Can Multitasking Improve Performance?

How the perception of multitasking can improve an individual’s performance.

Can Multitasking Improve Performance?

BAD NEWS FOR so-called multitaskers: Time and time again, studies have shown that there’s no such thing as multitasking. Rather, when people think they are working on multiple tasks simultaneously, their brains are actually switching from one task to another. As a result, they are likely not performing their best at any.

However, a new study has uncovered a little good news for die-hard task switchers: People who simply perceive that they are multitasking perform better than those who don’t view their work as multitasking, say Shalena Srna, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor; Rom Y. Schrift of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia; and Gal Zauberman, professor of marketing at the Yale School of Management in New Haven, Connecticut.

The researchers analyzed data from 30 studies that measured participants’ performance on a range of tasks, such as transcribing videos, solving math problems, doing word searches, or taking lecture notes. Not only did participants’ performance improve when improve when they believed they were multitasking—the positive effect of that perception was twice as strong for some tasks as it was for others.

The takeaway of the study, says Srna, is not that workers should glorify multitasking—which, once again, she points out doesn’t exist. However, she and her co-authors say that people can improve their performance if they consciously note when they are attending to multiple tasks simultaneously—or if they perceive a single complex task as encompassing multiple components.

“The Illusion of Multitasking and Its Positive Effect on Performance” was published October 24, 2018, in Psychological Science.