Can Creatives Multitask Successfully?
Yes, it just takes longer.
Posted August 12, 2022 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Multitasking only works when one of the tasks can be completed automatically—like breathing, walking, or washing the dishes.
- When a person is not able to multitask, they may put off creative tasks that are important to them.
- If you put off creative tasks, consider how you can "perform" one at a specific time and place. Your focus will intensify as the date looms.
When I think about progress, I know the reality of doing one thing. We can only do one thing at a time. We might think we can multitask, but our brains are only capable of successfully doing one action at any given time.
The human body's autonomous functions allow us to complete specific movements without our conscious action. For example, we can walk and chew gum simultaneously—although the adage of an incompetent individual argues otherwise.
But, we can also walk and listen to an audiobook simultaneously. Write a stationary bike, walk on a treadmill, watch a movie, or read a book. The muscles of our arms and legs have learned their movements. We don't have to think, "Pick up right foot. Press down. Let left foot come up. Press down the left foot. Hold handlebars. Breathe. Pump blood with heart." Imagine if we didn't have these automatic functions.
When we have to think, like we do in any creative activity, and complete other actions, our brains actually cannot multitask. Instead, our brains switch back and forth from each task, slowing the ability to react.
For example, texting—a creative task of generating words, sentences, and even emojis—requires so much brain function the action hinders the ability to drive, talk, or even walk. Studies have likened texting and driving to a level of impairment equal to drunkenness. 
So why do we think we can take on more than one creative task at any time? Wouldn't it make more sense to focus on the one?
This morning, I sat down to compose my weekly Do Your Art! email. My list is small, but I believe (know) that my readers have come to expect my end-of-the-week message.
My emails always include a "Try this" activity. Each week’s intention (challenge?) provides artists/makers/creatives with specific exercises to unlock creativity, explore new resources, and progress toward their goals.
But as I started to write, my mind jumped to a topic more appropriate to these Psychology Today blog posts. This submission supports the specific focus on my Psychology Today page—The Naked Creative—where I share my processes and my challenges in a fully transparent way.
I could have made a note and reverted to my e-newsletter writing, but I didn’t. I also did not chastise myself for this choice. Instead, I embrace the wonders of the creative mind. Maybe it's my ADHD. Perhaps it's my years of experience trying to wrangle my distractible brain. But I believe there's time for everything as long as you stick to what's essential and do not waste minutes scrolling through Instagram, Facebook, or TikTok.
What is a creative to do?
If you have so many tasks in your mind that you hesitate to write a list, you will also hesitate to begin any one of those tasks. The reality is this: To finish a task, it would be best if you worked on the task. If you work on two tasks at the same time, it will likely double your time. If you work on three tasks simultaneously, you will triple your time spent.
At this point, priorities take over. That project at work is due by 5 p.m. Suddenly, you quickly push aside everything else—perhaps including eating lunch. The electric bill was due yesterday, but there's a three-day grace period. Suddenly, you find the time to log on to your account and make the payment. Your friend invited you to a party Friday night and asked you to bring your famous bean dip. Suddenly, you remember you're out of beans and salsa, and the bag of chips you bought last week is half gone. You set a reminder on your phone to stop at the grocery store on your way home from work after you complete that critical project.
The Eisenhower Matrix of Urgent and Important Tasks helps to clarify what we do with specific tasks. As one description states: "Eisenhower developed this strategy when he realized he needed a better way to prioritize his tasks while making tough presidential decisions. The matrix helps you compartmentalize tasks by urgency and importance. In other words, it divides your to-do list into smaller lists of four." 
Two simple rows labeled Important and Not Important, and two artless columns of Urgent and Non-Urgent provide a framework for what to do next.
Those adulting tasks of completing projects, paying bills, and even bringing snacks all fit in the Important and Urgent box as the deadline approaches.
- Where do the creative tasks fall?
- How do you value your art-making?
- How can you ramp up the immediacy of finishing a painting? Arranging silk flowers? Finishing a jumpsuit? Glazing and firing a pot? Perfecting a recipe? Revising, editing, and submitting a short story? Recording a song? Painting a wall and hanging pictures?
You know as an artist/creative/maker that making art makes you happy. You know that happiness is important.
How can you move this task from non-urgent to urgent so that you dedicate the same attention to art-making as you do to work, pay bills, and not disappoint your friend by forgetting to bring chips and dip to a party?
Perform your art.
I have come to realize that one of the reasons why I'll decide to make a new garment that day that I go to a concert, a party, or any social event is so that I can display my new outfit. This show, while quite personal and low-stakes provides me with the motivation and the urgency to get down to business.
When I show up at the party wearing a new dress adorned with a hundred buttons and people compliment me on the dress and marvel at my creativity, I enjoy that dopamine hit.
Whatever project you're working on, consider sharing the finished work with an audience. Set a time and place. Now the job becomes Important and Urgent.
1. Austin, M. (2009). Unprotected Text. Car & Driver, 55(2), 80–82.
2. How to use a simple time-management trick invented by President Eisenhower to become more productive and less stressed at work. (2019, December 27). The Business Insider, NA.