How jumping between projects provokes creativity

Alternating your time between two or more creative projects will definitely help your subconscious thinking on each of them!

Your brain is a magical box where once you put things into it and shake it around a bit you’ll be surprised at what comes out. Even if you’re not actively thinking about what you’ve put into it.

But wait a minute: aren’t YOU your brain?

How is it possible that your brain can possibly work on things without you consciously being aware it? What the hell is going on inside the brain to make thinking about something without actually thinking about it possible?

It turns out our brains are more than what we know them to be, or can even understand.

The brain is incredibly complex, almost unfathomably so. We don’t really know how exactly it works and shapes itself. We only know that the brain consists of millions of little biological connections that use biochemicals and electricity to interpret and give meaning to otherwise meaningless things. It’s theorized that more than 200 billion bits of information are processed in the brain every second.

That’s really all we know!

As David Eagleman states in his book Incognito:

“We are influenced by drives to which we have little access, and which we never would have believed had not the statistics laid them bare.”

When we ask questions about how the brain works or why certain things yield certain results, we’re really just saying: “We’ve seen this thing happen a few times before and it seems to make sense, so like physics: this must be how it works.”

So if we ask: does working on multiple, separate things at the same time benefit the work? We must look toward what we see out in the world relevant to this question.

Anecdotally we can say yes, jumping around on different projects benefits the work we do and the likelihood of a creative result. Taking a break to work on something else can help us avoid fixating on existing solutions. Albert Einstein is (not so) famously known for taking breaks from his scientific discoveries to practice the violin. Elon Musk has been busy not only inventing revolutionary space rockets over the past few years, but he’s also been working to innovate on battery cells, solar energy, and electronic vehicles.

We also see evidence of multiple, simultaneous endeavors being beneficial in lab studies. We’ve tapped into a better understanding how periods of cognitive incubation lead to insights. Research has found that setting unique goals for multiple tasks and jumping between each of them yields more creative output.

But how does this all happen without us knowing exactly? How can we solve problems without actually thinking about them?

The same questions could be asked about basic functions: how do we know to breathe when we’re asleep? How does our heart maintain a healthy beat when we go for a run? Why does our knee bounce when we’re anxious? How is it that I can safely commute home from work without really paying much attention?

That’s (partially) just the magic of the brain.

The answer as to why this all happens is, unfortunately: it just does. We aren’t completely certain how, but anecdotally and in labs it seems that working on one or two passions at the same time often yields benefits.

In creative circles this is known as incubation, the second stage of the idealized four or five stages of creativity (depending on who you ask: preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation).

Incubation is when an idea is able to sit in your mind without being tampered with. It means taking a break from your homework to go for a walk, or instead of working on an assignment at work focusing on a hobby, or (in this case) jumping from one project to another one. We can assume that these things all work because when working on any one thing for a given amount of time will stress out the parts of the brain dealing with it.

It’s like when you constantly write or say the same word for five minutes, your brain burns out on it and suddenly the word doesn’t make sense. Working on the same specific problem or task for any amount of time means the neurons in your brain dealing with that work are firing constantly and other areas are unable to fire (which hinders our ability to “think differently”).

This also might help explain why our subconscious is still able to “work” on the task while our consciousness is elsewhere: the neural network has been activated so much that it’s still firing echoes, which may or may not interfere or combine with new stimulus for the other relevant task (or distraction).

The problem you may run into is knowing what to work on, when, and for how long.

Studies have shown that 90 minute chunks of focused work are beneficial, but again: this is anecdotal, so find your own balance. Most importantly is knowing what to work on when.

Your best bet is, again, to find what works for you, but in terms of research it looks like jumping around unrelated tasks is best. So if you’re working on a logical, pragmatic problem where you know solution exists but you have to seek it out, consider jumping to a more creative or artistic problem where you can spend a chunk of time doing more exploratory and not-so-straightforward work.

The benefit should be clear: by jumping around different projects types you open yourself up to different modes of thinking, which enables creativity.

If you’re stuck on a logical problem, the best way forward is to come up with a creative process. And if you’re stuck on a creative challenge, a switch to logical thinking may help expose you to what you’re cognitively blind to.