Unlocking Creativity: The Dangers of Multitasking

Posted by Dr. Michael Roberto, P'20 on Feb 11, 2019 12:26:41 PM

How can focus and concentration help us become more creative? In this excerpt from his new book Unlocking Creativity, Dr. Michael Roberto –  Professor of Management at Bryant University and a proud Montrose parent –  explains.

Getting away and concentrating exclusively on a project has clear cognitive benefits.   Still, many of us spend a great deal of our day attempting to multitask.  Admit it.   How many times have you been checking email, browsing the web, or reviewing a report while on a conference call?  Or perhaps we have eaten our morning bagel and conducted a teleconference while driving to work.   We have come to believe that we are superheroes, able to juggle many duties simultaneously with ease.  In reality, we are fooling ourselves.  MR headshot

How often do we get interrupted at work? Gloria Mark and her colleagues decided to conduct in-depth observations of twenty-four workers at an information technology company.  They studied software developers, financial analysts, and managers.  Mark explains that people switched activities every three minutes or so.   Many situations involved self-interruptions rather than another worker approaching someone with a question or request.  Some interruptions did not prove harmful, as they pertained to the same task and took little time.  

In other cases, though, the worker switched to an entirely different task.   Mark found that it took more than 23 minutes for people to get back to their original work once they experienced an interruption.   She has found that these types of constant interruptions can be very stressful, thereby harming employee performance.   

A great deal of research demonstrates that multitasking and interruptions can be highly detrimental to individual performance. Cyrus Foroughi and his colleagues have studied how interruptions affect the quality of work that we perform. They asked students to outline and write an essay. The scholars interrupted some students without warning several times, asking them to complete a different task for just sixty seconds on each occasion.  Others worked on their essays without being disturbed. Foroughi and his co-authors asked two independent graders to read and grade the essays using the College Board’s Essay Scoring Guide.   The interrupted students received significantly lower evaluations on their essays.

What about heavy media multitaskers, the kind of people who like to juggle multiple text message streams, email conversations, and the like. Eyal Ophir and his co-authors wondered whether some superstars had remarkable abilities to work on different things at the same time.  In fact, they found that heavy media multitaskers consistently underperformed their more focused counterparts across several studies.   The heavy multitaskers could not store and organize information more effectively than others, and they often failed to screen out extraneous data.

Despite these research findings, many of us continue to believe that we possess superpowers.   Unfortunately, our self-confidence often does not match our actual abilities. David Sanbonmatsu and his colleagues asked people about their driving habits.  Did they use their cell phone while behind the wheel?  They also inquired about people’s beliefs regarding their multitasking capabilities.   All participants in the study took a test to measure their actual ability to multitask effectively. The scholars found that the people who exhibit the most belief in their multitasking abilities, and who drive while talking on the phone most often, tend to perform more poorly on the test than others with less confidence.   

These findings seem to support the contention that we have to find dedicated time and space to concentrate on challenging problems. We must avoid interruptions and stop trying to juggle so many different duties simultaneously. Many firms have acknowledged the dangers of work fragmentation and have tried to put creative teams in a better position to thrive.  For that reason, these organizations send groups away for off-site retreats, set up war rooms or innovation hubs, and isolate project teams to concentrate on an issue.    As it turns out, though, seclusion and concentration do not always pay off.  Sometimes, we need a little distance from a problem to achieve a creative breakthrough. Unrelenting focus has its limits. We can get too close to a problem, and we can get stuck when we concentrate so intently on a challenging task.   

Consider the story of Mark Twain. He published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876.    During the summer of that year, he traveled to upstate New York with his wife and children.  They stayed for roughly three months at Quarry Farm, the home of his wife’s sister and her husband. While vacationing there, Twain began work on a sequel titled Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He wrote a significant portion of the book that summer, but then he halted his writing in frustration. He considered tossing the draft completely.

Twain set about writing the book with single-minded intensity again in the summer of 1883.   Twain finally published Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in December 1884, and many consider it one of the greatest American novels ever written.   Interestingly, the seven year interlude between the two furious bursts of writing did not represent the first time that Twain had stepped away from one of his manuscripts, only to revisit it with much success in lcreativityater years.  Twain recalled in his autobiography that he had stopped working on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1873 and returned to it two years later. He learned about the value of taking a step back from a manuscript at that time.  Twain explained: “Ever since then, when I was writing a book, I have pigeonholed it without misgivings when its tank ran dry, well knowing that it would fill up again without any of my help within the next two or three years, and that then the work of completing it would be simple and easy.”

More than a century after Twain’s instincts led him to “pigeonhole” his manuscripts, researchers have shown that taking a break indeed can stimulate creativity.   The time away from a particular task need not last for years, as in Twain’s case. You can enhance your creativity simply by letting the mind wander at times, perhaps as you listen to music, or even sleep on the problem.  As Dr. Srini Pillay has said, “The brain operates optimally when it toggles between focus and unfocus, allowing you to develop resilience, enhance creativity, and make better decisions too.”   

Taking a walk, in particular, can provide a powerful creativity boost, perhaps because it helps to “unfocus” our minds. Throughout history, great thinkers such as Charles Darwin, William Wordsworth, and Ludwig Van Beethoven took long walks on a daily basis.  Writing about the English poet Wordsworth’s frequent strolls and hikes, Charles De Quincey said, “Wordsworth must have traversed a distance of 175 to 180,000 English miles – a mode of exertion… to which he has been indebted for a life of unclouded happiness, and we for much of what is most excellent in his writings.”



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