Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • "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,