Up until now, science (and experience) has told us that multitasking is either impossible or inefficient. It might seem, then, that the most productive teams are ones where employees are focused and engaged on one task. But according to new research published by marketing professors from Wharton and Yale last fall, this may not be the case. The experiments showed that whether or not people were actually multitasking, they performed better at tasks when they perceived themselves to be multitasking. Not only did they perform better, but they were also more engaged. So whether or not multitasking is beneficial to our performance, the illusion of multitasking is.
Put another way, you actually want your employees to think they're multitasking. Here are four ways to promote the perception of multitasking among employees.
1. Clearly distinguish between multitasking and distractions.
Multitasking is different from being distracted. Multitasking involves a series of tasks each with a specific goal in mind. Responding to a text message might be a task with a specific goal, but it becomes a distraction when it takes away from another goal-oriented task. If an employee is texting a friend during a team meeting, he is distracted, not multitasking. The first step is to help your employees minimize the need for distraction. Give them space to tend to their personal needs like responding to emails and texts throughout the day so that they aren't pulled in multiple directions during collaborative team time.
2. Highlight components of multitasking within each project.
According to the Wharton and Yale professors who conducted the multitasking experiment, helping employees see the multitasking components in any given activity increases their performance. In one of their experiments, the professors asked participants to transcribe a video. Most people saw this activity as one task, but one group was primed to see it as two--listening and typing at the same time. This group actually typed more words than other groups and had higher comprehension of what they had heard. To increase the perception of multitasking among employees, highlight the multitasking nature of any assignment. For example, instead of asking an employee put together a presentation, you might instead her to identify the key points she wants to share while figuring out the best way to present them.
3. Set manageable expectations.
There is a fine line between asking your employees to multitask and asking them to do more within a finite amount of time. The purpose of increasing the perception of multitasking is to promote better performance and engagement--not burnout. The research shows that teasing apart the many components within a single assignment has benefits to performance. It is not about trying to do more tasks in less time. Set clear expectations with your employees around multitasking and collaboratively agree on the scope and time of an assignment.
4. Enable "serial monotasking."
Stanford psychologist Clifford Nass dedicated much of his life to studying the effects of multitasking on the brain. He found that multitaskers demonstrate a range of deficits and are pretty much "mental wrecks" when it comes to many tasks, including multitasking. Instead of attempted multitasking, he recommended people focus their attention on single specific tasks in twenty-minute chunks. A series of tasks, he suggested, is a healthier approach to multitasking. In line with the Wharton and Yale professors' findings, a series of tasks can also be framed and perceived as multitasking. When planning the day or organizing meetings for your team, allow for short chunks of focused work. For example, split up a one-hour meeting into 3 20-minute discussions or activities.
Based on the science, your job as a leader is to promote the perception of multitasking among your employees, without letting them actually multitask. To do so effectively, this, fittingly, may require some multitasking on your part.