Put Down That iPhone! How Multitasking Kills Creativity
Work + Life Balance

Put Down That iPhone! How Multitasking Kills Creativity

YOU THINK YOU’RE BEING EFFICIENT. HERE’S WHY YOU’RE WRONG, AND HOW TO BOOST YOUR CREATIVITY TO SUCCEED AT YOUR JOB.

The word “multitasking” conjures up images of Hindu gods, who are often depicted with six arms. They’re busy battling cosmic forces, though, and we are not. Still, we’re often in a blur of motion, one hand on the iPhone, one tapping on the keyboard to finish that report, an eye on the TV, an eye on Instagram—while eating a kebab and painting our toes a fetching shade of orchid.

But I’m a modern woman! I hear you protest. I’ve got stuff to do! A job! Relationship! Workouts!

Still, you trust the Harvard Business Review, yes? And over there, they report, “Based on over a half-century of cognitive science and more recent studies on multitasking, we know that multitaskers do less and miss information.” That’s right, smug multitaskers, you do less. That’s because it takes about 15 minutes to get back into your first task after you are distracted by an email, a wastepaper basket fire or Channing Tatum walking by. Your efficiency drops by as much as 40 percent—particularly if Channing is involved.

Experts say to switch to a new task every 18 minutes, which is when attention usually starts to wane.

new study out of George Mason University, in Virginia, shows that multitasking is specifically bad for creativity, which, you could argue, is more important than ever in the modern workplace.

The study looked specifically at how interruptions affect the quality of work. For the purpose of the experiment, “work” was an essay. Wait, I have to answer this text. Work was a… an essay, right. The researchers found that the quality of work was significantly reduced when people were interrupted. They even used less words overall.

While you have probably left essay writing behind you—though lord knows I’m making a living at it—surely you are still doing complex and creative tasks. So here are some tips for how to avoid multitasking: 

SWITCH ON, SWITCH OFF.

It’s okay to go between tasks, and in fact, you should. Experts say to switch to a new task every 18 minutes, which is when attention usually starts to wane. But focus fully on the task at hand. Also, you’ll be most efficient if you switch between similar tasks, rather than entirely new ones. 

HAVE "FILLER" TASKS HANDY. 

Keep 5- or 10-minute tasks lined up, so that if a meeting is delayed, you can fill your time with something useful rather than starting on a whole new project and then having to stop.

BUZZ OFF.

I once had a boss whose cell buzzed constantly, rattling across her desk. Sure, it was on vibrate, but it was still loud enough to jar me every time it went off, which was constantly. Switch your phone to the “Do not disturb” setting, rather than putting it on vibrate, because even beeps and buzzes are distracting.

SCHEDULE YOUR EMAIL.

This one takes more self-control than a juice-faster confronted with a Wetzel’s Pretzel kiosk. Read and answer your email three or four times a day, during a set time, rather than ping-ponging back and forth into it all the time (yes, you too, freelancers). If you feel guilty about this, remind yourself that studies show employees are way more productive if they check email less frequently.

If you simply must multitask, pick something you need to do, rather than something you’re trying to learn. You already know how to iron, for example, so listening to a podcast while ironing is fine. If, however, you set your shirt on fire, it’s a good sign that you should not multitask. Ever.