Convincing Yourself You’re Multitasking Can Make You More Productive
We all know what multitasking is — we do it all of the time. Or do we?
“Multitasking is often a matter of perception or can even be thought of as an illusion,” explains researcher Shalena Srna of the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. Previous research suggests the human mind can’t really multitask — that is, devote attention to multiple things simultaneously — and that perceived multitasking is merely switching back and forth rapidly among two or more activities.
That distinction in perception may seem like splitting hairs, but it turns out it can make a big difference, with big benefits. Srna’s research, published in the journal Psychological Science, has found that the effects of perceived multitasking include a lot more productivity.
Srna uses the examples of a meeting, or shopping in a store, as examples. A meeting may feel like a single activity to some people, but others might see it as many: listening, taking notes, presenting. Similarly, some people may see shopping as a single activity, but it could also be considered multiple activities performed at the same time: browsing, price comparison and salesperson avoiding.
Her experiment found that when participants believed they were doing more than one thing at once, their performance became more efficient. Study participants who believed they were multitasking (that is, completing two tasks: watching an educational video, and transcribing it), versus participants who were coached to see view the tasks as one and the same, transcribed more words per second, wrote a greater number of words accurately, and scored better on a comprehension quiz.
In a separate experiment involving word puzzles, participants who perceived they were multitasking submitted more words per second and more correct words, compared with participants coached to perceive the exercise as a single task.
To determine why, researchers tracked participants’ eye movements, finding greater pupil dilation among the ‘multitaskers,’ which they say suggests greater mental effort to stay engaged — which perhaps showed in their performance.
The authors are clear their findings don’t suggest everyone should immediately begin piling on responsibilities and deadlines. But in a pinch, it might actually help to tell ourselves a little white lie about our activities.
“In today’s society, we constantly feel like we are juggling different activities to meet the demands on our time, both at work and at home. So it feels like multitasking is everywhere,” says Srna. “We find that multitasking is often a matter of perception that helps, rather than harms, engagement and performance. Thus, when we engage in a given activity, construing it as multitasking could help us.”