Select Page

By Heather O’Keefe | 03/19/2018 10:30

How Multitasking Improves Performance

According to authors Rom Schrift and Shalena Srna, both with Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and Gal Zaubeman of Yale School of Management, Yale University, in their article “The Illusion of Multitasking and the Positive Effect on Performance”, “multitasking is often a matter of perception.”

They acknowledge that many studies have determined that multitasking is detrimental to performance and yet their studies have shown that “the mere perception of multitasking is beneficial to performance”.

Why does this matter?  Because their research found that 84% of participants believe that multitasking is an important attribute to have and 93% of those participants believed they multitask better or as well as the average person.  So what effect does it have on behaviour and performance if you only think you are multitasking or if you believe you are not?

That is what the team at Wharton wanted to find out.  They wanted to test their theory regarding the whether the perception of multitasking actually influenced performance positively.

Prior research shows, however, that individuals cannot actually perform tasks simultaneously but instead alternate between activities, focusing on one specific activity or tasks at a time. (Kieras et al, 2000; Pashler, 1994)  Previous studies showed that switching focus is detrimental to performance due to limitations in our cognitive processing and our ability to switch gears and give the same focused attention to each task. (Leroy, 2009; Levy & Pashler, 2001; Pashler, 1994)

In this study, there were several test cases performed with different participants each time and the results were documented and published in the full article.

Each test case divided the participants into two groups.  Each group was given the exact same assignment but with different objectives.  Group one was told that the assignment was to determine their ability to multitask.  Group two was told the assignment was a single task to accomplish.  Both groups were told they would be tested at the end by being given a questionnaire to determine their ability to do the assignment and to understand what was being discussed or learned during the process.

In each of the 4 case studies with different participants being used, the groups that were told they would be multitasking, significantly out-performed the group that thought it was a single assignment.  The multitasking group was able to accomplish more during the assignment time allotted and answer correctly more of the questions regarding their understanding of the information provided during the assignment.

The studies also employed physiological measures of engagement that tracked eye movements and dilation designed to determine how their brain switched back and forth from different tasks and how engaged they felt during the process.  Their findings showed that “across multiple studies the mere perception of multitasking increases engagement”.  Why?  Maybe because this is such a desirable trait that individuals want to feel they excel in; maybe it makes work more challenging and more interesting when they feel it takes more effort.  The reason may still be as illusive as the perception of multitasking itself.

In conclusion, what are the benefits for either employers or employees from this type of study?

Employers should be aware that people do not focus well on tasks that are required to be done simultaneously, especially if these tasks are not related to each other.  However, when an employee perceives he is required to multitask but is actually really handling several responsibilities that are all part of the job, then this individual may in fact be able to be more productive and more focused on each specific task required then an individual who is not required to spread themselves over several areas of oversight.

For employers that have been wondering how realistic it is for individuals who claim to be multitasking on their resumes, this is good news.  It indicates they want to keep busy.  The study proved that busy people (who think they are multitasking) are more engaged at their job then those who are not challenged.  More engaged = more productive.  That would be a plus for any employer.  So like a placebo, the word ‘multitask’ may not truly define the characteristic of a hard worker but it may work to define a person’s work ethic.

To find out more about being productive and successful you may be interested in a human resources strategy – find out more here.

Heather is a Chartered Professional in Human Resources (CPHR), with 20 years of HR experience. She works with clients to strategically source and develop their talent by providing recruiting services, management training and performance management. Heather also consults on salary reviews, employment contracts, and the development of employment policies and workplace ethics.