Why being distracted can be good for your work

Why being distracted can be good for your work

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Alexander Graham Bell, the Scottish inventor who patented the phone, was not a fan of multitasking.

In fact, I believed that true creativity came from a total concentration on the subject under consideration and that any distraction would only take us away from our goals.

And, until recently, psychological research seemed to agree.

However, new studies now question these assumptions, at least in relation to creative tasks .

So when it comes to finding new ideas, a strict approach can be counterproductive, and a distraction can actually increase the chances of finding a truly novel solution to the problem.

These benefits depend on the fact that our minds often get stuck, which means that we spend too much time concentrating on the first ideas we think of, instead of generating new solutions.

This phenomenon is known as cognitive fixation and many psychologists now consider it the main barrier to creativity.

The secret of creativity

To find out if multi-tasking work can help us get out of that routine, Jackson Lu and a team at the Columbia Business School used a common laboratory test on creativity.

Participants had to think of as many uses as possible for a daily object, such as a cooking bowl, within a fixed period of time. (A valid answer could be to use the bowl as a hat to protect your hair from the rain, for example).

The participants had to complete the task twice and find alternative uses for a brick and a toothpick.

A man playing with his cell phone
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Image caption Modern technology, with mobile phones, social networks and video games, is a fertile space for distractions.

The only difference was that while some were asked to do it in blocks, listing all uses of the brick first before paying full attention to the toothpick, others were told to alternate between the two tasks.

According to Bell’s point of view that concentration is the key to creativity, it was expected that the first group had a better performance, but this was not what the researchers found.

“While they might have felt that they were on a roll, the reality was that without the breaks allowed by the continuous change of tasks, their actual progress was limited,” Lu explains.

From the large number of ideas they produced to the novelty of ideas (evaluated by independent judges), multitasking performed better .

A lit bulb in a dark room
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Image caption During leisure, our brain can gather disparate ideas, which leads to moments of “light bulb on”.

 

To reinforce these tests, the researchers then conducted convergent thinking exercise in which participants are given three words (such as “road”, “mission” and “leave”) and they must think of another word that links them.

This exercise is intended to measure your ability to find associations between apparently disconnected concepts and, unlike the “alternative uses task”, look for a unique answer.

Once again, some participants were asked to consider two problems simultaneously and alternate their attention between the two, while others were told to address them in sequence.

And the results were even more surprising than those of the first experiment: 51% of multitasking solved both problems compared to only 14% of those who examined them sequentially, a result more than three times smaller.

Does team work work?

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits identified by the research is related to teamwork.

When operated in this way, besides facing the cognitive fixation of each individual member, the group, as a whole, is generally distracted by the idea of a person, instead of thinking about the ideas of the other members of the team.

The result was that teams that work together often produce less ideas than if their members worked independently .

” There are many findings that show that working as a team is not very efficient, ” says Ut Na Sio, of the University of Education in Hong Kong.

In his work with colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University, Sio showed that forcing groups of students to perform multiple tasks – alternating between two problems – can break that dynamic.

Their studies show that this technique leads to more creative solutions, including strategies to increase students’ physical activity or measures to improve access for people with disabilities.

The benefits of this way of working seemed to grow over time, so that the more hours students spent on a subject, the more advantageous it was to change tasks.

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Image caption Teamwork can be counterproductive when it comes to creativity.

“When you work in a group and you continue to listen to those typical ideas, that increases the fixation, but changing from one task to another can help you forget those typical ideas, which means that when you get back to the problem, you will be more likely to think of something new.” , says Sio.

The possible benefits

It does not take too much imagination to think about the potential benefits of these findings.

If you are sweating ink thinking about a creative title for your project or the name of a new product, for example, a possible approach is that it would be best to devote a certain amount of time to reflection.

But this research suggests that it is better to have a notebook next to your computer and, from time to time, write down a new solution while you are still working on another task.

Or suppose you’re an aspiring novelist and you’re looking for a theme for your story.

According to these findings, it is better to choose two and develop them simultaneously, instead of immersing yourself in one.

Three people arguing about papers at a work table
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Image caption Distracting yourself when you work as a team can be an alternative to be more creative.

From a simplistic point of view, this investigation can be another excuse to stop and rest.

” When you work on tasks for which creative thinking is beneficial consciously introduce breaks that help you refresh your concentration, ” advises Lu.

Interestingly, Lu discovered that when most people are asked how they would feed their own creativity, they think the key is concentration.

Naturally, following the idea of Graham Bell, many people try to increase their concentration when faced with an important creative task.

However, at a time when multi-tasking work is a daily occurrence, it should not cost us too much effort to free our minds while tackling complex problems.

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