Multitasking: Who Excels At It and Why

Topic(s):
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. You find yourself grappling with an endless list of tasks that need completion. Boom, your first recourse is multitasking, the ability to successfully perform various unrelated tasks at the same time. Then there is ‘Polychronicity’, the preference for doing more than one activity even when it is not called for. For example talking to a friend on the phone while grocery shopping or checking email from your tablet while eating lunch.


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 does one 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, the preference for multitasking, is unsurprisingly most valuable in work environments that demand a high degree of multitasking, such as administrative roles. Individuals who love to multitask usually seek jobs that allow them to do so. However, when an individual who prefers to multitask is placed within an occupational environment that does not demand multitasking, job performance suffers.

Are there those who enjoy multitasking, but aren’t very good at it? Yes! Polychronicity leads people to take on multiple tasks and try to do them all together, because they enjoy it rather than because it is necessary. However, this behaviour is only valuable when the individual is also highly successful at multitasking. Simply said, if a person prefers to multitask, but is not good at multitasking, job performance is poor.

So what happens to someone who can multitask, but doesn’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 an individual 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.