The human brain is the most creative and flexible computing device in the known universe. Unfortunately, the modern working environment often turns this magical machine into a pocket calculator, writes Estonian researcher Jaan Aru.

Intuitively, it seems that being a workaholic is nowadays a key prerequisite for success, given the overabundance of information. We want to be on top of things; therefore, multitasking has become standard: several files open at the same time, Facebook and a newspaper open in the web browser. We also like to be accessible all the time (“always on”), to be able to react immediately to every e-mail or text message. And since there is always more information than there is time, workdays tend to be longer and longer.

This lifestyle is addictive, and, on the surface, it seems ultra-efficient. In reality, these are all bad practices if you want to get the most out of your brain and be creative.

Multitasking is mostly an illusion

The brain is by nature a really clumsy multitasker, and this is one of the greatest problems of today’s workplace. When the tasks at hand require some thinking, the brain performs them one by one – serially, not simultaneously. Thus, effective multitasking is mostly an illusion. Each time there is a work-related call or a beep from the phone, a notification from social media, the brain has to switch from one task to another. Importantly, there is a cost involved every time you switch tasks, as switching eats up some of your thinking resources.

The problem is, the brain has only limited resources available for thinking. Mental work is subjectively hard, and it is also hard for the brain. Thus, the brain is able to think creatively only for a certain amount of time. Conscious thinking is crucial for working out creative solutions and completing tasks that need attention. But as the resource of thinking is limited, one better use it wisely.

Work in peace

In this light, the following advice seems reasonable: when you need to solve a concrete task, concentrate only on this task and nothing else. When working, you should get rid of all distractions: close the web browser, Facebook, mailbox, smartphone, an annoying co-worker, and disable all updates and notifications. Work in peace.

“When you need to solve a concrete task, concentrate only on this task and nothing else.”

This suggestion might seem silly and wrong – “There are so many things going on at once; I have to be informed and quickly switch between tasks when needed”. That is understandable, and I am not suggesting that you would have to focus on one task…