“One thing at a time!!!” is a common saying around our house as my daughter tries to alternate 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.

We know that letting our attention shift, willy-nilly, from one thing to another – i.e. “task-switching” – is not such a good thing. And that it can have quite a few negative consequences, like increased distractibility,  mistakes, and anxiety – despite how common a phenomenon it is in our distraction-filled world today.

But on the flip side, we have that intense, laser-like focus where we put our blinders on, and beat our heads against the wall, trying to brute force our way to a solution, even though deep down, we know we’re totally stuck and probably ought to move on.

Is there a more effective and efficient way 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.

Creativity’s nemesis

It was many years before I realized that practicing effectively actually requires quite a lot of creativity. Because on a fundamental level, much of our practice centers around problem-solving. Whether it’s a technical thing like figuring out the mechanics of a tricky string crossing. Or a musical issue like deciding how a quarter note at the end of a phrase with a dot on top of it ought to sound. Or, more often, some interaction of the technical and musical.

So to be maximally effective and efficient in our practice, we must not only be able to come up with a wide variety of ideas (divergent thinking), but think up effective solutions to the issue at hand (convergent thinking) too.

We’re more than capable of such thinking, but it has a nemesis. Which goes by the name “cognitive fixation.”

Cognitive fixation

Have you ever had one of those moments in the practice room where you suddenly fixate on a particular shift, note, or phrase, and totally lose track of time? And then 30 minutes later, snap out of it, realizing that not only have you failed to solve the problem, but now you’re ready for a nap?

This happens because once we get an idea stuck in our head, it can be difficult to see the problem again with fresh eyes (or ears). And even though continuing to hammer away at the problem can feel productive, the reality is that we often end up spinning our wheels, and running out of time and energy.

Research suggests that we can “unstuck” ourselves by taking a break. Because a break, in essence, helps us forget whatever it is that we were fixated on.

A little like trying to stay mad at a good friend. At first, you’re totally stewing over the grave injustice that’s been done, but then you get distracted by the day’s events, and soon forget why you were so mad in the first place.

Divergent thinking

Curious to see how we can beat stuck-ness, and give our creative powers a boost, a team of researchers at Columbia University 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.

What worked 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 indeed generated more dissimilar and novel ideas than either of the other groups. Presumably, having to switch back and forth forced the participants to think up more new ideas, instead of riffing off of the same idea they just thought up.

Convergent thinking

Then they ran another study with convergent thinking as the focus, with results that were even more compelling.

Verbal puzzles

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, cream1.)

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.

Insight puzzles

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 midway through.

What worked best?

Continual switching led to a significantly greater success rate in solving both types of puzzles.

With the verbal puzzles, 88.6% of those in the continual group solved at least one, and 51.4% solved both. Compare that to 71.9% and 12.5% for the discretionary group. And 57.1% and 14.3% for the midpoint group.

The effect was even more pronounced with the insight puzzles. The continual group’s success rate was 75.8% (at least one puzzle) and 15.2% (both puzzles), compared to 32.1% and 7.1% for the discretionary group and 30.3% and 3% for the midpoint group.

Which strategy do people choose?

In four 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.

When given a choice, the continual strategy was selected 4%-9.9% of the time, while the discretionary strategy was selected 46.5% – 64.4% of the time, and the midpoint strategy 30.7% – 44.5% of the time.

Even leaders in K-12 education undervalued the benefits of task-switching, with selection rates of 7.4% for continual, 79.8% for discretionary, and 12.8% for midpoint.

Take action

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, not between practicing and Facebook!).

Where 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 we ought to avoid banging our head against a wall, thinking that this will lead to a brilliant idea through sheer determination and force of will.

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.


  1. The answer is: “ice”