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The Real (and Imaginary) Benefits of Multitasking

If your idea of multitasking is watching a football game on television while texting your friends on your smartphone and checking email on your tablet, you’re not alone. In today’s technology-driven world, multitasking is an integral and necessary part of life. But are you really getting anything done effectively when you try to do many things at once? New research from Wharton marketing professor Rom Schrift and doctoral student Shalena Srna shows that multitasking is a mere illusion because it is impossible to execute more than one task at a time. Nevertheless, the perception of multitasking seems to be beneficial to performance. Schrift and Srna, who authored the paper, “The Illusion of Multitasking and Its Positive Effect on Performance,” with Yale marketing professor Gal Zauberman, shared their observations with Knowledge@Wharton.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: What was the inspiration for this research?

Rom Schrift: The thing that ignited our interest in studying this topic was the apparent contrast between how people generally define multitasking and how they actually engage in it. Specifically, although multitasking is generally defined as engaging in multiple tasks concurrently, previous research has repeatedly demonstrated that humans do not actually attend to multiple tasks at the same time. That is, when we think we multitask, we actually switch rapidly back and forth between tasks and do not attend to more than a single task at a time. This means that multitasking is often nothing more than a perception or even an illusion.

Shalena Srna: In many instances, people can perceive the exact same activity as either multitasking or single-tasking. For example, when I am in a meeting, I might perceive my activity to be a single task, but I am actually both listening to Rom and taking notes. When I shop at a store and look up sales information on my phone, am I engaging in single-tasking or multitasking? Am I just shopping or am I simultaneously browsing the clothes racks and finding deals online? These situations ignited our interest in the malleability of multitasking perceptions and how the mere illusion of multitasking might impact enjoyment, engagement and performance on the tasks.

“Multitasking is often nothing more than a perception or even an illusion.” –Rom Schrift

Knowledge@Wharton: The research notes that most people have a positive view of multitasking, but many studies have shown that multitasking isn’t usually the most efficient way to get things done. What challenges does that create in helping people become more productive?

Srna: Indeed, we find that people would like to be perceived as adept multitaskers and believe they are actually good at it. In a sample representative of the U.S. population, 93% of respondents indicated they could multitask better or as well as the average person. Given that many studies had documented that multitasking is detrimental to performance, this could potentially pose a problem as people may not be aware of the extent to which multitasking can hinder their performance on many tasks. However, our results suggest that given that a person engages in some form of multitasking, acknowledging that they are indeed multitasking could at least help mitigate the detrimental consequences of multitasking.

Knowledge@Wharton: What were the most surprising findings of this study?

Schrift: The most surprising finding of this study is that, first, multitasking is often a matter of perception. That is, individuals can perceive the same activity as either multitasking or single-tasking depending on the context. For example, imagine that you are watching two live football games on the sports channel and both games are broadcasted simultaneously on a split screen. Will you consider this activity as multitasking or single-tasking? Will thinking about your activity more broadly as “watching sports” or more specifically as “watching two live games” change your perception? If you watch one game on TV and the other on your iPad simultaneously, does that change whether or not you perceive yourself as multitasking or single-tasking? Indeed, we find that these and many other factors change our multitasking perceptions and have important consequences for our engagement and attentiveness.

Srna: The second surprising finding is that, although engaging in multiple activities is harmful to performance compared with engaging in a single task, the mere perception of multitasking is beneficial to performance. That is, holding constant the activity that individuals actually engage in, making such activity feel like multitasking improves both persistence and performance on the task.

“We find that people would like to be perceived as adept multitaskers and believe they are actually good at it.” –Shalena Srna

Knowledge@Wharton: What is the key takeaway of this study?

Schrift: Although previous literature found that engaging in multiple tasks may diminish performance, we find that, holding the activity constant, the mere perception of multitasking actually increases engagement with the task and improves performance. Thus, regardless of whether or not people engage in a single or multiple tasks, making individuals perceive this activity as multitasking is beneficial to performance.

Knowledge@Wharton: What implications does this paper have for managers? Does it bring to light any techniques managers should be using to get the most productivity out of their employees?

Srna: This work has a number of managerial implications. Many jobs require people to engage in multiple tasks concurrently. The extent to which people feel like they are multitasking may help them attend more to the activity at hand.

Schrift: Because almost any task may be decomposed to its smaller, more basic components, managers may find it useful to highlight the multitasking nature of the activity. For example, in one of the studies we asked people to transcribe a certain video clip. Most people perceive such an activity — transcribing — as a single task. However, for one of the groups we made it salient to individuals that transcribing involves two tasks that should be done concurrently, namely, listening and typing at the same time. What we find is that individuals in this group, who perceived the activity as multitasking, performed better on the task (i.e., typed more words) and also on a follow-up task that tested their comprehension of what they typed.

Knowledge@Wharton: What sets this research apart from other analysis conducted on the topic?

Schrift: To the best of our knowledge, this research is the first to examine the malleability of multitasking perceptions as well as how these perceptions impact performance. While other analyses conducted on this topic examined how asking individuals to do more hurts performance, we hold the activity constant and focus on the mere effect of multitasking perceptions.

“Individuals can perceive the same activity as either multitasking or single-tasking depending on the context.” –Rom Schrift

Knowledge@Wharton: How do you plan to follow up this research?

Srna: We are currently in the process of examining a number of areas related to this research. First, we are examining when people choose to multitask and how this informs their preference for products that enable them to multitask (like an iPad). We are also examining people’s preference for products that do things simultaneously (e.g., face wash that simultaneously cleans and moisturizes your face). Finally, we are exploring people’s enjoyment and engagement with advertising and media when they perceive the activity they are engaging in as multitasking versus single-tasking.

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