Fixation characterizes many people's problem-solving efforts. We become stuck on a particular solution or solution set, and we fail to consider a wider range of alternatives. A new study by Jackson Lu, Modupe Akinola, and Malia Mason examines whether switching tasks can help overcome the fixation problem, and thereby enhance creative problem-solving efforts. The scholars began their work by reviewing the literature:
An emerging body of research demonstrates that creative performance on both divergent and convergent thinking tasks can be improved if the effects of fixation are mitigated by setting a task aside, such as through breaks, distractions, or interruptions (Jett & George, 2003). Breaks are purported to free individuals from their fixated mindset by ‘‘reducing the ‘recency’ value of inappropriate strategies” (Ochse, 1990, p. 198). For example, brief breaks during brainstorming sessions can increase the number and variety of ideas generated (Kohn & Smith, 2011; Paulus & Brown, 2003). Sim- ilarly, performance on convergent thinking tasks (e.g., the RAT) improves as the break time between attempts is increased because cognitive fixation ‘‘wears off” over time (Smith & Blankenship, 1991).
The scholars then developed a set of experiments to examine the impact of "task switching" - i.e. setting aside a particular task to perform some other work. They found that, "Participants who continually alternated back and forth between two creativity tasks outperformed both participants who switched between the tasks at their discretion and participants who attempted one task for the first half of the allotted time before switching to the other task for the second half."
Note that the study does not justify rampant multi-tasking on the part of employees. Creative problem-solving still involves a willingness to focus on a particular problem intensely for a period of time. However, the ability to step away from time to time can be very effective. Note, though, that the task switching worked best when it wasn't left to the discretion of the research subjects. That's an interesting finding. It means that team leaders may want to take responsibility for thinking carefully about to either schedule some task switching into creative work, or intervening when they feel appropriate to give people a break from their focus on a particular problem.