Over the last decade, studies have confirmed that people vary also in their ability to multitask. A new study by Kristin Sanderson and colleagues suggests that to understand someone's fit to a multitasking role, it's critical to look at how ability and preference interact.
The study's 119 participants came from a range of professional occupations, which all involved multitasking to an Important or Very Important degree, as rated by independent experts. Participants then completed a computer multitasking assessment, which involved solving two types of task in parallel on a split-screen display. Each participant rated their preference for multitasking, which is termed polychronicity and is defined as how much one enjoys working on multiple tasks in parallel, rather than tackling them more sequentially. Performance data was also available, based on ratings from their supervisors.
For especially polychronic participants – those scoring one standard deviation above the mean – there was a relationship between their multitasking ability and supervisor ratings: more ability led to better ratings. But those with polychronicity ratings 1 SD below the mean received similar ratings regardless of their ability. The data suggested that their multitasking ability just didn't have consequences, which makes sense: if you choose not to do something, it doesn't matter how good you would have been at doing it.
As you can see above, when multitasking ability is poor, polychronic participants' performance scores fall below those of their monochronic counterparts (the dotted line); perhaps reflecting such individuals biting off more task-juggling than they can chew - although I should emphasise that the study doesn't explicitly test for differences here.
So, even in a job that calls for multitasking, being highly polychronic is not a straightforward benefit. If you are recruiting for such a role, bear in mind that both will-do and can-do matter.
König, C. J., & Waller, M. J. (2010). Time for reflection: A critical examination of polychronicity. Human Performance, 23, 173–190. doi:10.1080/08959281003621703