How Well Do You Multitask? New Tool Says It Can Tell
    By News Staff | September 14th 2010 12:05 AM | 3 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    Multitasking is a part of everyday home life but increasingly a part of the workplace as well - as in anything, not all people will be suited to it.   How workers feel about multitasking and how they have adapted to it (or will) may influence their job satisfaction and the likelihood of quitting, an important factor in hiring decisions.

    A new study led by Elizabeth Poposki, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology in the School of Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis presents a new tool developed to measure preference for multitasking, information which may be of interest to bosses who tire of repeatedly hiring and training new employees.  They call it the Multitasking Preference Inventory (MPI) in a study published in Human Performance.

    "Multitasking has now become an important component of job performance for a growing number of professions - air traffic controllers, 911 operators, taxi drivers, receptionists and countless others. We found that individuals who prefer to work on multiple tasks simultaneously enjoy the experience of multitasking more. This finding may sound like common sense, but if we have a tool to assess who will enjoy multitasking and who will not, we may be able to do a better job of selecting employees who will flourish in jobs requiring multitasking," said Poposki. 

    Poposki notes that our current understanding of multitasking is relatively poor. Although many people believe that multitasking involves doing multiple things at once, the performance of multiple tasks actually requires the rapid shifting of attention among ongoing tasks.

    "Neuroscientists tell us that the human brain is incapable of doing two things at once. What we do when we multitask is switch back and forth between tasks in a manner similar to how a computer goes back and forth between programs," said Poposki.

    As multitasking becomes more prevalent in society and workplaces, a better understanding of which workers prefer to work on multiple tasks simultaneously may ultimately aid in practical issues such as staff selection and retention.  
    Next, she plans to use the new measuring tool in an attempt to predict job satisfaction and turnover among emergency response workers who multitask throughout their shifts. 

    Citation: Elizabeth M. Poposki, Frederick L. Oswald, 'The Multitasking Preference Inventory: Toward an Improved Measure of Individual Differences in Polychronicity', Human Performance, 1532-7043, Volume 23, Issue 3, 2010, Pages 247 – 264 DOI: 10.1080/08959285.2010.487843


    Gerhard Adam
    Somehow it just figures ....

    Multitasking, being the new buzz word for simply being overworked, is now considered an objective to be achieved.  After all, it's not as if people are so focused that their ability to concentrate has lead to higher and higher rates of boredom so they need more things to do.

    The simple reality is that multitasking is rubbish since those that think they are so good at it, invariably end up doing nothing very well.  It should be intuitively obvious that such multitasking that allows you to quickly shift, relates to trivial tasks and is little more than overwork.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Some skills that are actually valuable in the modern workforce:

    1.  Filtering the massive quantity of rubbish flying in from all corners of email, messaging, phone calls, web distractions, people walking into your cubicle to make strange requests, etc.

    2.  Prioritization of your tasks.  Your boss can help you, but ultimately you are the one who must keep track of all tasks both work and not work related and juggle the priorities.

    3. Meeting deadlines, which the first two items will help you do.

    If you are in certain roles you can benefit not from multitasking, but from capacity for context switching...I think people can improve their brain memory organization so as to be able to switch between contexts quicker and/or easier, but the more complicated the contexts, the more difficult that becomes.  And if you are a boss and want to improve efficiency and quality, you will try to reduce the amount of context switching and multitasking workers need to do per day.

    Gerhard Adam
    I understand what you're saying, but I find it curious that 30 years, it was considered the model of success if you went to great pains to delegate as much work as possible.

    Once PC's entered the workforce, it suddenly became a requirement that every formerly delegated task went back to individuals.  So while there may have been a secretary and administrative assistants that help provide the paperwork background, now I've got to deal with all the nonsense that people can generate, including all the PR that invariably floats around a company.

    So I've become busier without any improvement in "productivity".

    As I said before, I don't see much multitasking except in the trivial sense.  If there's real work or effort that has to be expended, it simply isn't possible or viable to do much context-switching.  It only reduces the quality of the results.
    Mundus vult decipi