Tim Harford
1,957,926 views • 17:21

"To do two things at once is to do neither." It's a great smackdown of multitasking, isn't it, often attributed to the Roman writer Publilius Syrus, although you know how these things are, he probably never said it. What I'm interested in, though, is — is it true? I mean, it's obviously true for emailing at the dinner table or texting while driving or possibly for live tweeting at TED Talk, as well. But I'd like to argue that for an important kind of activity, doing two things at once — or three or even four — is exactly what we should be aiming for.

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. Gave him the Nobel prize for that 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.

Now, obviously, working simultaneously on Brownian motion, special relativity and the photoelectric effect — it's not exactly the same kind of multitasking as Snapchatting while you're watching "Westworld." Very different. And Einstein, yeah, well, Einstein's — he's Einstein, he's one of a kind, he's unique. But the pattern of behavior that Einstein was demonstrating, that's not unique at all. It's very common among highly creative people, both artists and scientists, and I'd like to give it a name: slow-motion multitasking.

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. 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. Einstein was already dead, but four of her subjects won Nobel prizes, including Linus Pauling and Richard Feynman. 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? Is it their personality, is it their skill set, their daily routines, what?

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 repeatedly during their first 100 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 100 research papers. Seems that the secret to creativity is multitasking in slow motion. Eiduson's research suggests we need to reclaim multitasking and remind ourselves how powerful it can be. And she's not the only person to have found this. 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. So, why?

I think there are three reasons. And the first is the simplest. Creativity often comes when you take an idea from its original context and you move it somewhere else. It's easier to think outside the box if you spend your time clambering from one box into another. For an example of this, consider the original eureka moment. Archimedes — he's wrestling with a difficult problem. And he realizes, in a flash, he can solve it, using the displacement of water. And if you believe the story, this idea comes to him as he's taking a bath, lowering himself in, and he's watching the water level rise and fall. And if solving a problem while having a bath isn't multitasking, I don't know what is.

The second reason that multitasking can work is that learning to do one thing well can often help you do something else. Any athlete can tell you about the benefits of cross-training. It's possible to cross-train your mind, too. A few years ago, researchers took 18 randomly chosen medical students and they enrolled them in a course at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where they learned to criticize and analyze works of visual art. And at the end of the course, these students were compared with a control group of their fellow medical students. And the ones who had taken the art course had become substantially better at performing tasks such as diagnosing diseases of the eye by analyzing photographs. They'd become better eye doctors. So if we want to become better at what we do, maybe we should spend some time doing something else, even if the two fields appear to be as completely distinct as ophthalmology and the history of art.

And if you'd like an example of this, should we go for a less intimidating example than Einstein? OK. Michael Crichton, creator of "Jurassic Park" and "E.R." So in the 1970s, he originally trained as a doctor, but then he wrote novels and he directed the original "Westworld" movie. But also, and this is less well-known, he also wrote nonfiction books, about art, about medicine, about computer programming. So in 1995, he enjoyed the fruits of all this variety by penning the world's most commercially successful book. And the world's most commercially successful TV series. And the world's most commercially successful movie. In 1996, he did it all over again.

There's a third reason why slow-motion multitasking can help us solve problems. It can provide assistance when we're stuck. This can't happen in an instant. So, imagine that feeling of working on a crossword puzzle and you can't figure out the answer, and the reason you can't is because the wrong answer is stuck in your head. It's very easy — just go and do something else. You know, switch topics, switch context, you'll forget the wrong answer and that gives the right answer space to pop into the front of your mind.

But on the slower timescale that interests me, being stuck is a much more serious thing. You get turned down for funding. Your cell cultures won't grow, your rockets keep crashing. Nobody wants to publish you fantasy novel about a school for wizards. Or maybe you just can't find the solution to the problem that you're working on. And being stuck like that means stasis, stress, possibly even depression. But if you have another exciting, challenging project to work on, being stuck on one is just an opportunity to do something else.

We could 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 turned to an easier problem. He proposed the stimulated emission of radiation. Which, as you may know, is the S 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. Look, if you get stuck and you get the ball rolling on laser beams, you're in pretty good shape.

(Laughter)

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

But there's a problem. How do we stop all of these projects becoming completely overwhelming? How do we keep all these ideas straight in our minds? Well, here's a simple solution, a practical solution from the great American choreographer, Twyla Tharp. Over the last few decades, she's blurred boundaries, mixed genres, won prizes, danced to the music of everybody, from Philip Glass to Billy Joel. She's written three books. I mean, she's a slow-motion multitasker, of course she is. She says, "You have to be all things. Why exclude? You have to be everything." And Tharp's method for preventing all of these different projects from becoming overwhelming is a simple one. She gives each project a big cardboard box, writes the name of the project on the side of the box. And into it, she tosses DVDs and books, magazine cuttings, theater programs, physical objects, really anything that's provided a source of creative inspiration. And she writes, "The box means I never have to worry about forgetting. One of the biggest fears for a creative person is that some brilliant idea will get lost because you didn't write it down and put it in a safe place. I don't worry about that. Because I know where to find it. It's all in the box." You can manage many ideas like this, either in physical boxes or in their digital equivalents.

So, I would like to urge you to embrace the art of slow-motion multitasking. Not because you're in a hurry, but because you're in no hurry at all.

And I want to give you one final example, my favorite example. Charles Darwin. A man whose slow-burning multitasking is so staggering, I need a diagram to explain it all to you.

We know what Darwin was doing at different times, because the creativity researchers Howard Gruber and Sara Davis have analyzed his diaries and his notebooks. So, when he left school, age of 18, he was initially interested in two fields, zoology and geology. Pretty soon, he signed up to be the onboard naturalist on the "Beagle." This is the ship that eventually took five years to sail all the way around the southern oceans of the Earth, stopping at the Galápagos, passing through the Indian ocean. 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.

In 1837, he begins work on two very interesting projects. One of them: earthworms. The other, a little notebook which he titles "The transmutation of species." Then, Darwin starts studying my field, economics. He reads a book by the economist Thomas Malthus. And 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, in that notebook.

But then, a new project. His son William is 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, he spends eight years becoming the world's leading expert on barnacles.

Then, "Natural Selection." A book that he's to continue working on for his entire life, he never finishes it. "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. And all this time, Darwin's working on 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 —

(Blows)

He blows on the earthworms to 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." You or I might log into Facebook or turn on the television. 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 Mould Through The Action of Worms."

(Laughter)

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. From Einstein and Darwin to Michael Crichton and Twyla Tharp. 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, focus 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.

So ... Make a list of your projects. Put down your phone. Pick up a couple of cardboard boxes. And get to work.

Thank you very much.

(Applause)