Multitasking might reduce productivity but it may also boost creativity. Research shows that at least at this stage of evolution, we humans are less productive when we multitask. Article after article reminds us we actually accomplish less multitasking than if we simply did one thing at a time and saw each task through to completion before starting the next one.
What these articles fail to mention is the impact of multitasking on creativity. Have you ever found that when designing a new product or creating a new program that taking a pause, working on something else and coming back to it actually boosts your creativity? A recent study detailed by David Burkus author of “The Myths of Creativity”, supports this experience.
The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Sydney and examined three groups of students tasked with completing an “alternate uses” test — a common creativity drill wherein subjects are given an object and asked to come up with as many uses for it as they can.
The first group was given four straight minutes to work on the exercise.
The second group was given two minutes to work on it, then told to work on a different creativity test — namely, they were tasked with coming up with synonyms for a list of words. They were then given two minutes to return to the original test.
The third group was given the same two minutes on — two minutes off — two minutes back on structure. But during the subjects’ two minutes off, rather than taking on a different creative task, were instead given the much more passive activity of completing a survey that asked them about themselves.
When the results came in, they were fairly stark. The first group, the one that worked for four minutes straight, generated an average of 6.9 ideas during the alternative use test. The second group, which took on creative work in between different legs of the alternative use test, generated 7.6. And the final group, which stepped away from creativity tasks for a few minutes, came up with 9.8 ideas.
In short, multi-tasking is not all bad. In fact, in the right circumstance it may actually be good. So, the next time you have a creative project you are working on, go ahead and stop, go do something completely different and more mundane and you may find a creative boost.
Hi Elisa –
I completely agree that having something to use as a distraction is a great innovative tool. I’d argue that this behavior actually fits into the realm of distraction rather than multi-tasking, which I view as doing more than one thing in a given instance, e.g. driving and texting.
Two challenges exist in the world of creativity: one, trying to do more than one thing at any one time, seems to reduce the human capacity for both activities significantly; and two, the switching costs between two discreet timed events. If you or I interrupt my creative flow, it takes some amount of time and energy to reconnect to the original experience.
Unfortunately, as I get older, my diminished skill of multitasking diminishes faster and my ability to switch from one major concept to another seems to shrink at a an ever growing pace.