Stop Stressing So Much about Multitasking

Switching between tasks can open up new approaches to difficult problems.

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Based on research by Guannan Lu, Modupe Akinola, and Malia Mason

Just three minutes: that’s how long the average worker spends on a task before switching to something new, according to a 2008 study led by researchers from the University of California, Irvine.

The spread of digital communications technology and shifts in the nature of work, particularly the rise of knowledge workers, have made task switching an unavoidable part of the modern workplace. Perhaps the only thing more ubiquitous than multitasking itself are headlines in the popular press exhorting workers to stop multitasking.

Those headlines aren’t without merit. Research has found that task switching contributes to errors, slows execution, leads to greater forgetting, lowers writing quality, and can even increase social anxiety and feelings of depression. These downsides notwithstanding, new research shows that task switching can actually be a boon to individuals when it comes to one class of work: creative problem solving.

Through a series of studies, researchers at Columbia Business School found that individuals forced to switch at regular intervals between a series of creative problem-solving tasks outperformed those who undertook the tasks sequentially, and those who switched between tasks at their own discretion. As a whole, those who were given the liberty to decide for themselves when to switch tasks switched less often than those directed to do so at regular intervals, but those who did so more often outperformed those who did so less often. In other words, when it comes to creative work, individuals actually don’t switch tasks often enough.

The reason, the researchers suggest, is that changing to a new task reduces “cognitive fixation,” a tendency to cling to a familiar or known approach to solving a problem.

“When people ‘get into a groove,’ it’s often because they’re generating different versions of the same basic idea,” the researchers explained via email. “Forcing yourself to switch tasks alleviates this cognitive fixation, allowing you to reset your thinking and approach creative problems from fresh angles.”

About the researcher

Modupe Akinola

Modupe Akinola is the Sanford C. Bernstein Associate Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School. Prior to pursuing a career...

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About the researcher

Malia Mason

Malia Mason studies negotiations and social judgment and decision making in one line of work. In a second, she studies how people regulate their...

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