Just believing you are multitasking can boost performance

Researchers suggest that the illusion of multitasking works because thinking we have to do more work forces us to stay engaged.

For people who believe that “perception is reality,” they know that getting someone to believe in something is as good as making it true. This strategy can apply to politics, marketing, and as new research in Psychological Science argues, it can apply to productivity too.

While previous research has found that humans are universally bad at doing multiple tasks at once, the new study found that getting people to believe that they were multitasking boosted their performance.

Why the illusion of multitasking keeps us more engaged

To get an engagement boost, you just need to be told that you are multitasking. In the study, the researchers recruited 162 participants and gave them the task of watching and transcribing an Animal Planet educational video. One group was told that they would “work on a single task” that required them to watch a video and take notes on what was shown. The multitasking group was given the same task but was told that they would “work on two tasks simultaneously.”

The reframing of the instructions worked. The researchers suggest that the illusion of multitasking works because thinking we have to do more work forces us to stay engaged. They found that people who were told to multitask showed more pupil dilation during the activity, suggesting that they were using more energy to stay focused.

“Multitasking is often a matter of perception or can even be thought of as an illusion,” Shalena Srna, the study’s co-author, said in a statement. “Regardless of whether people actually engage in a single task or multiple tasks, making them perceive this activity as multitasking is beneficial to performance.”

Even if multitasking is all in your head, the mental reframing can influence our behavior for helpful ends. Next time you have a big task and find yourself distracted, try breaking up the activity into multiple parts to stay focused.

Monica Torres|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at mtorres@theladders.com.