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You're actually awful at multi-tasking.

January 27, 2013, 12:00 AM

A few weeks ago, I was in line at the grocery store and overheard the following exchange.

"The cop gave her a ticket for texting and driving.  She wasn't speeding or anything."

"I'm not sure why they make such a big deal about that.  I mean, I remember when I learned to drive -- I had this old stick-shift, not some car that did all the driving for you. You'd see me talking on my phone, eating a hamburger, smoking a cigarette, changing the radio and shifting gears simultaneously and I never got in an accident.  Not once.  But I am an excellent multi-tasker."

Uh-huh.  Yeah, sure.

It's amazing what we'll tell ourselves about multi-tasking.  We're convinced that it's a good skill to have--that we should aspire to be able to juggle 10 things at once.  We're told it's a necessity to survive in today's cutthroat workplace.  Heck, we tell ourselves we need it at home as we try to balance work and family.  We tell ourselves that we're good at it and that nothing gets lost in the mix of all that crazy going on.  But is it really true?

Maybe not.  A recent study from researchers at the University of Utah suggests that the people who multi-task the most, perhaps like my friend from the grocery line, are actually the worst at it. 

In the study, the researchers had over 300 undergraduate students go through a series of tests and questionnaires.  These measures looked at things like actual multi-tasking ability, perceived multi-tasking ability, personality traits (like impulsivity and sensation seeking), and also recorded practical information like cell phone and device use while driving.  They found a few interesting things.  First and foremost, 70% of the sample believed they were above average at multi-tasking--a statistical impossibility. 

Second, those who scored highest on the actual multi-tasking measures were the least likely to report multi-tasking in real life.  They showed good attention skills--they could focus on the task at hand.

And those that think they were multi-tasking all-stars?  You guessed it -- they were more likely to be personality types that were impulsive and sensation-seeking in nature.  Not only that, but those who reported regularly engaging in multi-tasking tended to be the ones who scored the worst on the actual multi-tasking measures.  The results were published in the online journal PLoS ONE.

If found their results really compelling--and not just because of my eavesdropping.  I feel like I'm always supposed to be juggling more, and perhaps it's a moot effort.  While the study authors suggest that people who have difficulty focusing on one task may multi-task because they can't ignore distractions--and then convince themselves they are good at it--it's impossible to gauge causation from this kind of study.

What do you think?  Are those that multi-task the most the least capable of managing it?  And should we should be heralding multi-tasking as such a good thing in our parenting and work lives?

Photo credit:  Valeriy Lebedev/shutterstock.com


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