always been taught to avoid? Yes, if you’re talking about strict productivity, but creativity is a wholly different type of pursuit. When you multitask in a strategic and at least somewhat focused way, you are able to “cross-train” your brain and combine different frameworks, guidelines, mental models, and processes. Creativity can often be stymied when we are stuck in the box, so multitasking takes you outside of the box to view it from another angle.

Multitask (Yes, really)

Finally, let’s now move on to something you might not ordinarily associate with creativity: multitasking.

We’ve all been told that multitasking is best avoided, since it slices up our concentration and weakens our ability to sustain attention for one task, dropping our productivity overall. But Professor David Burkas and researchers at the University of Sydney have now released a study showing that multitasking may actually be beneficial for creativity (with some large caveats). There were three groups of participants, and the first were given what’s called an “alternative uses” task, which is essentially a test of creativity where you’re given an object and asked to come up with as many different uses for that object as you can. The first group was given four uninterrupted minutes to do this task.

The second group was allowed to spend two uninterrupted minutes on finding creative uses for their object, but were then asked to switch and do a different creativity test (they were asked to come up with synonyms for given words). After completing this word task they returned to the object test and had a further two minutes to complete it.

The third group also had the two minutes on, two minutes off, but on their two minutes off, they completed a very undemanding and almost relaxing task of answering a short survey about themselves. Can you guess what results they found?
The first group generated the fewest creative ideas of all three groups (average 6.9 ideas), the second group was the next best (7.6 ideas when the break contained another creative task) and the third group performed best of all, with an average of 9.8 ideas when they stepped away from the task entirely. This result goes against much of what we’ve been taught about sustained attention and getting work done. It suggests that creativity benefits when we step away from a pursuit and return to it later. Similarly, merely shifting to a different creative task is a little better, but still not as powerful as completely “resting” your creativity muscle.

The researchers suggested that this happened because of the way we work on creative problems. If we get stuck in a rut, we can find ourselves going through the same concepts over and over, getting hung up on what we already know and further closing off any new avenues. Rather than actively coming up with something new, you simply cover the same ground over and over. When you take a break, however, you give your mind the opportunity to let go of these fixations, refresh itself and open up to new possibilities. You return to your work and see a solution all at once in so-called “eureka” moments.

What are we to make of all the research that says otherwise, though? Some studies give evidence that multitasking damages your productivity, since you never really stay with a task long enough to gain an in-depth understanding. If you value both creativity and productivity, the bottom line may come down to the kind of task you’re doing. For complex cognitive tasks that require deep understanding and perseverance, it probably pays to hammer away at something, pushing through distractions and encouraging yourself to get in and stay in “the flow.” However, if the task you’re dealing with is more about creative problem-solving, you may need a different approach.

If you’re trying to have a flash of insight, get a clear view of a problem you just can’t see, or generate a completely new and unexpected idea, then it may be best to deliberately give yourself a pause in the middle of the process. Turn your brain off by doing something mundane and mentally undemanding, like checking emails or washing the dishes. It only takes a few minutes before you can return to your task with “fresh eyes.”

Author Tim Harford has a similar proposition: creative people, he claims, “cross-train” their brains by deliberately doing what he calls “slow-motion multitasking.” However, he’s careful to make the point that it matters how you multitask. It’s probably obvious that mindlessly scrolling through social media when you’re meant to be working on a project won’t benefit you or the project. But by deliberately and consciously switching between many different projects, we may keep our minds fresh and our productivity up. You might have a difficult book you’re reading, a work project, a piece of violin music you’re tackling or a novel you’re working on. You could seamlessly switch between all of these—not out of laziness, avoidance or desperation, but rather governed by our ever-flowing moods with each changing situation.

As we’ve seen, doing so can give all of these projects a mutual and simultaneous “aha!” moment when you get flashes of insight only after letting something sit and incubate for a while. But you can also derive benefits when you are feeling stuck—sometimes merely contrasting two usually unrelated activities is enough to kick them both into a fresh perspective, jog your creativity or have you looking at the problem in a fresh light. If we define creativity as this ability to apply an idea from one context into another, or the power to mix unexpected ideas together, it’s clear why multitasking might facilitate it.

Multitasking strengthens our fluid intelligence, which is independent of the content of any task we do. It’s about remaining flexible and alert to thinking and creating itself, rather than getting bogged down in any particular details or habits. You “cross-pollinate” your ideas, you expose yourself to multiple sources of potential solutions, and you have more fun, to boot. It turns out that creativity is diametrically opposed to hard work in many ways—it’s not about working hard, but working smart. You don’t need to slave away with diligence and effort at a task when the right moment of insight is all it takes to elegantly solve the problem.

Make sure that your multitasking is deliberate and conscious, rather than an excuse for procrastination or avoiding challenges. Switch to different tasks to give your brain something fresh and new to work on—and the newness and freshness might very well transfer to other tasks. A writer might find the best way to blast through writer’s block is to forget about writing for the afternoon and make soup instead. A manager who’s getting nowhere with team negotiations might suddenly get the answer he needs while taking his dog for a walk that afternoon. A sportsman who’s “choking” during the game from performance anxiety might find that his game actually improves when he spends less time on the field and more doing his salsa hobby.

Creativity is a dynamic, complex, non-linear thing. It cannot be forced—take a break, get a little messy if need be, take your inspiration where you get it, and don’t be afraid to put the task down again to return to later.