There’s a significant body of research that suggests multitasking is bad for productivity. But a new study adds nuance to those findings. Turns out, there are ways of thinking about multitasking that can enhance, rather than detract from, our performance, particularly on tasks we find mundane.
Lead study author Shalena Srna, Ph.D., an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, tells Thrive Global that her interest in the study arose from the contrast between how people define multitasking (as performing multiple tasks at the same time) and how they actually engage in it.
“Previous research tells us that humans cannot actually attend to multiple tasks concurrently, so when we think we are multitasking, we are actually switching rapidly back and forth between tasks and do not attend to more than a single task at a time,” Srna says. She and her team focused their research on how perceiving an activity as either multitasking or single tasking impacts performance, she explains.
The results are striking. “When a given activity is perceived as a multitasking activity, people perform much better. They persist longer and also perform more efficiently and accurately,” Srna says. While adding extra tasks to your load at any given moment (trying to literally multitask) hurts performance — by causing you to lose time and mental energy by shifting between tasks or topics — thinking abouta single task as a multitask improves performance, her research found, particularly when you mentally reframe a boring task. The researchers hypothesize that this effect has to do with increased engagement: when you conceptualize one task as a more complex, multi-part task, your brain brings more energy and power to the table.
For instance, attending a mundane meeting can feel like a single task, but recognizing that the activity has more than one component (listening, giving feedback, taking notes to use later) can trigger perceptions of multitasking, and therefore improve your engagement, efficiency and comprehension, Srna explains.
Sometimes in our busy world, we do need to do more than one thing at once. If you engage in several activities at the same time, you should at least acknowledge that you are multitasking, Smna advises. “When I am juggling different tasks, I try to be aware that my attention is torn between different tasks and perceive my activity as multitasking,” she says. “It helps with engagement and performance.”
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