Multitasking might be the key to success in many jobs in today’s work environment, according to at least one study.

Despite other research concluding that continually switching from one task to another is a drag on productivity and perhaps even dangerous, one lead researcher believes multitasking may be getting a bad rap.

There’s a popular misunderstanding about multitasking—that it involves doing more than one task at the same time, such as answering the phone while working on a computer. The human brain can’t focus on two tasks in the same moment. In reality, multitasking is shifting from one task to another, often very rapidly.

“Although most people believe that when they are multitasking, they are actually doing more than one thing at a time, this is actually not the case,” explains researcher Elizabeth Poposki, assistant professor of psychology in the School of Science at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis. “Neuroscientists tell us that the human brain is actually incapable of performing multiple tasks at once. What we are actually doing when performing multiple tasks is switching very quickly between them. These switches can be so fast that we do not even perceive them.”

Poposki, and co-author Frederick Oswald of Rice University, published a study on the design of a Multitasking Preference Inventory (MPI) in the journal Human Performance. The Poposki-Oswald research is focused on how to measure individual polychronicity or, as the published study states, “an individual’s preference for shifting attention among ongoing tasks…”

In other words, the research deals with how to measure an individual’s preference for multi-tasking. The value of this research would be the development of an assessment—the MPI—employers could use to identify applicants and employees with a preference for work that demands switching between tasks.

Is multitasking counterproductive? Are employees wasting time when they continually switch tasks?

Poposki suggested results of studies concluding that multitasking negatively affects performance “are not necessarily relevant to real world multitasking situations.”

She gives the example of people who often switch tasks when they are interrupted by a phone call or an e-mail. “This switch may, in fact, hurt their performance on the task they were working on before they got distracted,” Poposki says, “but may benefit them in terms of overall performance. Because few people can get away with avoiding phone calls and e-mails until they are entirely finished with a project.”

Poposki continues: “Essentially, in everyday situations people often must multitask as a result of urgent tasks that pop up in the middle of other tasks. If they did not multitask in response to the emergence of these tasks, they would certainly be perceived as poor performers overall. Another example is that of a pilot. He or she must multitask in order to monitor various gauges and displays. Focusing only on one of these tasks would be very detrimental indeed.”

So, multi-tasking is often unavoidable. “As a result, it is part of performance rather than being a detriment to performance,” Poposki explains. “If managers have a particular belief about multitasking, it seems as though when this belief fits well with the tasks at hand and the employees’ preferences, this would be a good thing. But if there is a mismatch, it may have a negative impact on employees’ performance and perhaps even morale.”

What does this multitasking study mean for employers?

It seems a given that people who prefer multitasking should be placed in jobs that give them the opportunity to multitask. By the same token, people who prefer to focus on and complete one task at a time should be placed in jobs that require such a focus. The challenge is, how does an employer, manager or supervisor learn the preferred multitasking behavior preference of an applicant or employee?

Right now, it seems, there is no easy and reliable way to know if a job applicant or an employee has a preference for jobs with multitasking demands, or an aversion to multitasking. Poposki emphasizes that she and her associates are developing the MPI and hope to test its validity in a sample of working adults.

“I think there is evidence that if a particular job requires a certain temperament or way of responding to stimuli, that assessing those characteristics would be valuable,” she explains. “Of course, with any assessment used in personality selection, there must be evidence that the characteristic being assessed is related to important job-related factors.”

On this point, the published study states: “Extroverts, due to their lower baseline level of arousal and higher need for stimulation, tend to prefer situations where they are highly stimulated… Conversely, introverts, having a relatively high level of baseline arousal, prefer less stimulation. Therefore, due to the highly stimulating nature of multitasking, extroverts are generally drawn toward and introverts are generally drawn away from it. As a result, polychronicity [the preference for multitasking] and extroversion should theoretically be expected to relate to one another.”