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?

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.

[Image: Flickr user David Goehring]

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3 Comments

  • The general consensus is that there is such thing multitasking. One well-known researcher, Clifford Nass, a psychology professor at Stanford University, (http://ow.ly/yJX7C) wrote that “there is no such thing as multitasking when it comes using the prefrontal cortex, the thinking part of our brain; sure we can breathe while eating, but when it comes to thinking tasks, we are really doing ‘multi-switching,’ quickly switching back and forth between tasks.” Nass says,”we only have about three bits' worth of information we can mess with at any one time.” This is corroborated by empirical research published in a 2009 Neuron article (http://ow.ly/yJXXv).

    So it looks like super-taskers are really super-switchers, which by the way is a skill that many researchers believe can be learned.

    But I agree with your conclusion; unless you are a super-switcher or invest the time and effort to become one, it’s best to do one thing at a time.

  • Andrea Eskin

    I deliberately failed the whole thing. Why? It's not fair for anyone to decide who's "cool" and who's "not cool." Let everybody in and let them sort it out. I guess this is why I'm a writer and not a door monitor/bouncer.

  • Hi Laura- Great article! Thank you for pointing out that there is an inverse relationship between perceived multitasking success versus reality. More, I'm glad to read that one's potential of being a supertasker is very low. whew! So many aspects of life and business require focus. Unfortunately, technology has contributed to our general acceptance of multitasking. I think this has left folks scattered and unable to prioritize. As a result, there is lots of mediocre work out there, relationship building has suffered, and customer service has dwindled. No one likes to be on the receiving end of distracted attention....regardless of whether you're good at it or not. Thanks, Lori Kajkowski