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Big Ideas

How Switching Tasks Maximizes Creative Thinking

Switching tasks smartly allows your unconscious to "incubate" -- working away at knotty problems in the background while you do other things.

You’ve been hunched for hours at your desk working on the same creative problem, and now your efforts are generating diminishing returns. Like a spinning wheel digging itself deeper into a rut, you just don’t seem to be able to make a breakthrough.

Folk wisdom tells us to “sleep on it” – that after a break we’ll return to the challenge refreshed and with a new perspective. Psychological research backs this up.

At the Nijmegen Unconscious lab in The Netherlands, Ap Dijksterhuis and his colleagues have shown that participants who are distracted for a while from a main creative challenge end up generating better ideas, and more of them, than others who just work straight through.

Dijksterhuis’s theory is that the period of “incubation” allows your creative unconscious to get working. Unconstrained by convention and deliberation, your unconscious makes novel links between concepts that you would have missed if you’d stayed focused on the task.

An obvious question for creatives is how best to help your unconscious work its magic. What should you do when you’re taking a short incubation break from your main project? Rather than twiddling your thumbs or taking a nap, it makes sense to get on with some other task. But should you work on a similar type of problem or aim for something radically different?

Your unconscious makes novel links between concepts that you would have missed if you’d stayed focused on the task.

A team of British psychologists led by Ken Gilhooly has looked into this question and they say it’s best to work in the incubation period on a different kind of mental activity. The researchers gave over a hundred volunteers one of two main challenges. One was verbal in nature and involved spending five minutes coming up with as many new uses as possible for a brick (akin to brainstorming session in the office). The other was a spatial task, equivalent to a design-based project at work, and this involved arranging five simple shapes into recognizable objects – for example: a triangle, letter C and rectangle formed in such a way to resemble an ice cream cone.

After the time was up, the participants switched tasks for a five minute incubation. Half stayed on the same kind of mental activity – if they’d been brainstorming the brick uses, now they solved anagrams (both are verbal tasks); if they’d been arranging shapes now they completed a mental rotation exercise, judging whether one shape was the same as another but in a different position (both are spatial tasks). The other half of the participants switched mental activities – brainstormers now did mental rotation (switching from verbal to spatial); shape sorters now did anagrams (spatial to verbal).

Once the incubation period was over, the participants returned to their main challenge for an additional five minutes and the key test was whether they’d outperform a control group who’d just worked on either the brick task or the shape task for ten minutes straight through.

The take-home finding was that incubation breaks boosted creative performance, but only when the time was spent engaged in a different kind of mental activity. Participants who in the break switched from verbal to spatial, or from spatial to verbal, excelled when they returned to their main task – in terms of the number and quality of their solutions. The change in focus freed up their unconscious to spend the incubation period tackling the main challenge.

On the other hand, the participants who’d used the incubation period to perform the same kind of activity – verbal or spatial – were unable to capitalize on the break. Staying in the same mental domain appeared to tie up their unconscious, robbing its ability to work behind the scenes.

 Staying in the same mental domain appeared to tie up their unconscious, robbing its ability to work behind the scenes.

This study has clear implications for how to optimize your performance at work. The next occasion that you feel burnt out on a creative task and decide to take a time out, don’t simply switch to a similar kind of project. Aim to work in a completely different way. If you were writing, try switching to numbers or design; and vice versa. While you’re doing that, your unconscious will be free to work its magic.

What’s Your Take?

How does “sleeping on it” work for you?

More Posts by Christian Jarrett

Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s a senior editor at Aeon. His next book will be about personality change. He is @Psych_Writer on Twitter.

Comments (24)
  • Aaron Morton

    Great article Christian! I have seen this to be true for me as well and advocate it with all my clients. I aim to be aware of my thinking just before I wake up in that groggy feeling where your brain hasn’t had time to focus on anything specific.

    Nice read Christian

  • tannerc

    This is certainly true, particularly when you look at it from a physical perspective.

    If you’re focusing on one task or problem you’re essentially restricting your focus to one aspect of what you see. The solution to what you’re working on may be just outside of your scope, but you won’t see it until you loosen your view and step back a little.

  • Matthew

    Great thoughts here. I see the unconscious as a dog who wants the conscious mind to throw the ball, instead of holding on to it for too long. We definitely have to oscillate between focusing on the problem and then releasing it. A dog is more excited when you tease him a bit before throwing the ball.


  • Sarah Bauer

    I’d be interested to know if the participants in the British study worked individually or with other participants on the mental challenges, because I find that brainstorming and collaboration often taps into heaps of creative thought otherwise neglected in one’s inner dialogue. Having a conversation about something absurd is often my shorthand version of kicking the creativity blues!
    Sarah Bauer
    Navigator Multimedia

  • Greg Alder

    We all need random stimulation from something unrelated to the current task. Without it, we slip into what I call ‘same drawer syndrome’. We search for new ideas by rifling through those drawers in our memory where we have filed our knowledge relevant to the task. We hope to create something new by combining two established and connected facts. Nothing original is going to emerge from this.

  • Christian Jarrett

    hi Aaron – thanks for your kind feedback

  • Christian Jarrett

    hi Sarah – I think in this study they worked alone. It would be interesting to see how these principles apply in a group situation

  • Christian Jarrett

    nice analogy – thanks Matthew

  • Erica Wilkinson

    This reminds me so much of what Joss Whedon did half way through shooting “The Avengers” — he was burned out and his wife said to him, “You don’t need a vacation where you go sit on a beach somewhere, you need a workcation where you can do a different kind of project.”

    So he did — right in the middle of shooting a massive blockbuster like Avengers he spent two weeks shooting a black and white version of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” in his backyard.

    That’s been really inspiring to me, and has changed the way I approach my own creative work.


  • Sean Blanda

    Thats a great story! Where’d you read it?

  • Erica Wilkinson

    In this interview — Check it out! It is a great read.

  • Christian Jarrett

    thanks Erica – that’s a great example of this task-switching principle, but on a grand scale!

  • kennettkwok

    That’s when crazy ideas pop up in the shower! Someone needs to design some type of white board in the shower because I forget all my ideas as soon as I’m out!

  • Sean Blanda

    Awesome. Thanks for sharing!

  • Ccultured

    Great article!

  • Kevin

    This post is excellent and common sense for me, but not necessarily for others. I tell people this same information almost daily..
    Now maybe I can forward this to someone who needs to read it..

  • Melanie Dukas

    I am a web designer, and i have found that when I am stuck, it really helps to step away from it and come back. I find that ideas come to me when I’m thinking about something else. Switching to something totally different is good advice. Thanks for the tip!

  • Andrew Armour

    Interesting piece.

    I run MarketingCafe Workshops for clients to encourage fresh conversations and build more collaborative working – and a key element is DISRUPTING the flow of conversation and shifting the attention. Partly, this is because we want to prevent confident, dominant personalities taking over the conversation – and allowing the time and space for others to be heard.

    But – this research also backs up another aspect, that I often observe when running the workshops – that the disruption and shifting of task can actually lead to better ideation too. The quick bursts of conversation provide the spark, for other ideas, thoughts, ways of looking at the problem.


    Andrew Armour
    Benchstone Limited.

    For those interested, I discuss Cafe Workshops and collaboration on my site and blog. See and

  • Kate

    This is brilliant. I read that even doing this for a short time works. If I’m doing some in-depth work, I do a short burst of problem solving and then go back to it. I feel more mentally focused after that 10 minutes.

    That’s the excuse I use for playing Sudoku!

    I can’t remember where I read or heard it – I think it was on a television programme about how the mind works.

  • Matt P

    Great article. As I read I noticed that I too need more than one task to juggle in order to keep energized and focussed. Its those kernels of precious insight which often emerge as your mind is elsewhere.

  • Peter Martin

    This certainly helps me. In heuristic phenomenological inquiry, this is known as “incubation”. I was a teacher of young children a long time ago- contantly switching tasks- but highly creative for all that. I have a bit of a theory that un unconscious knowing of this phenomenon is the positive thing behind much procrastination. You just have to be brave enough to think ” I know when my mind is ready! Peter Martin Counselling Psychologist

  • Stacy Graiko

    This feels like permission to do what gets a bad rap as “procrastination” – I always knew it worked, just didn’t know how. Thanks for the great coverage!

  • Marvin Angelo Rafols Oloris

    And here I am always feeling guilty of having to juggle on lots of creative tasks every single day. However, I had the same theory that luckily jived with this article. I guess I’m still normal–at least on this matter.

  • Russ

    Very true.
    I’ve been an advocate of this technique for many years.

    Ever since my old boss told me about the book ‘A technique for producing ideas’ by James Webb Young.
    It works. Mind wandering opens doors.

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