Multitasking: Who Excels at It and Why

Topic(s): job performance
Publication: Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology (2013)
Article: Multitasking: Do preference and ability interact to predict performance at work?
Authors: Sanderson, K. R., Bruk-Lee, V., Viswesvaran, C., Gutierrez, S. and Kantrowitz, T.
Reviewed by: Arlene Coelho

Sometimes 24 hours in a day are just not enough. Employees find themselves grappling with an endless list of tasks and must resort to multitasking. Past research has pointed out that multitasking can be a disadvantage, because at times some of the tasks aren’t performed as well as they should be. However, when most job descriptions demand multitasking, how do employees get by? The authors of the current paper explore two related yet distinct sides of multitasking: the ability to multitask and the preference for multitasking. The paper explores how the preference for multitasking affects the quality of job performance.


Polychronicity, or the preference for multitasking even when it is not called for, is unsurprisingly most valuable in work environments that demand a high degree of multitasking, such as administrative roles. People who love to multitask usually seek jobs that allow them to do so. However, when employees who prefer to multitask are placed within an occupational environment that does not demand multitasking, job performance suffers. What about people who enjoy multitasking, but aren’t very good at it? Simply put, this can also cause job performance to suffer.

What happens to employees who can multitask, but don’t like to do it? Some workers prefer to carry out one task at a time and easily ignore the other activities around them. In a situation that demands multitasking, these individuals may not be productive because the environment runs counter to their inherent work tendencies. Not only may they turn out to be poor multitaskers, but they may never attempt to multitask in the first place.


Consequently, the finest fit for an organizational environment that demands multitasking is a person who both enjoys multitasking and multitasks well. Being aware of the two components of multitasking can help HR professionals establish a better job fit for organizations or roles that depend largely on multitasking.