Multitasking in the IT Field

Multitasking in the IT Field

IT Employees are wired as never before. 24x7 via phone, email, text and social media. This requires a very high degree of multitasking. One would think that employees who multi-task are far more productive than other employees. Sanbonmatsu, Stayer, Medeiros-Ward and Watson (2013) found that people are very poor judges of their ability to multi-task. If you have people who are multitasking a lot, you might come to the conclusion they are good at multitasking The study found that the more likely they are to do it, the more likely they are to be bad at it. The data showed people multitask because they have difficulty focusing on one task at a time. They get drawn into secondary tasks - they get bored and want a secondary form of stimulation.

One would also expect there to be generational differences in the degree of mulittasking. Voorveld and van der Goot (2013) actually found this not to be the case. In a study that provided insight into age differences in media multitsking, it was found that the only differences in multitasking were the combinations of what was being multitasked. The youngest study subjects (13-16 years old) combined music with online activies, while the oldest study group (50-65) generally combined radio with e-mail or newspapers. The degree of multitasking was the same for both groups, however.

Multitasking really consists of four practices – multitasking, task switching, getting distracted and managing multiple projects. It turns out that the highly productive practice of having multiple projects, typical for a normal employee, invites the use of rapid task switching, which is considered non-productive. Interestingly, it has been found that people have a better recollection of uncompleted tasks. Known as the Zeigarnik effect, for psychologist Bertha Zeigarnik who first identified the effect in the 1920s, employees with multiple responsibilities tend to engage in rapid task switching. We jump from task to task because we just can’t forget about all of those tasks left on the “to do” list. So, how do we encourage employees to deal with all of these tasks towards enhancing performance and productivity? One technique, quite natural for IT staff, is to create lists of what you need to do and to review the list frequently enough to make sure you don’t miss anything.

Give that multi-tasking can slow things down a bit, it does have a benefit. Some suggest that this switching back and forth between tasks prime people for creativity (Caron, 2010; White & Shah, 2011). Psychologists use the term “low latent inhabitation” to describe the filter that allows people to tune out irrelevant stimuli. These filters let us get on with what we’re doing without being overwhelmed by all of the different stimuli we’re subjected to. It seems that people whose filters are a bit porous have a creative edge because letting more information into one’s cognitive workspace lets that information be consciously or unconsciously applied. Essentially, it’s easier to think outside the box if the box is leaky. Additionally, a plethora of tasks (or things to do) just might help us forget bad ideas.

There are several suggestions for dealing with multitasking. First, only multitask when it is appropriate. Sometimes it is appropriate just to focus on one task (keep that in mind the next time you have surgery.) Agile development techniques talk about development in short sprints. The same is true for dealing with a large number of tasks. Focus in short sprints, say 25 minutes, breaking for five minutes and so on. Finally, and this is something the organization can help with, cross-fertilize. Be creative by working across different organizational units or across many projects. Those unexpected connections can lead to the next a-ha moment.



Caron, S. (2010). Your creative brain: Seven steps to maximize imagination, productivity, and innovation in your life. Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass.

Sanbonmatsu, D.M, Strayer, D.L., Medeiros-Ward, N., Watson, J.M. (2013). Who multi-tasks and why? Multi-tasking ability, perceived multi-tasking ability, impulsivity, and sensation seeking. PLoS ONE, 8 (1): e54402 DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0054402

Voorveld, H.A.M. & van der Goot, M. (2013, September 6). Age differences in media multitasking: A diary study. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 57(3).

White, H. & Shah, P. (2011, January). Creative style and achievement in adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, 50. 673-677.



This blog entry is an edited excerpt from my new book entitled, Managing IT Performance to Create Business Value, due to be published late in 2016.

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Jessica Keyes



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