If it weren’t for an actress and a pianist, GPS and WiFi might not exist. In the late 1930s and early 40s, Hedy Lamarr was already the toast of Hollywood, famed for her portrayals of femme fatales. Few of her contemporaries knew that her other great passion was inventing.
There is now a growing recognition that, when concentrating on any complex endeavour, the brain often reaches a kind of saturation point, after which your attention may fade and any extra effort may fail to pay off. But if you turn to another, unrelated activity, you may find that you are better able to apply yourself. Shifting between different kinds of tasks can therefore boost your overall productivity.
Some evidence for this comes from research in education. Studies of students in many different disciplines – from academia to sport and music – have shown that, after a certain amount of practice or study, we stop learning so efficiently. We can therefore make better use of our time if we regularly switch between skills or subjects. The same goes for studies of problem solving – you will find more solutions to a task if you return to it after looking at something completely different, rather than simply spending ever more time on the same question.
It is evident in the talents of someone like Leonardo da Vinci – whose knowledge of anatomy, mathematics and geometry improved the precision of his paintings, and whose visual imagination fuelled his creativity in mechanical engineering. “These things fed off one another.”