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The perception of multitasking makes you more productive, according to research

4 min readFebruary 4, 2019

I recently read some psychology research that transformed what I thought I knew about multitasking.

The article, published by Wharton researchers in the December 2018 issue of the journal Psychological Science is titled “The Illusion of Multitasking and Its Positive Effect on Performance.” Although it is about general human psychology, it has big implications for sales managers looking to increase team productivity.

Shaming multitaskers is popular – a quick Google search reveals this Inc headline: “Why Single-Tasking is the New Multi-Tasking in 2018.” Or this Forbes headline: “Want To Be More Productive? Stop Multi-Tasking.”

The Wharton study took a different approach. Rather than bashing multitasking, they studied what it means for productivity when you believe you are multitasking.

In short, the study demonstrated that if you believe you are multitasking, you are exponentially more productive than if you believe you are doing a single task, even if the task is identical.

This is huge for sales management. Here is why:

Doing Multiple Tasks Is Unavoidable On Sales Teams

Saying multitasking is bad doesn’t make the demands of multiple tasks go away, so such advice is not helpful for inside sales teams and Sales Development Reps (SDRs).

Trying to communicate with dozens of prospects per day, via multiple channels (phone, email, SMS, social, even direct mail), while keeping a brand message and set of qualifying questions in mind, and logging everything perfectly in the CRM is hard work. All of this happens despite office distractions that are enough to make anyone lose focus – slack notifications, the loudmouth rep in the next cube, texts from family and friends, and others.

Multitasking in sales is here to stay. That means that it isn’t a disadvantage, because everyone in the industry is doing it.

If multitasking is inescapable, then sales managers need to help their team members manage it, rather than stop it, and that is where this research comes in to play.

An overview of “The Illusions of Multitasking And Its Positive Effect on Performance.”

Rather than look at how multitasking affects productivity, the study examines how the perception of multitasking affects productivity.

In other words, they wanted to understand if thinking you are multitasking vs. thinking you are single-tasking matters.

Spoiler alert: it does matter – drastically.

The researchers conducted 32 studies, and looked at a variety of factors – quality of work completed, quantity of work completed, even physiological indicators like eye pupil dilation to determine if just believing that you are multitasking can affect your productivity. On nearly every level, believing you are multitasking makes you more productive.

Even though you are technically not multitasking as far as psychology is concerned, just believing you are is enough to make you perform better. The researchers state in the paper “A more challenging task increases individuals attention and ultimately leads to an improvement in performance.”

When we think we are up against something difficult, our motivation increases.

How Sales Team Managers Can Easily Make Their Reps More Productive

The easiest way to apply this in sales management is weirdly simple, and best said by the researchers themselves:

“One implication of this research is that separating an activity into its components and merely creating the perception of multitasking could improve people’s performance...if people are already engaged in multiple tasks, making them aware that they are multitasking should increase engagement and help them perform better.”

Sales teams are exactly this – a group of people who are already engaged in multiple tasks.

In even simpler terms, if you want to leverage this hack, help your salespeople realize how hard their jobs are. Every team meeting, every coaching session, every 1:1, tell them that they have a hard job, because they do. Not only will this demonstrate that you have empathy for them and appreciate their efforts, it will make them more productive.

When you watch a sales rep navigate from a LinkedIn tab to their dialer to their CRM and back to written notes, point out how complex their process is. This work becomes muscle memory and second nature for someone like an SDR who repeats the process for 50 calls a day. But it is also another opportunity to remind them how challenging their job is – it might make them focus just a little bit more.


The power of this strategy at scale can add up. If you manage sales managers, or have a large team under you, conduct your own experiment to validate this research. Set a goal, like 40 calls a day for 2 weeks for an SDR team. Have a control group just do their normal calls, and have a test group receive coaching and messaging like what I just mentioned – tell them how hard they work, and tell them how complex their jobs are. See who performs better!

Watch the video below: