Multi-tasking: Those Who Do It Poorly Do It More! - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #635

Multi-tasking: Those Who Do It Poorly Do It More!

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A new study reveals that the people who multi-task the most are the people who are less skilled at multi-tasking. The problem is that the reasons people multi-task (for example, they are easily bored and easily distracted) are the very reasons multi-tasking doesn’t work well (easily bored and distracted, they can’t stay focused on the two tasks they are trying to do simultaneously).


Most people multi-task because they think they can do it well — and that they will acquire the rewards of multi-tasking, such as saving time and being less bored with a single task. The truth, a new study shows, is quite the opposite. The people who multi-task the most are the people who derive the least benefit from multi-tasking.

Previous research has shown that certain personality traits lead to greater tendencies to multi-task. One of those traits is impulsivity. Impulsive people are more likely to suddenly abandon a task in the middle to switch to something else, and then try to continue both tasks at the same time. Another trait is sensation seeking. People who are easily bored and want to be stimulated are more likely to skip between tasks rather than stay diligently focused on one task until it is completed.

Impulsivity and sensation seeking are traits of what psychologists call ‘approach orientation’. This refers to people who are reward-focused — they are on the constant lookout for rewards. The opposite is ‘avoidance orientation’ which refers to the tendency to avoid losses. Thus, while some people are always on the offensive, looking for what they might gain, others stay on the defensive, striving to protect themselves against loss.

How does approach orientation and the type of personality traits that supports it — such as impulsivity and sensation seeking — relate to the ability to multi-task?

One of the keys to effective multi-tasking is executive attention — a term that describes the ability to stay focused on a task and not be distracted. Executive attention is important when trying to accomplish a task; it becomes even more important when trying to accomplish two tasks at the same time. Impulsivity and sensation seeking undermines executive attention because impulsive, stimulation-hungry people don’t have the control to stay focused. Thus, approach orientation – the search for rewards — leads to less effective multi-tasking. On other hand, cautious, loss-avoidance individuals are more likely to keep on task and ensure that they finish what they have started.

In sum, the personality traits and approach orientation that pushes people to multi-task is the reason that they fail at multi-tasking. The study proves this effect through the participation of 310 psychology students who took or responded to a variety of tests, questionnaires and assessment tools that measured:

  • executive attention
  • perceived ability (how the subjects perceived their own ability to multi-task)
  • actual ability to multi-task
  • multi-tasking activity (this was measured by a questionnaire on the use of different media, as well as specific questions concerning cell-phone usage while driving)
  • impulsivity
  • sensation seeking
  • approach vs. avoidance orientation

The analysis of the resulting data confirmed some distressing conclusions:

  • Respondents with more actual multi-tasking ability were less likely to multi-task, and vice-versa: the people with less ability were more likely to multi-task.
  • Respondents who (erroneously, the statistics show) thought they were good at multi-tasking were more likely to multi-task.
  • Respondents with less executive control were more likely to multi-task.
  • Respondents with a strong approach orientation and weak avoidance orientation (e.g. with greater impulsivity and sensation seeking) were more likely to multi-task.


We lead busy, complicated lives and this applies especially to our work lives. This research shows that multi-tasking may not simply be an effort by productive people to be more productive, but rather the result of easily distracted people being easily distracted. Employers and managers will want to recognize the difference, and be forewarned that those who multi-task the most are the least effective multi-taskers. Employers and managers must ensure, whether through personal development and mentoring or through vigilance, that employees are multi-tasking when it is truly warranted — and effective.



Who Multi-Tasks and Why? Multi-Tasking Ability, Perceived Multi-Tasking Ability, Impulsivity, and Sensation Seeking. David M. Sanbonmatsu, David L. Strayer, Nathan Medeiros-Ward, Jason M. Watson. PLOS One (January 23, 2013). 

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Idea conceived

January 4, 2013

Idea posted

Nov 2016
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