Unleashing Natural Creativity By 'Slow Motion Multitasking'

How do the most enduringly creative people thrive? They "slow-motion multitask", says author Tim Harford at TEDxMerck KGaA. He illustrates how innovators like Einstein, Darwin, Twyla Tharp and Michael Crichton found their inspiration and productivity through cross-training their minds, without feeling hurried.


Two types of multitasking

Is it true that multitasking could actually be possible under certain circumstances? And is this a way to unleash creativity? In this TEDx talk by Tim Harford, he distinguishes the types of multitasking. One type being on social media while you should be writing, and the other type being having multiple creative projects and awitching back and forth, as your mood takes you, or as the situation demands. The difference is in the intention of it: not avoiding tasks (procrastinating and turning to Instagram while feeling guilty for not performing a task), but nurturing multiple ideas, in order to get them all done.

Context switching or focus?

Tim’s talk also instantly triggered another thought. ‘What about the importance of avoiding context switching? My performance coach isn’t a quack! Our brain isn’t wired to do this, when focused on achievement.’ As true as this may be…logical thinking and lateral (creative) thinking have different ways of thriving, idea wise and productivity wise. So which one should we follow?

This concept resonates with me, and I recognize it to a great extent. I had struggled with feeling inadequate, because I struggled to focus on a single task. At the same time, I managed to get them all done, by working ‘on my natural pace and in my natural order of things’. The thought of restraining myself into a schedule composed by someone else, felt suffocating. That’s exactly why some day planners or schedules (designed by other people than yourself), MAY work for some time, but not indefinitely. Because it isn’t naturaly yours.

CPU overload?

Commenter Long Y said on the TEDx viewing page: “I can not help to point out "slow-motion multi-tasking" is not the most suitable term. Time-sharing (of a CPU) is a better term.” And that is exactly how I experience this as well. No, multitasking isn’t the way, but the way we’re switching gears between projects and ideas all the time, does describe this very well. This doesn’t combine well with focusing on one single task and executing it the best you can. The mantra of performance mentors, including myself, is to focus on a single task as long as you can. Then take short breaks, and continue with that same task.


Focusing on one task is something I had to learn, and it even took working with the pomodoro technique. Focusing on one task for twenty (or sometimes even just four) minutes, with a cooking alarm. Just to stay focused on one task and not to get sidetracked. Because this does not come naturally to me at all. Quite honestly, I’m the type of person that takes the laundry out of the machine, starts hanging shirts on hangers, an idea pops up before my mind’s eye (#squirrel) , and BOOM, I stop mid-task. I start designing visuals, writing lines for a blog post or calling a friend, and in total surprise, I can ‘rediscover’ the pile of laundry after thirty minutes. Like a goldfish feeling surprised, every time he sees a castle in his bowl while merrily swimming along. This is literally how I was wired. The cooking alarm saved me from all this. It wasn’t easy. The worst part was I was beating myself up over it. Which wasn’t very helpful. Or necessary. Quite useless, really.

While in the process of teaching myself how to focus, I noticed that the endless stream of ideas didn’t stop, and I felt ‘cheated out’ of the freedom to act on those ideas. Of course, this was a constructed hangup within myself: I just had trouble focusing on one thing while being enticed by, well, shiny new object syndrome. The shiny new object being the new creative idea, in this case.

You can do both and feel great about it

My creative mind is always ON and lateral thinking takes me anywhere. Which is lovely, but this also kept me from completing tasks in the allocated time frame. So I came up with a way of dealing with it that works for me. It takes care of focus and getting my task done AND fostering my endless stream of ideas. It’s simple and it works for me. I don’t resist the stream of ideas.I don’t torment myself by ignoring the idea and return to the task that I was working on. On the contrary. I intentionally jot the idea down within a minute or two. You are granted the gift of getting ideas. Some of them are okay, others are ‘medium’ or downright brilliant. But whatever level of quality is it, they pop up. And when the muze knocks on your door, you better well open it. So I jot down my ideas directly on a dedicated Trello board, or in the Notes app on my iPhone. And if I’m offline (it happens), I just use a pen and paper. After that minute of nurturing the idea, I return to my task. The great thing is that it lessens the frustration significantly.

It’s simple:

  1. Work.

  2. Jot down spontaneous ideas for later reference.

  3. Return to your original task. It’s super simple.

Many creatives, project managers and communicators already work this way. But now, you have the total #freedom to do this 100% guilt free. Please don’t repress your natural way of creative thinking. Foster it, AND train yourself to channel it. Because nurturing ideas if not any of your projects come into fruition, is not helping anyone.

Nurturing ideas when they pop up, is of vital importance. It shows you respect and value your creative spirit. When you feed that source, it will never dry up.

Switching tasks, topics and projects

Tim also addresses switching topics in projects. This also resonates with me. So many times, people have asked me: “Why did you switch from graphic and interactive design to communication?” but that was not as I experienced it. Everything I did and do is about creative ideation, communication and getting things done. In any way, shape or form. Whatever brings the message across most clearly and effectively, is fine with me. And later: “Why do you organize help for orphaned children while you’re an online communicator?” Again, I was doing the exact same thing. Also: “Why did you switch from online communication to helping businesses ideate and achieve projects?” Same story. I didn’t switch. It feels completely natural to me. It also explains why it’s totally doable to do your day job, write a book and publish it, research another subject, and have a life.

Because it all comes from the same source.

Sure, I have trained and educated myself, took courses, upped my knowledge and skills set. But the core is always the same. I’m switching topics slowly, and go back and forth. But the core…is always the same. It apparently also works for scientists who switch topics on an average of 43 times in their first 100 published papers. Does ithis work for you, too? Share your ideas and experiences.


Watch Tim’s talk here:

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