There is a lot of research urging us to stop “multitasking,” as it is inherently stressful. Studies have shown that regularly switching between different tasks is distracting, contributes to errors, leads to forgetting, diminishes learning, and can heighten social anxiety.
Yet my research suggests there is a key benefit to multitasking that is overlooked by researchers and managers: Temporarily setting aside a task to work on something else keeps us from fixating on initial, unsuccessful strategies and allows us to re-approach the task from fresh angles. As a result, continually switching between tasks enhances creativity.
In two experiments, individuals who continually alternated between two creative tasks produced more flexible and novel ideas than individuals who switched between the tasks at their discretion or who worked on one task for half the time before switching to the other. Importantly, we also found that most people erroneously expect continual task switching to impair rather than maximize their creativity, and tend to switch between tasks infrequently.