Multitasking, difficult to avoid though it may be, is generally frowned upon as a productivity killer. But a recent study, detailed on the HBR Blog Network by writer and professor David Burkus, suggest that multitasking might ultimately aid in creative output -- if done the right way.
The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Sydney and examined three groups of students, who were 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.
The implications could be taken in a few different directions, but the results indicate that creativity might flourish when it's approached piecemeal. And stepping away from creative tasks for more passive ones might generate a bigger boost compared to shifting from one creative task to another.
As Burkus puts it, this allows creative ideas to "incubate":
One possible explanation for these findings is that when presented with complicated problems, the mind can often get stuck, finding itself tracing back through certain pathways of thinking again and again. When you work on a problem continuously, you can become fixated on previous solutions. You will just keep thinking of the same uses for that piece of paper instead of finding new possibilities. 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.
So if you're in the middle of a creative process, you might benefit from stopping yourself cold and reading your emails for a few minutes before returning to the task at hand.
Previous research about multitasking has led to divided results. Some studies show it hurts productivity, as people tend to struggle to get back into an activity after stepping away from it for some time. But other research shows that an executive teams' propensity for multitasking can often have a positive effect on a company's bottom line.