We’ve all heard people claim to be multitasking; tellingly, it’s often as part of an apology. A classic workplace example is when, during a conference call, a person is asked a question and begins to answer, but all everyone else hears is silence. Someone will say, “Are you on mute?” And the person will unmute and say “Yes, sorry, I was multitasking.”
First, let’s dispel the myth that there’s any such thing as multitasking. Social scientists have long accepted that the human brain cannot process more than one string of information at a time. What people who claim to be multitasking are actually doing is “task-switching”—moving quickly from one thing to another and back again. Some people are actually good at task-switching; they can redirect their attention from one task to another quickly without losing focus or effectiveness.
But according to a 2010 study from the University of Illinois, there’s still a downside to continually task-switching, as it consumes a lot of our brain’s temporary storage (also known as working memory). The researchers say that when our working memory is all used up—when our brains are too busy—it’s harder to think creatively. Our brains need space (idle time) to wander around without a tight focus, as this can lead to spontaneous and creative “a ha” moments.
We all live in the real world, and by necessity spend most of our waking hours focused on a task, thinking about what we have to do next, or processing sensory input from any number of sources. That’s okay, as studies have shown that we can boost our creativity by allowing our minds to wander for as little as 60 minutes each day.
Such a small amount of time should be easy enough to find: During a walk or exercise session, while sitting in a comfortable chair in a darkened room without any sensory input, or when eating lunch alone at your desk (shut down your email and turn off your smart phone!).