Tim Harford: How Can "Slow Motion Multitasking" Boost Our Creativity? What if multitasking is a key to creativity, rather than a bad habit? Tim Harford explains how great minds like Darwin and Einstein multitasked for decades to unlock their biggest ideas.

Tim Harford: How Can "Slow Motion Multitasking" Boost Our Creativity?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/719575727/721777094" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


So earlier in the show, we heard economist Tim Harford talk about how unexpected challenges can make someone more creative. But he also has another idea about how to jump-start creativity - multitasking, which sounds kind of weird because normally, creativity and multitasking do not go hand in hand.

TIM HARFORD: Yeah. And I tend to agree. I mean, not everyone agrees. Some - and maybe it's a generational thing; I don't know - but some people seem to think it's just great to be watching "Game Of Thrones" while also...

RAZ: Tweeting and snapchatting.

HARFORD: Yeah. I mean, some people love it. Some people hate it. I personally hate it. But I think that there is a different phenomenon that we shouldn't hate, a different phenomenon that we should actually embrace. And for want of a better word, I've called it slow-motion multitasking.

RAZ: What does it - what does that mean?

HARFORD: It's very simple. Slow-motion multitasking is having several important projects on the go, simultaneously. And I first noticed this in my own life, where I was working on a book for years. And I got stuck, and I actually stopped and wrote another book, and then restarted and finished the first book. So that - I mean, that was - that's an - feels like an extreme case. I'm - I have to write every week for the Financial Times, and I have two BBC radio shows. And so I stop my book writing, and I work on them, and then I stop.

And I constantly feel like I have these different things on my plate. And sometimes I think to myself, really, I should focus. If I was really - if I was a proper artist, rather than just some hack, I would be focusing and achieving something great in a single endeavor. And then I look at the real greats - the great artists, the great scientists - and I realize it's nonsense because almost all of them had really serious projects on the go, simultaneously.

RAZ: Here's Tim Harford again on the TED stage.


HARFORD: Look no further than Albert Einstein. In 1905, he published four remarkable scientific papers. One of them was on Brownian motion. It provided empirical evidence that atoms exist, and it laid out the basic mathematics behind most of financial economics. Another one was on the theory of special relativity. Another one was on the photoelectric effect. That's why solar panels work. It's a nice one. And the fourth introduced an equation you might have heard of - E equals MC squared. So tell me again how you shouldn't do several things at once.

Slow-motion multitasking feels like a counterintuitive idea, 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.

Sixty years ago, a young psychologist by the name of Bernice Eiduson began a long research project into the personalities and the working habits of 40 leading scientists. The research went on for decades. In fact, it continued even after Professor Eiduson herself had died. And one of the questions that it answered was, how is it that some scientists are able to go on producing important work right through their lives? What is it about these people?

Well, a pattern that emerged was clear and, I think to some people, surprising. The top scientists kept changing the subject. They would shift topics during their first hundred published research papers. Do you want to guess how often? Three times? Five times? No. On average, the most enduringly creative scientists switched topics 43 times in their first hundred research papers.

RAZ: Wow. I mean, it's almost unbelievable how they were working on all these different things at once.

HARFORD: Yes. So basically, every time they published a new paper, it was on - it was in a new area - this curiosity which kept them fresh. I think there are probably three reasons why the slow-motion multitasking works. The first is that when you switch out of a problem where you're a bit stuck, the new context helps you forget your old wrong answer. You know, you're - it's the crossword puzzle problem. You know, you're stuck on a crossword puzzle. You've got the wrong answer in your head. All you need to do is forget it for a second. So just a change of context helps you solve a problem.

The second reason is different areas cross-fertilize each other. So an idea that you come up with in one area helps you in another. And the third reason is I think it just provides you with an outlet. You have time to de-stress, to relax. You're feeling stuck. You're feeling under pressure. And you've just got something interesting to get on with when you're stuck, something productive and - as with my own experience of literally stopping writing a book and writing another book.


HARFORD: We can all get stuck sometimes, even Albert Einstein. Ten years after the original miraculous year that I described, Einstein was putting together the pieces of his theory of general relativity - his greatest achievement - and he was exhausted. And so he turns to an easier problem. He proposed the stimulated emission of radiation, which, as you may know, is the ser in laser. So he's laying down the theoretical foundation for the laser beam.

And then while he's doing that, he moves back to general relativity, and he's refreshed. He sees what the theory implies - that the universe isn't static; it's expanding. It's an idea so staggering, Einstein can't bring himself to believe it for years.

So that's the case for slow-motion multitasking. And I'm not promising that it's going to turn you into Einstein, but it is a powerful way to organize our creative lives.

And I want to give you one final example - my favorite example - Charles Darwin. When he left school, age of 18, he was initially interested in two fields - so zoology and geology. Pretty soon, he signed up to be the onboard naturalist on the Beagle. While he was on the Beagle, he began researching coral reefs. This is a great synergy between his two interests in zoology and geology. And it starts to get him thinking about slow processes.

But when he gets back from the voyage, his interests start to expand even further - psychology, botany. For the rest of his life, he's moving backwards and forwards between these different fields. He never quite abandons any of them. Then he has his eureka moment. In a flash, he realizes how species could emerge and evolve slowly through this process of the survival of the fittest. It all comes to him. He writes it all down, every single important element of the theory of evolution. But then, his son William's born. Well, there's a natural experiment right there. You get to observe the development of a human infant. So, immediately, Darwin starts making notes.

Now, of course, he's still working on the theory of evolution and the development of the human infant, but during all of this, he realizes he doesn't really know enough about taxonomy, so he starts studying that. And in the end, "Origin Of Species" is finally published 20 years after Darwin set out all the basic elements. Then "The Descent Of Man" - controversial book. And then the book about the development of the human infant, the one that was inspired when he could see his son, William, crawling on the sitting room floor in front of him. When the book was published, William was 37 years old.


RAZ: Yeah. I mean, it seems almost intuitive that we would draw on our personal experiences to generate new ideas, as you pointed out. I mean, even Darwin did that. So it makes sense that our brains would dart in all these different directions at the same time.

HARFORD: Yeah. But that can be incredibly stressful. So I think the creativity comes naturally from that, from having these different projects. They cross-fertilize each other. They provide a richer pattern of references that you can use. They unstick you when you're stuck. I mean, that's all great, but I think we have to recognize that having six projects on your plate, in your inbox, on your desk, it can be incredibly stressful and anxiety producing. I mean, that's one of the modern productivity challenges, I think. How do you handle multiple projects without just constantly flitting from one to another in this state of heightened anxiety? How do you make it a productive experience and a relaxing experience?


HARFORD: In 1837, Darwin starts studying earthworms. He fills his billiard room with earthworms in pots with glass covers. He shines lights on them to see if they'll respond. He holds a hot poker next to them to see if they move away. He chews tobacco and he blows on the earthworms see if they have a sense of smell. He even plays the bassoon at the earthworms. I like to think of this great man when he's tired, he's stressed, he's anxious about the reception of his book, "The Descent Of Man." Darwin would go into the billiard room to relax by studying the earthworms intensely. And that's why it's appropriate that one of his last great works is "The Formation Of Vegetable Mold Through The Action Of Worms." He worked upon that book for 44 years.

We don't live in the 19th century anymore. I don't think any of us could sit on our creative or scientific projects for 44 years. But we do have something to learn from the great slow-motion multitaskers. The modern world seems to present us with a choice. If we're not going to fast twitch from browser window to browser window, we have to live like a hermit focused on one thing to the exclusion of everything else. I think that's a false dilemma. We can make multitasking work for us, unleashing our natural creativity. We just need to slow it down. Thank you very much.


RAZ: That's economist Tim Harford. By the way, Tim has a new season of his podcast out. It's called "50 Things That Made The Modern Economy." You can find all of Tim's talks at ted.com.


WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) I let my mind wander. And what did it do? It just kept right on going until it got back to you.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to this episode of jump-starting creativity this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to ted.npr.org. And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app. Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Jinae West, Neva Grant, Casey Herman, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye and JC Howard, with help from Daniel Shukin and Katie Monteleone. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.