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The unlikely benefits of multitasking

Last updated on
September 4, 2021

The days when people viewed their ability or tendency to multitask as a positive are (mostly!) gone. The image of a stressed worker shooting off emails, picking up a task for a colleague while simultaneously trying to get a report done may have once represented an image of productivity, but now most of us know better. Multitasking this way doesn’t make you more productive or effective; it just feeds busyness—the state of feeling constantly maxed out without ever achieving anything of substance. But before we strike it off completely, it’s worth considering a few unlikely benefits of multitasking that may actually help our work.

The myth of multitasking

First things first, we need to address why exactly multitasking is viewed as such a problem. In our fast-paced digital world, time is our most precious resource, yet in spite of the rise of productivity apps, we’re continually wasting it—being distracted by our phone, our inbox, the countless tabs we have open on our screens throughout the day. We feel consumed with information, and to try and establish a sense of control and stay on top of it all, we jump from task to task and constantly switch context.

Science tells us that this is bad for many reasons. Multitasking harms our productivity, the quality of our work and our efficiency, and because it causes us to feel like we haven’t achieved anything meaningful, it can also chip away at our self-worth. Besides, productive multitasking isn’t even technically possible: our brains aren’t designed to work on more than one challenging task at a time, and when we attempt it, we don’t really multitask; we just quickly switch back and forth between separate tasks. So in many senses, multitasking is nothing but an illusion.

But according to new research by UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, periods of multitasking can actually drive creativity, and due to a “spillover effect” the vitality and exhilaration of hectic work can lead to more inventive innovation. This might sound at odds with all the existing research on multitasking, but it’s important to note that those studies were centered on the immediate effects of multitasking, whereas the research by UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School was focused on what came after. So, what does this new research reveal?

Multitasking and the generation of ideas

According to this study, one of the reasons that multitasking can benefit the generation of ideas is purely down to the physical: the more things we’re trying to do, the higher our heart rate, and this elevated energy might subsequently improve creativity. Plus, creativity often involves being able to merge separate thoughts and ideas, something that can benefit from a more dispersed mindset rather than an unwavering focus.

“When people are holding two separate pieces of information in their head, they’re somehow able to act and engage in more creative ways,” says Shimul Melwani, an organizational behavior professor at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, and co-author of the study. We already know that when people consider opposing ideas and contradictory perspectives, they’re able to think in more flexible and original ways—so the idea that multitasking might create a similar effect makes sense.

To test their theories, the researchers ran a series of experiments. Some participants were asked to take part in a conference call while simultaneously replying to emails, while others were asked to do each task separately. Afterwards, the participants took the alternative uses test (AUT), which is a measure of creativity that involves coming up with new uses for common objects. The results showed that the participants who had multitasked were able to generate more original ideas than the participants who hadn’t.

Opportunistic multitasking

But the study by UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School isn’t the only new research suggesting that multitasking can have a positive effect on creativity. Another study by Stephen Wee Hun Lim at the National University of Singapore found that when people engaged in “media multitasking”—the act of sending emails while watching TV, for example—they also showed elevated measures of creativity, including in the AUT test.

What does this all mean, exactly? Is multitasking a good thing now? Should we delete our focus apps and embrace the idea of a day spent context switching? Well... no. For one, multitasking can still increase our stress levels, and even if it does have the ability to boost creative thinking, that doesn’t counteract the harm it does to our general productivity. Each time we jump from one task to another, it takes around half an hour for our brains to refocus, so if we’re trying to work on an important task, multitasking still means that we’re wasting productive time.

Instead, understanding the possible benefits of multitasking may help us frame our busiest periods in a more positive light. According to study author Shimul Melwani, we can use this new information to schedule our days in a more opportunistic manner; in our busy world, multitasking can be impossible to avoid entirely, so by scheduling periods of creativity to follow periods of multitasking, we might be able to use this energy to our advantage.

And at the least, we may be able to come to view our busiest moments as a source for innovation and creativity, rather than just a mere cause of stress.

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