Unbridle your natural creativity with this simple approach
It doesn’t take a laser focus to get things done. It takes passion.
by: E.B. Johnson
If you had asked Vince Lombardi what made someone successful, he would have given you a pretty succinct answer:
“Success demands a singleness of purpose.”
When we think of success we think immediately of laser pinpointed focus; a birddog-like obsession of purpose that forces constantly over the finish line in an exhausted and emaciated state of existence.
Publilius once said that “to do two things at once was to do neither,” and that’s obviously true when it comes to things like emailing or driving, but it’s not the case when it comes to our creativity. Sometimes, doing two things at once is just the thing we need to get those creative juices flowing again and sometimes it’s just the thing we need to reignite our passion for life.
I introduce to you: slow-motion multitasking.
It was a phrase I first came across while listening to a brilliant TedTalk from Tim Harford.
Slow-motion multitasking is basically the concept that doing slow, intentional and enjoyable multi-tasking is the key to stimulating our creativity.
For example, when things go wrong or you hit a wall with whatever you’re working on, you take a step back to pursue something else. When you feel your creativity starting to open up again, you return to your first project. Hopefully, feeling a sense of refreshment that allows you to complete it with more success than your initial attempt.
Giving ourselves a few different tasks to complete at once can be challenging, but it’s exactly that kind of diversity that allows us to grow as problem solvers. When we work on several projects at once, those projects can self-pollinate and that (usually) results in innovation.
Consider the story of Albert Einstein.
In 1905, Albert Einstein published four scientific papers that were remarkable and history-making. One of the papers was on the Brownian theory, and provided not only the empirical evidence that atoms exist, it also laid out the mathematics behind financial economics.
Next came a paper on special relativity, and after that followed another paper on the photoelectric effect (the reason our solar panels work today and worthy of a Nobel Prize). The fourth paper was the one that brought us the infamous E=mc² — an equation which radically changed science forever.
Despite the wise musings of Publilius or Vince Lombardi, Einstein excelled when he dabbled a little in all the things that interested him. Rather that doggedly pursuing one topic until he was numb and dumb with boredom, Einstein allowed himself to commit to several large products and it paid off in spades.
Trust me, this skill applies to you too.
Okay. I know that Einstein is a bit of an extreme example, but it’s one that works. While researching the Brownian theory might not be the same as going to work at the local post office, this approach to thinking and living is one that can have transformative power in our own lives.
It seems counterintuitive, perhaps, to stretch yourself across several tasks or projects at once.
Usually, we fall into multitasking because we’ve fallen behind somewhere else in our lives. Whether it’s work or your personal life, desperation leaves us running late, stressed out and juggling way more than we can handle. When we think multi-tasking we think chaos, and we think we have to do everything at once.
Slow-motion tasking is more controlled than that.
Utilizing this approach allows us to move between several projects or tasks as the mood takes us (or the situation demands). This means you always have something to focus on and it means you always have something to enjoy. An approach like this can not only boost your creativity and sense of control in your life, it can also help you begin to look forward to what the future has in store.
It’s a real thing. Science says so.
In the 1960’s, Bernice Eiduson (a psychologist) started a research project that focused on the working habits of established scientists and researchers. While Einstein was, unfortunately, already passed, the study included 4 Nobel Prize winners and went on for decades.
The study focused primarily on one question: “How can scientists go on producing such ground-breaking work all their lives?”
While Eiduson might have expected the standard answers of daily routine and skill sets, the real pattern she identified was surprising.
According to the study, the scientists that consistently performed at the top of their field were the ones that changed their focus of study repeatedly.
In the first 100 papers published by the most creative scientists included in the study, they switched their topic of focus 43 times on average. The changes were small and incurred in increments over time, but they were there, plain as day.
Eiduson’s research suggested that by multitasking, we were able to bolster and harness the true power of our natural creativity. Since the study, multitudes of other researchers (using different and more modern methods of study) have come across the same thing: slow-motion multitasking works and it works in an number of incredible and surprising ways.
How slow-motion multitasking works.
1. It allows us to transform ideas.
The first reason that multitasking works is really the simplest.
We are most creative when we’re shifting ideas across planes. When we take an idea and move it from one context to another, we often wind up with surprising innovations and out-of-the-box thinking.
That is, quite frankly, because you’re literally shifting ideas from one box to the other, elevating them as you clamber onward and upward, until you reach a bigger, better place.
Consider Archimedes and his discovery of the displacement of water.
As the story goes, the idea came to the man while he was lowering himself into a bath of steaming water. He noticed that, when his body was lowered, the water level in the bath rose. Bam! Just like that — the displacement of water.
2. You become a Jack(eline) of All Trades.
When we learn to do one thing really well, it often translates into skills that help us do other things well.
Athletes don’t just play their sport all day. Talk to any avid sports fan and they’ll tell you all about their favorite player’s vigorous fitness routine outside of the arena, which will probably include a number of skills like cross-training and even ballet.
Doing something else can make us better at what we do.
Researchers in one study took medical students and enrolled them in courses at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Rather than focusing on their usual medical courses, these 18 students got to spend some time learning how to analyze and criticize visual art. At the end of the course these students proved to perform substantially better in their medical courses, improving skills like diagnosing disease from the analyzation of photographs.
Cross-training our minds, even across drastically different fields, can actually improve our skills across those different fields.
3. Pull yourself out of that rut.
It’s not hard to get stuck in a rut, especially not in this 10-billion-mile-an-hour world we live in today.
Life often feels like a crossword puzzle that we just can’t figure out. We’re ticking along and we hit a stumbling block that we just can’t figure out. No matter what we do, we just can’t see the solution and only the wrong answers come to mind.
Wrong turn after wrong turn leads to a sticky situation and before we know it we’re paralyzed. Whether it happens in your personal life or your professional life, ruts are real and getting stuck in them is a hard thing to maneuver.
Being stuck in a rut can lead to real stress and even depression.
When we switch topics or context, we allow ourselves to break out of that stasis and discover things that excite us again. Often, these things can lead down new and exciting roads.
Instead of looking at the rut as the end of the road, look at it as an opportunity to find another path.
Don’t let the the creative flow become a torrent.
There is a downside to this unbridled creative passion and following your heart across several projects:
If you’re not careful it can get overwhelming. Then you’re back at square one.
It can be tricky to keep all the ideas straight in your mind and all the balls rolling. In order to be successful with slow-motion multi-tasking you have to be able to organize your creativity.
This is literal as much as it is figurative.
If you’re working on an array of passion projects, take the time to organize them. Give each projects its own box or space, and take the time to carefully organize and supply that box or space with all the books, objects and tools you need related to the project.
Write down details. All the details. Keep planners and notebooks and make sure they’re divided by project or task.
If you don’t learn to keep your “ducks in a line” important details and brilliant ideas will get left by the wayside. When this starts to happen, your passion projects, interests and hobbies become more of a liability than a joy and only go to increase the stress and stagnation in your daily life.
Don’t let the creative flow become a torrent. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
Make a list of your projects, prioritize them and give them timeframes and objectives and tasks. Stick to SMART goal-setting and do your best to give each task the time it needs in order to succeed.
If you don’t have time to commit to tasks, it’s a good sign that the task isn’t right to take on. Look for passions that fit your life’s actual needs and you’ll find your natural creativity stimulated in no time.
I’ll leave you with Darwin.
Like Harford, I’ll leave you with the story of a man who epitomizes the idea of slow-motion multitasking.
Charles Darwin is a man who could floor you with the staggering level of his slow-burning multitasking approach.
At the age of 18, Darwin left school interested in zoology and geology. Following that passion, he found himself on the “Beagle” a ship that sailed all the way around the Southern Oceans of the earth, passing through the Indian Ocean and stopping off at the Galapagos along the way.
A naturalist onboard the “Beagle”, Darwin started his research with coral reefs. Studying the reefs allowed Darwin to join his two passions: zoology and geology. It also got him thinking about some strange new processes he was observing.
Back from his five year voyage, Darwin started to pursue some new interests: psychology and botany. Somehow, these four interests culminate into two new projects for Darwin in 1837, one of which was focused on earthworms and the other of which was focused on the “transmutation of species”.
After this ground-breaking first venture into his future, Darwin then diverged into economics. In a eureka moment, while reading a book by Thomas Malthus, he realizes that (just like economics) species also diverged slowly, evolving as they went along in a process that favored the strongest and the fittest over any others. He wrote down all the important elements of his theory then and there. It would change everything.
A new project interrupted Darwin, however. Fatherhood.
This new transformation brought with it a whole new array of observations. Darwin watched as his son grew from a baby to a child to a man and made notes on the boys growth and development. All the while, he worked on his theories, but he also realized he needed to learn more about physical taxonomy and the way that living things were organized.
Over the next 44 years, Darwin became the world’s leading expert on barnacles. He studied earthworms by playing bassoon at them and exposing them to stressors.
He worked on his books and he worked on his theories and all the while Darwin dabbled in a million other fascinating and curious endeavors.
Origin of Species was published 20 years after the initial eureka moment. Natural Selection was never finished. Descent of Man, while controversial, was released when its inspiration (a crawling baby William Darwin) was 37 years old.
As slow and deliberate as an iceberg, Darwin changed the face of science and history by following his passions and multi-tasking in the places that his creativity took him.
Putting it all together…
So, instead of focusing it all on one thing, let your creativity breathe by multi-tasking where your passions take you. Like Einstein and Darwin and a brilliant other minds before you, find your creative peaks by letting your creative mind free to explore the things that stimulate it.
When we slow down and spread out our focus, we can actually improve our skills across a number of different sub-sets or niches. We can pull ourselves out of ruts and transform our original ideas into something far more innovative.
We think of productive, creative people as being singularly focused, but it’s a myth we perpetuate to our own detriment.
Cross-pollinate your creative life by learning to slow things down and go with the flow. You never know what you just might find waiting for you on the other side of that rut…