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Cold, Hard Truth: Most People Can't Handle Multitasking

Only 2 percent of us can really juggle multiple tasks without our performance's taking a serious hit. Are you one of these outliers? This test will tell you.

You’ve probably heard by now that multitasking simply doesn’t work.

One study out of University of London showed that multitasking lowers your IQ by around 10 points, while Harvard Medical School declared war on the practice after activity-juggling doctors nearly caused fatal errors in treatment. The case against switching tasks seems pretty open and shut.

But it seems there may be a few exceptions. A very few.

David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah, has spent his entire career studying attention and warning against the dangers of multitasking, but to his surprise a few years ago, his research turned up a small segment of the population that defies his dire warnings against task switching. He calls these folks "supertaskers."

"Strayer believes that there is a tiny but persistent subset of the population--about 2 percent--whose performance does not deteriorate, and can even improve, when multiple demands are placed on their attention," explains a fascinating recent New Yorker article on Strayer’s work, but the article goes on to warn that "supertaskers are true outliers."

Am I a Supertasker?

The discovery of the existence of supertaskers is mostly trivial. As they make up such a small segment of the population, it’s still probably a good idea to view potential employees who claim to excel at multitasking with a very large dose of skepticism. But Strayer’s findings also raise a tantalizing question: Could you possibly be one of these fabled supertaskers?

Handily, Strayer and his team have put together a test to sort the true multitasking superheroes from the rest of us who merely maintain delusions that we’re above average at splitting our attention. It involves playing the role of one extremely busy bouncer at a nighclub. So if you feel that you’re an exception to the multitasking-makes-you-stupid rule and are curious how you really stack up when it comes to switching tasks, you can test your abilities here.

A Word (or Two) of Warning  

Be warned, however, of a couple of things. First, the test is hard--headache-inducing hard, according to Strayer--so you might want to wait for the right moment to give it a go.

Second, be very careful about boasting about your multitasking abilities before your skills have been scientifically vetted. It turns out that, in general, those who are most sure of their skill at juggling jobs actually turn out to be the worst at multitasking.

So, how did you do on the test?


Last updated: May 13, 2014


Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

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