If you were to sit down with the goal of solving two separate creative problems, would it be better to spend the first half of your time on issue one before moving to issue two, or would it be best to alternate between the two projects when ever you want?
Business researchers Jackson Lu, Modupe Akinola and Malia Mason have found that neither option is the right approach.
“If you are like the hundreds of people to whom we posed this question, you would choose to switch between the two problems at your own discretion,” they write in Harvard Business Review.
According to their new research paper, ‘Switching On’ Creativity: Task switching can increase creativity by reducing cognitive fixation, scheduling in regular intervals to switch between the tasks will keep creativity and problem solving at an optimal level.
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“When attempting problems that require creativity, we often reach a dead end without realising it,” they say.
“We find ourselves circling around the same ineffective ideas and don’t recognise when it’s time to move on.
“In contrast, regularly switching back and forth between two tasks at a set interval can reset your thinking, enabling you to approach each task from fresh angles.”
The researchers found the participants in their experiments who stuck with a problem for an extended period instead of switching regularly came up with the same or similar ideas for solutions.
They say other studies have also found “brief breaks during idea generation can increase the variety of ideas generated”.
So to find the best solutions to creative problems, the researchers say it’s crucial to “consciously insert breaks to refresh your approach” in your daily routine.
“Set them at regular intervals — use a timer if you have to,” they say.
“When it goes off, switch tasks: organise your reimbursement receipts, check your email, or clean your desk, and then return to the original task.
“If you’re hesitant to break away because you feel that you’re on a roll, be mindful that it might be a false impression.
“We tend to generate redundant ideas when we don’t take regular breaks.”