Why Multi-Tasking and Task Switching Prevent “Flow”

Lately I’ve been reading a lot about the distracting, information overload (or “infomania”) world that most of us live and especially WORK in. Too much on our computer screens. Too much in our inboxes.

Many have pointed out that the human brain “cannot multi-task” but rather that we sequentially move from one task to the next, and back again…. thus preventing getting too immersed in any one task. The increasing speed at which today’s work environment entices (and sometimes demands) us to switch between tasks is unfortunate – especially for creatives.

Why should creatives beware of task switching? Psychologists have shown that we are at our most creative when we are in [what Csiksentmihalyi calls] a state of flow. Yet flow is earned only after being deeply immersed in a task for a steady period of time. (I find it never takes me less than 15 minutes to get into Flow, but can take 45.)

That means that even temporarily “stopping the clock” on creative work to attend to another task can hijack your route to Flow. If deep, focused, and exuberantly creative work is your aim, you must stay in your task for long enough to allow this to happen. Stopping the Clock in creative work is more like Resetting the Clock. If it keeps being reset you will never get to where you want to be. Recovering alcoholics do not boast “60 days sobriety, not counting the seventeen days I was on vacation from sobriety.”

In this light, small indulgences like I.M. and widgets are not as innocent as they seem.

If your desire to allow interruptions, distractions, and task-switching is strong enough, then go ahead. But all creative types (read, everyone) deserves a lifetime full of Flow experiences. The buzz is just too good to pass up.