Just believing you’re multitasking can significantly improve your performance

WASHINGTON — Multitasking isn’t a piece of cake for everyone — in fact, trying to take on several projects at once slows many of us down. But a new study finds one’s mindset may be the key to success. Research reveals that simply believing we are multitasking can lead to real boosted performance in those tasks.

“Multitasking is often a matter of perception or can even be thought of as an illusion,” explains study co-author Shalena Srna, a researcher at of the University of Michigan, in a press release by the Association for Psychological Science. “Regardless of whether people actually engage in a single task or multiple tasks, making them perceive this activity as multitasking is beneficial to performance.”

Previous research has shown that multitasking is largely impossible for humans. Paying attention to multiple tasks at the same time for us is really just a matter of switching from task to task quickly. For example, a college student in a lecture may view note-taking as a single task, but it actually involves two: listening to the lecturer and deciding what to write down. Different people define multitasking differently, but as this new research found, when people think they’re multitasking, they perform better on tasks than if they think of themselves as simply switching from one task to the next.

For the study, the researchers recruited 162 participants and gave them the task of watching and transcribing an Animal Planet educational video. Half of the participants believed they would be completing two tasks: learning about the subject of the video and transcribing the words spoken in the film. The other half were made to believe they’d be completing one task centering on their learning and writing abilities.

The authors found that participants who believed they were multitasking when transcribing the video transcribed more words per minute than those who believed they were only working on one task. A similar note-taking experiment conducted showed that people who thought they were multitasking took better notes with more words than those who viewed it as just one task.

Finally, in a third experiment, participants were shown two word puzzles on a computer screen at the same time. For some individuals, the puzzles were featured on the same background, giving off the effect of them being part of the same task. Others saw the puzzles atop of two different backgrounds, making them appear to be separate tasks — a more subtle illusion of multitasking. Again, participants who completed puzzles with different backgrounds performed better than their peers.

As for why the way we perceive multitasking can make such a difference in our performance, the authors suggest that those who believed they were multitasking were also using more brainpower to complete their assignments. That said, they don’t recommend multitasking more often or attempting to bite off more than you can chew — it may just be wiser to recognize the moments when whatever it is you’re doing really is a combination of tasks to begin with.

“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.”

The study was published October 24, 2018 in the journal Psychological Science.

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