Can You Train Yourself To Become A "Supertasker?"

From playing video games to exercising cognitive control, studies suggest you can train your brain to multitask, even if you weren't born that way.

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:

1. Eliminate distractions.

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.

2. Focus on what you can control and ignore the rest.

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.

3. Play video games.

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

[Image: Flickr user JD Hancock]

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1 Comments

  • Chelsea Leger

    I can't say that I agree with the overall message. I think there are plenty of people who are able to juggle two tasks without making mistakes, but I don't think that's the issue. There isn't any arguing the fact that if you are focusing on two or more tasks, your attention is DIVIDED. You may not make mistakes, but your quality of work will not be the same as when you focus all of your attention on one task at a time. For the vast majority of us, mono-tasking produces better results and helps us to become more mindful, which has shown benefits in all areas of life. There's a pretty good explanation of mindfulness on the meditationshift.com blog. I think the tips this article has are good, but I don't think we should strive to become "super-taskers". I think we should strive to become more mindful and present. Quality over quantity.