“One thing at a time!!!” is a phrase my kids are accustomed to hearing me say pretty often. For instance, as my daughter alternates between watching her brother’s Pokémon show on TV and reading a book. Or as my son tries to play NBA Live on his phone while sneaking an occasional peek as his sister learns how to eat corn-on-the-cob with a power drill on YouTube.
I think we’re all guilty of “task-switching” from time to time, where our attention is split between multiple things. Like working on your scales, while planning what you’re going to do for lunch, then checking out your Instagram feed, before switching to arpeggios, and then wondering if you need a new metronome app and visiting the app store…
When it comes to being productive, this is not a great habit of course. And it can lead to increased distractibility, mistakes, and anxiety.
But then there’s the opposite end of the continuum, which is not so great either. These are the times when you get a little too obsessed and laser-focused on one tiny detail. Like the clunkiness of a particular shift in the scale. Where you get sucked into a trance-like state and 20 minutes goes by before you realize you’re just spinning your wheels and very little of anything has actually been accomplished.
So how should we be approaching practice?
Well, when the goal is to maximize our creative problem-solving abilities, the answer is a little surprising. Because it’s not something most people would think to do – and at first glance, sounds like it’d actually be kind of annoying.
Ready to take a look?
For years, I assumed that practicing was about repetition. But then I learned that it’s also about discovery, experimentation, and that creativity is essential too.
For example, sometimes creativity helps us solve a technical issue. Like discovering that the key to making left-hand pizzicato speak clearly is less about force and more about timing1.
At other times, creativity helps us with a musical issue. Like exploring different variations of colors and articulations to figure out what type of character or mood makes the most sense in a specific phrase. And then there are times (one could argue that it’s most times) when it’s some interaction of the two.
Regardless, to be maximally effective in our problem-solving, we need two types of creativity. One type is divergent thinking – which is where we come up with a wide variety of ideas to experiment with. The other type is convergent thinking, where we think up effective solutions to the issue at hand.
But it turns out creative thinking has a nemesis. It goes by the name “cognitive fixation.”
What’s cognitive fixation?
Cognitive fixation rears its head in these times when we get fixated on a particular shift, note, or phrase, and can’t solve the problem, but also can’t let it go.
And even though continuing to hammer away at the problem can feel productive, the reality is that we often just end up going in circles, and running out of time and energy.
The reason why we get stuck like this, is that once we get an idea in our head, it can be difficult to see the problem again with fresh eyes (or ears).
So what’s the solution?
A study of task-switching
Curious to see how we can beat stuck-ness, and give our creative powers a boost, a team of researchers at Columbia University (Lu et al., 2017) ran a series of studies to investigate the benefits of task-switching.
115 participants were given 8 minutes to complete two divergent thinking tasks which involved brainstorming as many different uses as possible for a brick and a toothpick.
One group (continual-switching) was asked to switch between the two tasks after each new idea. So they’d do brick, toothpick, brick, toothpick, etc..
Another group (discretionary-switching) was asked to work on each task in any order they chose, and switch between tasks whenever they wished.
A third group (midpoint-switching) was asked to work on one task for 4 minutes, then switch to the other for 4 minutes.
And which strategy worked the best?
The continual group switched more often (17.89 times) than the discretionary (7.55 times) and midpoint (once) groups.
And a set of trained judges found that the continual group came up with more dissimilar and novel ideas than either of the other groups.
Presumably, having to switch back and forth forced the participants to keep thinking up more new ideas, instead of riffing off of the same idea they just thought up.
Then they ran another study with convergent thinking as the focus, with results that were even more compelling.
104 participants were asked to solve two verbal puzzles. (e.g. Think of a word that when combined with the following words, creates a new word: water, skate, cream2.)
The continual group was asked to switch every 30 seconds. The discretionary group, was allowed to switch whenever they felt like it. And the midpoint group was asked to switch halfway through the 4-minute test.
Then they were asked to solve two visual insight puzzles in 12 minutes. The 9-dot puzzle, and the 6-coin puzzle.
The continual group switched every 90 seconds, the discretionary group whenever they wished, and the midpoint group halfway through.
And what worked best?
Continual switching led to a significantly greater success rate in solving both types of puzzles.
With the verbal puzzles, 89% of those in the continual group solved at least one, and 51% solved both. Compare that to 72% and 13% for the discretionary group. And 57% and 14% for the midpoint group.
The effect was even more pronounced with the insight puzzles. 76% of those in the continual group solved at least one puzzle, and 15% solved both. Which was more than twice the success rate of the discretionary and midpoint groups, whose solve rates were 32% and 7%, and 30% and 3%, respectively.
So the benefits of task-switching for creativity seem pretty clear, but will people actually use this strategy when given a choice?
Which strategy do people gravitate towards?
Well, it seems we don’t necessarily act in our best interests when it comes to this!
In a series of follow-up studies, the researchers found that when there’s a clear incentive to perform their best, the vast majority of people will avoid the continual-switching strategy, even though the data in these studies (and others) suggest it may be the most effective!
For instance, when given a choice, the continual strategy was selected less than 10% of the time, while the discretionary strategy was selected between 47-64% of the time, and the midpoint strategy 31-45% of the time.
Even leaders in K-12 education undervalued the benefits of task-switching, with selection rates of only 7% for continual switching, but 80% for discretionary switching, and 13% for midpoint.
There are times when we certainly need to spend a good chunk of time working on one phrase, but there are probably many times when we would benefit more from task-switching (between passages of course, not between practicing and Facebook!).
For instance, setting a timer, and forcing ourselves to switch between two passages might help us come up with better fingerings. Or help us get unstuck creatively and figure out how to phrase ambiguous passages more convincingly.
At the very least, the study suggests that we ought to be much more conscious of moments when we start feeling stuck. And that instead of banging our head against a wall, thinking that this will lead to a brilliant idea through sheer determination and force of will, it’s probably a sign that it’s time for a break.
Because while perseverance is a virtue, we can so often deceive ourselves into thinking we’re being productive, when in actuality, we’re just coming up with more variations of ideas that won’t work.
Want a printable copy? Save this article as a PDF.
Download a PDF version to read later or share with a colleague or student.
Lu, J. G., Akinola, M., & Mason, M. F. (2017). “Switching On” creativity: Task switching can increase creativity by reducing cognitive fixation. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 139, 63–75. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2017.01.005
- The tl;dr version is to get the fleshy part of your finger under the string you’re plucking slightly before you press the stopping finger down. If you try to pluck the string while the stopping finger is already down, it’s much harder to get a nice clear sound. This is particularly helpful when your pinky finger is doing the plucking, and your third finger is the stopping finger – ala Paganini’s 24th Caprice)
- The answer is: “ice”