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You probably have numerous tasks awaiting your attention at any given time. And it is inevitable that your mind occasionally turns to one task while you are working on another. Here are some tips to take advantage of this process.

I expect you are familiar with multi-tasking: the ability to perform more than one task simultaneously. Managers who like to overwork their employees love multi-tasking. They assume that if their employees are performing three tasks simultaneously, they’ll work three times as fast.

The logic in that assumption is so thoroughly flawed, it is hard to believe that intelligent managers accept it without question. Perhaps they are too desperate to improve employee productivity.

Logic suggests two points:

  1. No one can actually perform several tasks simultaneously. Rather they quickly switch from one task to the other. Hence, all things being equal, multitasking should be no faster than mono-tasking (that’s my own word, incidentally).
  2. Bearing in mind point 1, it would seem that a person would require a certain amount of time to switch from one task to the other. Even if that time is tiny, it would add up after numerous switches from task to task. This would suggest that multitasking is actually slower than mono-tasking.

As it turns out an even more reputable source than me confirms the above two points. In a paper published by the American Psychological Association: “Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching”, authors Joshua S. Rubinstein, David E. Meyer and Jeffrey E. Evans confirm what logic tells us. You can download the paper as a PDF at  apa.org/journals/releases/xhp274763.pdf or read the press release at www.apa.org/releases/multitasking.html.

Multi-tasking vs. multi-thinking

Although multi-tasking turns out to be counter-productive, multi-thinking (another word of mine!) is a different matter all together. Multi-thinking is thinking about completely different issues or tasks at the same time.

Whether you multi-task or not, you almost certainly have numerous tasks awaiting your attention at any given time. And it is inevitable that your mind occasionally turns to one task while you are working on another. A multi-tasker would be inclined to switch tasks at this point. I recommend you stick to the task at hand, but keep a notebook ­ or at least some paper ­ nearby when performing any tasks. (I recommend having a notebook with you all the time). When the mind turns from the task at hand to another task, simply note down your thoughts in the notebook.  Then return to the task at hand.

This simple action does several things at once. Firstly, It allows you to maintain your focus on the task at hand. By making a note of your thought, you are clearing your mind of the distracting idea. This can only improve your focus on the task at hand.

Secondly, when the action of performing task A inspires an idea relevant to task B, it is very often the case that the idea is a creative one that would not have come to mind had we been focusing on task B. In other words, multi-thinking often inspires creative ideas.

Thirdly, if performing task A provides inspirations for task B, you may come across synergies between the two tasks; synergies which reduce your overall workload ­ and actually improve your productivity. Such synergies are best discovered through multi-thinking. Indeed, when ideas come to mind. Do not simply write them down. Try to draw links between your ideas for task B and task A.

Where can you multi-think?

Frankly, one of the best places to multi-think is during long, crowded meetings. During many such meetings, I have filled pages of my notebook on ideas relevant to other tasks ­ and have still followed the flow of the meeting.

On the other hand, even as I write this, I have one notebook on my desk and another electronic one open on my computer ­ and I am slowly filling them both up.

So remember. If you want to be more creatively productive. Don’t multi-task. Multi-think!

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a new approach to achieving goals through creativity.