Creativity: be a slow-motion multi-tasker

Tim Harford: “"Different researchers, using different methods to study different highly creative people have found that very often they have multiple projects in progress at the same time, and they're also far more likely than most of us to have serious hobbies. Slow-motion multitasking among creative people is ubiquitous."

“...Slow-motion multitasking feels like a counterintuitive idea. What I'm describing here is having multiple projects on the go at the same time, and you move backwards and forwards between topics as the mood takes you, or as the situation demands. But the reason it seems counterintuitive is because we're used to lapsing into multitasking out of desperation. We're in a hurry, we want to do everything at once. If we were willing to slow multitasking down, we might find that it works quite brilliantly.”

Harford has a new Ted Talk address creativity. Harford’s recent FT article has already persuaded me to delete a few social media apps and partially take back control.

His arguments on creativity I find persuasive - because I essentially practise what he advises. I have multiple projects slowly on the go (short summary on 2019 in below picture) and they range across arts, investing and connecting. I have serious hobbies as well.

It is not multi-tasking in the sense of trying to - in the moment - do more than one thing, but it is switching between many projects over time. It also ties into my thoughts on breaking or working across silos of expertise.

Transcripts here:

He also references Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I have blogged about him before when speaking about Flow (and why you should turn email off and not check email so much as it breaks flow.

My blog on email management and why it’s important not to break Flow.

Why breaking silos is a good idea


Three examples of this research. First: Howard Gruber and Sara Davis emphasize how often highly creative artists and scientists maintain a "network of enterprises" -- different projects at different stages of maturity. Their examples include the novelist Dorothy Richardson and the scientist Charles Darwin.

Howard E. Gruber and Sara N. Davis. "Inching Our Way Up Mount Olympus: The Evolving-Systems Approach to Creative Thinking". The Nature of Creativity, 1995

R. Keith Sawyer. Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, pp. 75-76 and 376, 2012

Second: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his research assistants interviewed around a hundred highly creative people, including astronomer Vera Rubin, jazz legend Oscar Peterson and the activist and Nobel laureate for Literature, Nadine Gordimer. Among many tendencies discussed is the habit of keeping multiple projects going on simultaneously, letting some simmer on the back burner while others take priority. One of Csikszentmihalyi's research assistants, Keith Sawyer -- now a respected creativity researcher in his own right -- drew this to my attention.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, 2013

Third: Leading scientists are vastly more likely to have serious hobbies.

Root-Bernstein, R., Allen, L., et al. "Arts foster scientific success: Avocations of Nobel, National Academy, Royal Society, and Sigma Xi members". Journal of Psychology of Science and Technology, 2008