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Meet the Super Taskers
March 25, 2014 7:36 PM   Subscribe

Many people who say they can multitask show a cognitive deterioration when trying to perform more than one task at once. But according to Psychology Today, there are a small group of people who can actually multitask flawlessly.
posted by reenum (53 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Great, now everyone's gonna think they're that guy, like all the people who like to say they're supertasters.

I mean, yay, good for these people.
posted by limeonaire at 7:47 PM on March 25 [44 favorites]


So there are real Alephs. And all the time I spend playing video games helps me move towards being one? Excellent.
posted by Hactar at 7:48 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


everyone THINKS they can fucking multitask but I rarely meet people who actually CAN.
posted by The Whelk at 7:58 PM on March 25 [10 favorites]


Contrary to their beliefs, no one with whom I have ever worked has been in this group.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:12 PM on March 25 [6 favorites]


I think it depends enormously on what the tasks are. For instance I never had any difficulty having a conversation while I was driving. But those are different parts of the brain.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:15 PM on March 25 [4 favorites]


And they reserve a task slot for being smug about how they can multitask.
posted by tonycpsu at 8:17 PM on March 25 [7 favorites]


And apparently they really dig "Gattaca" cosplay.
posted by Smedleyman at 8:44 PM on March 25 [3 favorites]


A few years ago I was being urged by my managers to multitask. I kept telling them that studies showed multitasking was not effective. They would look at me as if I had three heads. The idea of multitasking slowly died away, and it's been a while since anyone suggested it to me.

I'm definitely not in the 2.5 percent.
posted by bunderful at 8:50 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


I am not one of these people. I mean, I am so not one of these people that I am prescribed medication.
posted by maryr at 8:53 PM on March 25 [10 favorites]


"So...your mutant power is the ability to pay attention to two or three tasks at the same time?"
"Uh yeah, I guess so."
"Well that's OK, we're going to send the Sentinels after you anyway."
posted by happyroach at 8:57 PM on March 25 [6 favorites]


Is there a way I can take these tests to see if I am one of these supertaskers? I know I'm going to sound like That Guy, but I find it nigh-impossible to focus on just one thing and find that I work better when surrounded by stimuli.
posted by divabat at 9:01 PM on March 25 [2 favorites]


I found this quote from the article to be very illuminating, drawing a possible distinction between the number of ongoing tasks, and the frequency of switching between them.

"Meanwhile, a quick step toward becoming a supertasker is to cut down on chronic multitasking, which may start a feedback loop that improves cognitive control. Counterintuitively, it turns out that those who multitask the most are the least able to handle it. A study from Stanford University found that in comparison with those who rarely multitask, heavy multitaskers have poorer memory, more difficulty switching tasks, and are worse at filtering out irrelevant information. It's the dark side of brain plasticity: Just as some people hone their attention through video game play, others may unintentionally train themselves to be easily distracted by constantly shifting their attention."
posted by all the versus at 9:02 PM on March 25 [8 favorites]


like all the people who like to say they're supertasters.

"Supertaster" seems like a cruel joke of a term. I mean, the only "superpower" those people have is that they're far more susceptible to bitterness than everyone else. "Your mutant power is to live in a world where you disagree with the majority as to what a nice balance of flavors is." "Woo-hoo--can I also find perfect fifth's dissonant and consider the smell of freshly mown grass nauseating?"
posted by yoink at 9:03 PM on March 25 [21 favorites]


"heavy multitaskers have poorer memory, more difficulty switching tasks, and are worse at filtering out irrelevant information. [and...] may unintentionally train themselves to be easily distracted by constantly shifting their attention.

Hello, tabbed browsing!
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:06 PM on March 25 [20 favorites]


I too think it has more to do with the tasks at hand than the subjects. I know that there are situations where I have to juggle two or three tasks at a time (usually related to film and tv and theatre) where my focus centers in and I feel almost superhuman in my abilities, much better at all three things than if I were doing them singularly (and thus, say, given a little more wiggle room to daydream and such.) But if I had to be dealing with a different variety of tasks, I'd probably crash and burn.

My total layman's hypothesis is that different people have different activities which, while requiring attention, stimulate their brain functions rather than taxing them. But again, layman's hypothesis, so probably bullshit.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:36 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


Multitasking as a positive is out; context-switching as a negative is in.
posted by davejay at 9:44 PM on March 25 [2 favorites]


Strangely there was no mention of military pilots. Flying a single-seat Wild Weasel requires enormous multitasking ability. In attack helicopters like the Apache you are multitasking to the point of all four limbs doing different tasks- and in the case of the Apache even your eyes are moving independently of each other and reading different displays at the same time. In this memoir the terrible headaches of learning to do that are discussed, as well as the pilot testing his skill by reading two different books at the same time. He also mentions more than once that even top pilots with years of experience washed out of the training because they couldn't force their eyes/brains to accept that kind of multitasking challenge.
posted by Hiding From Goro at 9:44 PM on March 25 [14 favorites]


Which is to say nothing of Mario Kart! I mean c'mon!

(Driving plus optimal item usage plus paying attention to alerts and who's where on the map. I'm only half-kidding.)
posted by Navelgazer at 10:14 PM on March 25


Forgot to mention you're doing all that multitasking at night in bad weather with a whole bunch of people trying to kill you, all the while listening to your comrades' desperate radio calls for help, seeing the faces of the soldiers you're killing at high magnification; and knowing that any mistake or lapse in concentration will kill you, your gunner, and your friends on the ground. No pressure, right?

Not hating on the article authors, but if they're going to study supertaskers let's study some supertaskers and see how deep the rabbit hole goes, you know?
posted by Hiding From Goro at 10:17 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


Anecdotally I can sort of corroborate this:

At work I absolutely cannot multitask. If I'm trying to sort through the functional requirements of the new e-commerce platform DO NOT I repeat DO-FUCKING-NOT interrupt me to answer some bullshit question about ISO8583 currency codes or whether your query should search for pending orders for the last five days vs. three days or would I like to join the local Toastmasters OR WHATEVER THE FUCK AHHHH WHAT WAS I TRYING TO DO NOW I'M GOING TO HAVE TO REWRITE THAT WHOLE SECTION DAMN YOUR EYESSSSSSSSS

...and yet sit me down at a keyboard in a jazz combo with a bunch of people I've never met before, give me a Real Book or some sheet music or, hell, just shout out some chords and watch me go. I come alive: suddenly I can play comps, rock solos, text my wife (in between my solos), think about the family budget, observe the crowd, plan a new riff for the next song with the bassist, all while keeping time with drummer. And I enjoy every second of it, it's never stressful or confusing.
posted by Doleful Creature at 11:33 PM on March 25 [11 favorites]


Drove across a lot of New Mexico while reading a book. It was a really good book I couldn't wait to read, and a very long drive. So I tried propping the book high on the steering wheel where the road was visible in peripheral vision, thinking to read a line quickly, then look up and correct the steering before it got too far off.

Instead, I got immersed in the story and completely forgot about driving. After a few pages, the car was still going along at normal speed in the correct lane, and I had no memory of the miles crossed.

Great! Something other than conscious purpose could handle driving, and I could enjoy my book.

I managed to measure, by the odometer, distances up to 3 miles covered this way, though checking the odometer at the moment when driving left conscious control was like trying to check the clock at the moment of falling asleep. Certainly longer distances were covered, probably 10-mile stretches.

If some driving situation came up that required conscious control -- a curve in the normally straight I-40, or a car coming nearer -- the part of my brain doing the driving would simply alert the conscious part. I would look up, without any kind of startle, and see the curve or car coming up in the distance.

It was peaceful, and v cool. Never been able to do anything like that since, though it seemed like a really useful ability if one could learn to use it reliably and generally.
posted by kadonoishi at 12:28 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]


Drove across drive of New Mexico while reading a book. It was a really good book I couldn't wait to read, and a very long drive.

I once watched Akira and all of Cowboy Bebop on a solo drive.

I do not recommend this.
posted by odinsdream at 2:05 AM on March 26


I have two words: Elementary Teachers
posted by HuronBob at 2:49 AM on March 26 [6 favorites]


Drove across a lot of New Mexico while reading a book.

I have an ongoing reputation for being that guy who could read a book while riding his bicycle.
I stopped doing this when I ran into a parked car, but that took a few years of doing it on and off to happen, so on the whole I'd say it was worth my time.
posted by solarion at 3:29 AM on March 26


Back in the day, I was adept at multiple typed conversations, on IRC. I would typically have several channels open plus several personal chats. I seriously got a buzz from the intensity. And it's not like I wasn't having good conversation in the process. Poor conversation couldn't hold my attention.

OTOH: Do not ask me to play the keyboard and sing. This makes me feel extremely stupid, as it matters not how well I know the music. I can not do both properly at the same time. Seems likely I play 'by ear', in that I need to listen to assure myself I'm doing it right. :-/

OTOOH: Anyone that's good at making meals is really multitasking, to make everything come out properly at the right time. This is a thing I do, most days, with the additional timing of the partner's arrival.
posted by Goofyy at 4:16 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]


Hi! I've been hit more than once by drivers who believed they were good multitaskers.

Don't do that. If you want to explore the limits of your cognitive threading, do it at home with a driving game, or in the middle of a big field somewhere. I'm fucking tired of being on the receiving end other people's deluded notions of their abilities.
posted by ardgedee at 4:17 AM on March 26 [40 favorites]


FOr pitty's ake peeple multtasking isnt that hurd im like typng this comment whlie doing at liest too other thngs
posted by Shepherd at 4:43 AM on March 26 [6 favorites]


Well I just... while reading this... oh never mind...
posted by sammyo at 5:26 AM on March 26


I suck at multitasking to the point that I *do* have a hard time driving and having a conversation at the same time. I wish I were a bit better at it. It can sometimes be a problem in my life.
posted by kyrademon at 6:02 AM on March 26 [4 favorites]


All my attempts at multitasking end up siphoning my attention to the easiest or most interesting task. I'll be working on a major project, but also there's a boring spreadsheet to fill out, so I'll get that out of the way but first I'll answer this email that just came in, wait I should clean up my inbox, and all the way down until I'm taking a break from Twitter with just one more game of 2048.

Similarly, I'm always surprised by how many people claim that doodling during meetings or lectures helps them concentrate. I take them at face value, but it's not my experience: I'm a habitual doodler, and the amount of attention I'm paying is inversely correlated to the number of doodles on my notes. The one exception is when I attempt to draw the subject matter - then I'll remember it extra well - but for the most part I end up drawing flowers and wizards.
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:27 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I'm one of those people who occasionally has to ask my wife to pause the conversation because following it is making me unable to tie my fucking shoes.
posted by 256 at 6:46 AM on March 26 [5 favorites]


According to Psychology Today, women like pink, because berries.
posted by symbioid at 6:57 AM on March 26 [3 favorites]


I'm breathing as I type this.
posted by srboisvert at 7:10 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]


I'm snarling as I write this.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:16 AM on March 26 [4 favorites]


Errr, snarking. Same thing
posted by oceanjesse at 7:16 AM on March 26 [2 favorites]


I used to work for a boss who thought she could multitask. For her that meant that several jobs went uncompleted instead of just one.
posted by Legomancer at 7:21 AM on March 26 [6 favorites]


I'm good at pooping and reading the web at the same time.
posted by planetesimal at 7:22 AM on March 26 [6 favorites]


Metafilter: I'm snarling as I write this.
posted by maryr at 8:15 AM on March 26


And ... here's one of them.
posted by lagomorphius at 8:23 AM on March 26


I suck at multitasking to the point that I *do* have a hard time driving and having a conversation at the same time. I wish I were a bit better at it. It can sometimes be a problem in my life.

I have to turn off the radio when I parallel park.
posted by spacewaitress at 9:29 AM on March 26


"Supertaster" seems like a cruel joke of a term.

Exactly. It was the nicer-brush that I used to use to describe people who are wusses about spicy foods, but I don't think it ever really fooled anyone into thinking it wasn't an insult.
posted by likeatoaster at 10:42 AM on March 26


I can drive and talk at the same time. I'll flawlessly get you to my house. Oh... we were meant to end up at your house? Oops.
posted by anonymisc at 11:04 AM on March 26 [5 favorites]


"But Bavelier has found that habitual action video gamers can track six objects."

Of course we can, duh.
posted by Our Ship Of The Imagination! at 11:43 AM on March 26


I think some of you are confusing multi-tasking with juggling. Everyone juggles.
posted by Brocktoon at 1:31 PM on March 26


I'm with divabat: I focus a lot better most of the time if I am not only doing one damn thing at the time. This is not to say that I won't do the ADHD super hyper focus thing at times when necessary, but most of the time I find it easier to not glaze over with boredom if I hop around from thing to thing or do certain things at the same time.

So yeah, bragging that I probably am one of these people, but I also probably have ADHD, so....
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:48 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]


If you ever see one of those job postings where they're looking for a 'ninja' or they say, 'excellent multi-tasker' RUN!

I am neither of those things, nor are you.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:48 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]


Human task switches considered harmful
posted by bukvich at 3:39 PM on March 26


Every time i hear this brought up i think they completely miss the point of testing what specific tasks or at least types of tasks people can multitask at.

I can barely handle walking in a straight line and typing on my phone at the same time, but if i'm playing music live i can play a keyboard and trigger loops on a control pad and noodle with other things all at once.

I am fairly convinced that 99.999% of humans can't do anything while driving except for drive though. A lot of people can't even handle turning the damn defroster on without drifting out of their lane.
posted by emptythought at 6:10 PM on March 26 [2 favorites]


I can drive, navigate, and talk. Well, okay, two of those at a time. And if I'm driving, driving is going to be one of those two things. So if I'm in the car alone, I drive and navigate and all is well; if I'm in the car with someone else, we have a conversation and I drive and they navigate and all is well. Woe be unto me if my copilot doesn't want to be a copilot or can only do one thing at a time (talk) -- the conversations end up very long because I miss so many turns and exits.
posted by davejay at 7:37 PM on March 26


As a somewhat of a grumpy old man, I often complain to the room that people who say they're good at multitasking are actually just good at being distracted. That said, I feel like there's a point at which you become practiced enough at adjacent "tasks" that they collectively become a "task".

I bet nearly everyone has some activity which seems to have a single goal to them, but which looks like twenty things at once to someone else.
posted by lucidium at 8:17 PM on March 26


I'm good at pooping and reading the web at the same time.

Behold, I teach you the Overman: he is this lightning, he is this madness.
posted by homunculus at 12:05 AM on March 27 [2 favorites]


I am absolutely a one-task-at-a-time person, and I have trouble getting people to believe me when I tell them that. I even have trouble getting people to stop talking to me when I'm on the phone with another person.

I am fairly convinced that 99.999% of humans can't do anything while driving except for drive though.

Me, too. And also, that the same 99.999% of humans believe they're actually the other 0.0001 percent who can.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:03 AM on March 27


Supermultitasking can't be a binary is or isn't thing though. Everyone can do do things at once is one of the things has been practiced so much that it's a habit. That's why most challenging hobbies stress practice. Why do you practice boring-ass scales over and over again if not to make the finger positions habit if you drop the guitar pick or have to sing while playing or something. Even pilots have to practice emergency procedures again and again so that when something gies wrong, it's muscle memory instead of conscious thought.

Not to say that supermultitaskers don't exist, but don't confuse practice with multitasking ability. If you think you're a supermultitasker, you're probably not.
posted by fnerg at 8:17 PM on March 27


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