You may have heard the advice that multitasking makes you stupid, and while it’s true that most people have difficulty performing two tasks at once, that advice doesn’t apply to "supertaskers."
Kat McGowan of Psychology Today recently examined supertaskers, people who can simultaneously handle two demanding tasks without making mistakes, and spoke with several researchers studying them. While supertaskers are rare, research suggests there are ways to improve your cognitive control (the ability to focus on accomplishing a task with competing demands). Here’s what they suggest:
Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a neurology professor at the University of California, San Francisco, says we can teach ourselves to better exercise cognitive control. According to Gazzaley’s research, individuals who ignore distractions (colleague conversations outside your door or daydreaming, for example) are better able to juggle multiple streams of information without making mistakes.
For important tasks, Gazzaley suggests limiting the number of distractions around you. The next time you’re under a deadline, try shutting your door, silencing your phone, and closing your inbox.
McGowan spoke with Keith Alvey, a Disaster Division executive for the American Red Cross, who’s helped victims of Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, and was sent to New York City after September 11th. In a disaster, decades of experience help him to focus his attention on problems he can solve and screen out things he can’t control. For example, after Hurricane Sandy, he couldn’t do anything about flooded subway tunnels, but he could coordinate distributing food and clothing to people who’d lost everything.
Alvey suggests delegating what you can to those with a higher level of expertise, and have them report back with the results. Another way to limit distractions is to not dwell on things. Once a decision’s been made, don’t waste time and energy second-guessing your decision. "There’s no value in saying, ‘I should’ve decided differently.’ I decided the way I should have, based on the information I had," Alvey told Psychology Today.
Yes, video games. Daphne Bavelier, a cognitive research scientist at the University of Rochester, says those who play video games learn to manage multiple data streams and can track more objects than those who don’t play. For example, someone who plays first-person shooter games like Call of Duty must read instructions, make quick strategic decisions, and concentrate to complete tasks amid many distractions such as whizzing bullets and sound effects.
The good news is you don’t have to spend hours playing video games to reap the benefits. Spending 30 to 60 minutes a day playing video games, five days a week, for 10 to 12 weeks can provide excellent results, Bavelier says.
Hat tip: Psychology Today