Multitasking. Something that used to be considered a rare skill that was asked for in job interviews, today it’s something that is expected as a part of daily life. Whether you realize it or not, we are constantly multitasking, from responding to work emails while at the gym, watching TV while cooking dinner, or calling your parents while walking your dog. But as our productivity has grown, has our creativity dwindled?
THE INITIAL DISCOVERY
Manoush Zomorodi found that while she was pushing her newborn son in her stroller, she was bored. Constantly. But as she got into the repetition of the walks, she let her mind wander, which allowed for a flood of new ideas to come in.
However, this was also the same year that the iPhone first came out, and Zomorodi was quick to purchase. Suddenly, instead of thinking while walking, she was playing games on her phone. Sitting on the couch turned into checking emails on the couch. Those “cracks” she had found in each day started to be filled with time on her phone.
This has become the norm of how we operate. Just take a look at the people around you during your morning commute. If you’re on public transportation, nearly everyone around you will either be wearing headphones or will have their necks craned down as they stare at their phones. Doing nothing now feels uncomfortable. Zomorodi went about changing that.
She conducted the “Bored and brilliant” project. Designed as a challenge, this study aimed to try and see if she could make a difference in the amount of time people spend on their phones in an attempt to get back to that creative state she had found, by imposing certain restrictions each day to phone activity. The challenges ranged from deleting your favorite app for an entire day, or not using your phone during your entire commute.
The results were pretty incredible. Zomorodi realized that while creativity does mean different things to different people, people reported sleeping better and simply feeling better overall. One was even quoted to have said “I felt like I was waking up from a mental hibernation.”
ARE WE ADDICTED TO OUR PHONES?
The people she studied weren’t alone. Smartphone usage has become so ingrained in our lives that there’s even a term for the anxiety felt when we are without them: “nomophobia.” This term was coined by researchers in Hong Kong and Seoul, and it is an umbrella term for the feeling of panic and stress when we’re separated from our phones. Just think of what happens when you leave your phone in the other room, by accident. Do you go to reach for it? And, when it’s not there, do you immediately go to get it?
Research has shown that regular smartphone usage can cause people to begin to exhibit ADHD-like symptoms, such as inattentiveness, hyperactivity, fidgeting, restlessness, and the loss of concentration of simple tasks. Additional studies are beginning to show direct links between smartphone usage and poor sleep quality and increased levels of anxiety and depression.
WHAT HAPPENS TO OUR BRAIN WHEN WE’RE USING OUR PHONES?
To put it simply: phones provide stimulation, whether it’s playing a game, receiving a text message, Instagram like, or Facebook invitation. Our brains consider these to be positive social interactions, which lead to the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in how we experience pleasure and happiness. When we do things such as exercise, eat a good meal, or have a positive social interaction, our brain releases dopamine, essentially “reward[ing] us for beneficial behavior and motivat[ing] us to repeat them,” according to an article published by Harvard University.
THE PROBLEM WITH SMARTPHONES AND MULTI-TASKING
Though we are experiencing dopamine releases through positive phone interaction, the problem lies when we try to multitask, and use our phones and devices in addition to completing other tasks. Even one as simple as listening to music while writing, or talking on the phone while walking your dog is tough for our brains to do. While many of us like to think of ourselves as successful multitaskers, the reality is that only 2.5% of the population can truly multitask. The rest of us can’t actually do multiple things at once, and instead of giving all of our attention to one thing, lose productivity and creativity by quickly shifting gears.
Considering our brains can only process 60 bits of data per second, when we try to multitask and use smartphones in this way, what you’re actually doing is switching your focus between two tasks very quickly. The time it takes for our brains to switch between two activities is called a “switch cost,” or the amount of time it takes to fully adjust your focus is taken out of the time you would’ve spent focused on the previous task at hand.
The same thing happens when we our work is interrupted by notifications, such as texts, calls and emails, only instead of just dealing with a switch cost, cortisol, which is known as the body’s stress hormone, is released. When we experience stress and the higher levels of cortisol, it directly inhibits the production of another important neurotransmitter, serotonin, which is directly associated with creativity.
ACCESSING YOUR CREATIVITY
With this in mind, it’s no wonder that prolonged phone addiction and screen usage is getting in the way of our creative output. So the question is: how do you access your creativity? It seems that there are a few approaches you can take, but the most important thing to remember is to give yourself time to let your mind wander, and not to overcrowd it trying to multitask. Since this is easier said than done, of course, here are some ways to get into a creative state (with some inspiration from Zomorodi):
Start by taking a phone-free hour each day
Commit that time to going for a walk, taking a bath, exercising, or doing an activity like cooking or baking. Generally, something fairly mindless. You want to give your mind the chance to wander. Keep a journal handy for spur of the moment ideas.
Ditch the electronics at bedtime
We’ve all fallen victim to wanting to just finish that episode or movie, even when it means pushing our bedtime back. But starts as a slight adjustment turns into a habit, and can disrupt your body clock. Try to stay consistent with your bedtime to ensure a restorative sleep, so you can wake up ready to create.
Write for 10 minutes straight
Set a timer for 10 minutes (it can be on your phone). Then get out a notebook and pen and just write. No erasing, no pressure, just write. Whatever is on your mind, write it down. Perhaps you’re writing that you can’t think of anything, but it’s a way to get your brain to work in a new, creative way. If you want a challenge, try doing this every day for a week and see how you feel. When you’re ready, go back and read through the writings.