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In this series, we look at different ways of getting the creative juices flowing. This time, we focus on multitasking—the technique of alternating between multiple projects.
Opinion about multitasking remains heavily divided, but whichever way you look at it multitasking has become an inevitable side effect of our busy lives. While some are quick to dismiss it as a productivity killer, recent studies have also shown that the right approach to multitasking might ultimately help to boost creative output. So which camp do you fall into?
Research cited by Forbes claims that our limited cognitive resources prevent us from doing multiple things at once; in fact, we’ll end up doing one or both of those things poorly. This is bad for productivity and impacts our ability to concentrate and remember things. Distractions as brief as a couple of seconds could even double the number of mistakes, another study argues.
So if multitasking is so detrimental, why do we do it? The answer is that our brains are wired to love multitasking. First, there is a crucial neurotransmitter in the brain called dopamine—our “motivation chemical”—, which is responsible for rewarding certain activities, like the feeling of anticipation and unpredictability when we receive a new e-mail or text message. Dopamine is also triggered by the satisfaction of completing a task, driving us on to tick off as many things on our to-do list as possible. The makers of video games leverage precisely these triggers to make their games addictive.
Second, we love to be distracted. The anti-multitaskers claim that we perform at our best when we are focusing on just one thing, yet in actual fact our perception is that we’re accomplishing more when we have multiple projects on the go, and though it’s not the most efficient way to work, they argue, multitasking feels like less of an effort and even keeps us entertained.
Some are quick to dismiss multitasking as a productivity killer, but studies have shown that the right approach can help to boost creative output.
But what about those of us who thrive on multitasking? Dr. Robert Keith Sawyer, author of “Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation,” says that creative people tend to have multiple projects on the go at any one time, and switching to another project actually increases the potential for problem-solving as well as identifying unexpected connections between projects. Sawyer, also an advocate of the “work hard, play hard” philosophy, suggests that creative people work smart, structuring their day to alternate between hard work and idle time, which allows them to frame their problems differently and look at them from new perspectives. This can be positive in that it allows them to use their time much more effectively and efficiently.
- … that multitasking is managed by mental executive functions that control other cognitive processes and determine how, when, and in what order tasks are performed.
- … that people who engage in media multitasking—using more than one form of media or type of technology at once—are potentially better at integrating visual and auditory information.
- … that multitasking is a skill that you can learn. The American Management Association suggests you can boost your multitasking skills through dedicated practice, by recognizing when one task requires your undivided attention, by using project management and efficiency tools, and by taking regular breaks so that you can consistently function at your best.
- … that one of the keys to multitasking is to match high cognitive activities (e.g. writing or anything that involves complex thinking) with physical tasks that your brain can handle while on “autopilot.” There is no reason we shouldn’t be able to read a book while exercising on a cross-trainer, or watch TV while ironing. These are tasks that involve different parts of the brain, so there is no conflict.
The secret is to turn your attention to something completely different. For example, more creative people also take breaks from a current work project to read a book, play a board game, or take a walk, says Sawyer. “These are times where distant analogies can happen—meaning something on the board game might provide an idea regarding the current project. Something in a book might connect two ideas together. A walk might allow for viewing of new concepts.” In a recent interview Sir Paul McCartney, commenting on Billy Joel’s admission that frustration had led to him giving up releasing new music, said: “These things happen to you. You get disappointed in what you’re doing [and say], ‘I’m never doing this again’.” But whenever it happens to Sir Paul, he says, “I just go and do something else, maybe go on holiday or something, and that can get you hungry again.”
Taking a step back allows the creative person to join the dots between two superficially dissimilar things. Good examples are the 15-year-old James Watt, who realized the power of steam after watching the lid on a kettle rise, going on to make improvements to the steam engine that sparked the Industrial Revolution, or George de Mestral, who noticed the tendency of burrs to stick to his dog’s fur and, after examining the tiny hooks under a microscope, invented Velcro. This is why Sawyer also emphasizes the importance of taking a vacation to recharge the batteries and reinforce creativity.
If you’re not convinced and you’re still keen to break the multitasking habit, try monotasking instead! Monotasking does require a certain level of motivation and dedication, so you need to be prepared. To find what works best for you, on a typical day you might try making a note every time you get distracted, or of any times when your work is interrupted. That way you can decide what action to take that will help you increase your focus. Here’s our list of top five tips:
BREAK IT DOWN
How do you eat an apple? One bite at a time. Break one big task down into smaller, bite-size pieces. Several, smaller accomplishments can be more rewarding, and it’s better to avoid the disappointment of setting yourself one big target and then falling short.
DON’T GET DISTRACTED
Turn off e-mail and message notifications during periods of work time when you need to be focused, during meetings, and even during the evenings when you need to relax and give your brain a rest.
LISTEN AND ENGAGE
Be a good listener. During conversations or meetings, put your phone away and really engage with the person you’re talking to. It’s also good manners, and your conversation partner will appreciate you even more.
You can start your day with a brief period of meditation, or schedule “mindfulness breaks” throughout the day. Close your eyes, take deep breaths, and disconnect.
Plan out your day in advance. Take a few minutes at the end of each day to organize your time and your agenda for the following day. That way, you can avoid having to alternate between projects throughout the next day.
Multitasking: Subconscious labor
Another argument that will delight enthusiastic multitaskers is that alternating between several creative projects allows the subconscious to work on each of them. Taking a break to work on something else can help us avoid becoming so obsessed with a problem that we hit a brick wall. Albert Einstein, for instance, used to take breaks from his scientific work to practice the violin.
So how is the brain able to process things without you consciously being aware? The brain is incredibly complex—it is believed that it processes over 200 billion bits of information every second—and more than capable of handling several simultaneous tasks. For instance, the brain keeps us breathing while we sleep, and we can easily slip into “autopilot” mode while driving and still get home safely.
This type of subconscious problem-solving can be partly explained by incubation theory. According to writer and professor David Burkus, research has given us some insight into not only how eureka moments happen, but how we can actually make them happen. Burkus says: “Eureka moments feel like flashes of insight because they often come out of a period when the mind isn’t focused on the problem, what psychologists call a period of incubation. Incubation is the stage where people briefly step back from their work.”
One common practice of exceptional creators is that they tend to have multiple projects underway at the same time, and if they get to a stump or an impasse in one project, they can start working on another project.”
Dr. Robert Keith Sawyer
Scientific Expert on creativity,
collaboration, and learning
Burkus cites a project carried out by researchers at the University of Sydney, in which groups of students were given creativity drills called “alternate uses tests.” The study found evidence that incubation periods, even those as brief as a few minutes, can significantly boost a person’s creative output. He goes on: “Taking a break from the problem and focusing on something else entirely gives the mind some time to release its fixation on the same solutions and let the old pathways fade from memory. Then, when you return to the original problem, your mind is more open to new possibilities—eureka moments.”
Research has given us some insight into not only how eureka moments happen, but how we can actually make them happen.
What’s also fascinating—and good news for those with a heavy work schedule—is that the University of Sydney researchers found that the group of students who were given a break to work on an unrelated task generated the most ideas. Which means that switching to an unrelated, but still work-related, task like responding to e-mails, can take your mind off the problem at hand and give your mind a rest, increasing the potential for a eureka moment when you return to the problem.
Ultimately, you need to find what works best for you. But the evidence would seem to suggest that alternating between projects opens you up to different perspectives and can, therefore, boost your creativity.
Incubation suggests that taking a break from a project or trying to solve a problem can boost creativity by allowing an idea to sit in your mind without being tampered with. It works because during the break, the brain is able to forget any misleading thoughts or inappropriate strategies, and because working on any one thing for any length of time will inevitably stress those parts of the brain dealing with it.