There's plenty of research that provides evidence to support the idea that multitasking is a fool's bargain: instead of getting two things done at once, you go slower on both, and do worse. But there's more than one kind of multitasking: texting while driving is a terrible idea, but what about juggling multiple projects at once?
Tim Harford (previously) takes a stab at laying out a good kind of multitasking in his Ted Talk, A powerful way to unleash your natural creativity, looking at creative people who accomplished much in different domains.
Harford argues that the secret of his subjects' accomplishment was that crossing multiple domains sparks insights ("Creativity often comes when you take an idea from its original context and you move it somewhere else"), that doing two things at once is a form of "cross-training" ("if we want to become better at what we do, maybe we should spend some time doing something else"); and because switching tasks when you're stuck can give you the mental breathing space to get unstuck ("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").
Tim sent this to me with this comment: "you're a leading exponent of what I describe in my new one (ie: if you want good ideas, make sure to have lots of projects on the go simultaneously)" and I'm flattered by the description, but it is indeed a good explanation of my method, such as it is. Though they have their limits, I still think that, on balance, I'm better off for them.
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.
A powerful way to unleash your natural creativity [Tim Harford/TED]