Whenever I sit down to write, I like to clear long periods for concentrated work. No emails, phone calls or meetings – just me and the blank page. If I do have to tackle many other tasks, I try to have a short break to cleanse my mind before I begin again. That’s because I always assumed that creativity was dependent on entering ‘the zone’ – and that required a kind of meditative peace and quiet beforehand.
However, it seems I may have been completely mistaken in my approach. According to a compelling new study, busy periods of multitasking – just the kind of activities I try to avoid – can actually fuel our subsequent creativity. Thanks to a “spillover effect”, the energy and excitement of hectic jobs can lead to more original idea generation.
Importantly, this brain boost seems to apply to many different types of creation – from the generation of original business plans to the culinary flourishes of expert chefs – suggesting that people of many different professions might benefit.
Shimul Melwani, a professor of organisational behaviour at University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, who co-authored the paper with her PhD student Chaitali Kapadia, says the findings show that we can all be “a bit more opportunistic in the way we use multitasking”. And perhaps we’ll come to see our busiest moments as a force for innovation, rather than a cause of stress.
In the past, psychologists have taken a decidedly dim view of multitasking. Myriad studies have shown that the brain struggles to juggle two activities at once, and instead moves quickly between them – with a loss in accuracy each time it shifts its attention. If you are writing an email as you talk on the phone, for example, you temporarily lose the capacity to process the conversation as you type out the sentence. “You more or less become a little bit deaf,” says Iring Koch, a psychology professor at RWTH Aachen University in Germany. Alternatively, the shift in focus will lead to a momentary lapse in your writing, resulting in a typo or a non-sequitur. For optimum accuracy, you should therefore devote your full attention to each activity in turn.