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Goodbye Multitasking—Hello Supertasking

Research shows a small percentage of people can accomplish two tasks at once—and perform better when their attention is divided. Can you?

[Image: Flickr user David Goehring]

Most of us do not multitask well. Check email while on a conference call, and you may miss a question directed right at you. Or worse, you try to participate in that conference call while driving and don’t see another motorist trying to switch into your lane. The National Safety Council estimates that in 2012, 26% of U.S. motor vehicle crashes involved the use of cell phones or texting.

But a very small number of people appear to handle multiple tasks well. These "supertaskers" are teaching scientists fascinating aspects about the brain—though you shouldn’t bet that you’re one of them the next time you try to do two things at once.

Given our multitasking world, how and what people pay attention to is becoming a well-researched topic. A 2010 study by Jason M. Watson and David L. Strayer had participants take part in a driving simulation in stop-and-go traffic. At the same time, participants had to answer questions recalling words in certain orders and answer simple math problems. Most people did neither task well. Their braking reaction time increased and their ability to answer the questions decreased compared with people only doing one task. About 2.5% of people were able to do both tasks well. Their braking time did not increase, and they scored toward the top on the word order and math questions.

It’s easy to imagine that these "supertaskers" have advantages over the other 97.5% of humanity, particularly in a world where refusing to take one client call while driving to another client would be considered horribly inefficient. No one likes to think of herself as average, therefore, plenty of high performers, hearing about the existence of supertaskers, assume they are among them.

So are you a "supertasker?" There’s an online test you can use to find out, available here. But the answer is: probably not. The New Yorker magazine writer Maria Konnikova reported on this topic recently, and found that when Strayer and his colleague David Sanbonmatsu at the University of Utah asked some 300 students about their ability to multitask, and then studied their multitasking performances. "They found a strong relationship; an inverse one," Konnikova reports. "The better someone thought she was, the more likely it was that her performance was well below par."

The vast majority of us are best off sticking to one task at a time. After all, driving off the road is among the least efficient things you can do.