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The Latest Study on Multi-Tasking is One to Focus On … Hey, Eyes Over Here

By Lisa Marshall

As I type these words, the nagging green light on my Droid is beckoning me to peek at a text, my inbox is taunting me with a new email, and my Facebook page is alerting me that a distant cousin from Indiana would like to be my friend. I also have a bagel toasting in the oven, a load of laundry going, and a 14-year-old daughter presenting me with a permission slip to sign.

Good thing I have such a knack for multi-tasking. Or do I?

“In reality, the people who multi-task the most are probably the least capable of doing it,” says University of Utah Professor of Psychology David Strayer, author of a new study out this week concluding just that.

For the study, published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One, Strayer and his colleagues ran 310 psych undergrads through a battery of memory and math tests aimed at determining just how good at multitasking they really are. Then they asked them how good they think they are. Then they asked them how often they do it.

As it turns out, most everyone thinks they are a good multi-tasker (70 percent pegged themselves as above average). But oddly, those who spend the most time simultaneously texting/talking and driving or using multiple gadgets scored the worst on the multi-tasking tests. Meanwhile, the 25 percent who scored the best were the ones least likely to multi-task. (Of note: People who scored high on sensation-seeking and impulsivity tests also tended to be chronic multi-taskers.)

The authors conclude that many people multi-task not because it boosts their work performance or makes life go smoother, but because they are bored and not very good at staying on task.

Not terribly surprising news, but the ramifications are troubling:

In essence, it means the people you see talking and driving are the ones least able to do it safely. (Despite laws prohibiting it in Colorado and elsewhere, 58 percent of high school seniors say they text while driving, according to the CDC). As car manufacturers creatively add gadgets to enable them to make dinner reservations, update their Facebook status, and catch the latest episode of Glee while boarding the Freeway onramp, things could get even scarier.

Research also suggests that increased multi-tasking in the Emergency Room could be leading to increased medical errors. And who can forget the pilot who forgot to lower his landing gear because he was, uh, distracted by his cell phone?

Previous studies from Stanford also show that chronic multi-taskers tend to have worse memories, take longer to switch back and forth between tasks, and have a harder time getting their bearings once they land back on task one. As Professor Clifford Nass puts it, we become “suckers for irrelevancy.” We are so used to being distracted, that no task is sacred anymore, and everything distracts us.

The jury is still out as to whether our chronic multi-tasking has muddled our brains or our muddled brains make us want to multi-task more. But for now, the bottom line is this:

To do something a lot when you are really bad at it is generally a dumb idea.

I’ll keep this in mind as I fire up my gadgets tomorrow.

Lisa Marshall is a freelance health and medical science writer who lives in Lyons, Colorado. Connect at www.lisaannmarshall.com.

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