You’ve probably heard by now that trying to multitask is a terrible idea. One main reason is that our neural wiring does not allow us to split our attention: when we try to attend to two things at once, all we actually do is switch our focus back and forth between them. Darting our attentional spotlight around in this way decreases our performance, as multiple studies have shown. The consequences can be deadly: texting while driving is more dangerous than drunk driving.
Even magicians use a ‘divide-and-conquer” approach with spectators’ attention, forcing us to split our focus by overwhelming our processing capabilities—which in turn renders us much less capable of figuring out the hidden methods underneath the magic.
All in all, the evidence is there that you shouldn’t multitask. But new scientific data suggest that you should tell yourself you’re multitasking—even if you’re not. The lie might improve your performance.
The research, published last month in Psychological Science and conducted by scientists from the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University, tested 8,242 research participants across a series of 32 studies.
Shalena Srna, Rom Schrift and Gal Zauberman randomly assigned participants in each of the experiments to either a multitasking or a single-task condition. Critically, all the participants in each experiment performed the exact same tasks: transcribing nature videos, solving word puzzles, and cracking anagrams, among others. Only the descriptions of each task, or the participants’ expectations, differed between the two groups. For example, people in the multitasking condition in one experiment were told that they would need to work on two tasks concurrently (learning and writing), whereas people in the single-task condition were told that they would need to work on a (single) task meant to test their learning and writing skills.
In every study, people who were explicitly told, or implicitly led to believe, that they were multitasking, outperformed those who thought they were conducting a single task. Pupil dilation was similarly larger in the multitasking than in the single-task group, supporting stronger focus and engagement with the task.
The results of this research—the authors clarify—do not negate the well-documented detrimental effects of actual multitasking. Rather, they indicate that it is the perception of one’s multitasking that can positively affect performance. For instance, one way in which I have (hopefully) boosted my productivity while writing this blog post is by thinking of it not as a single task, but as multitasking its many components: reading the original report, understanding its conclusions, making sense of the data figures, fishing for the proper words to type, et cetera.
It largely comes down to reframing. And that’s not even considering that, while wrapping up this post, I’ve also been eating dinner, listening to music with half an ear, and halfheartedly helping my kid with his homework. All I can hope is that the beneficial effects of my illusory multitasking have balanced out the damage inflicted by my actual switching back and forth between so many unrelated tasks.