Are You Good at Multitasking?

A new study explains why some of us suck at doing two things at once

How good are you at spotting the unexpected? Or finding your keys while you put your earrings on? Many people fail to see something right in front of them while they are focusing on something else -- and now researchers at the University of Utah know why. People with so-called “inattention blindness” have trouble focusing on more than one thing at a time, according to the study soon to be published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition.

Called “working memory,” it reveals just how competent you are at multitasking. Those with a lower level of multitasking ability are more likely to get into a fender bender when talking (or texting) on their cell phones and driving, for instance. That’s not to say, of course, that people with amazing focus control should let themselves be distracted while driving. The same scientists found in a previous study that only 2.5 percent of the population is able to drive and blab away on their phone without problems. They call these people supertaskers.

Knowing how strong your working memory is can help you perform better at work. Experts usually recommend keeping multitasking to a minimum, because switching between tasks distracts us and increases the chance of errors. A 2008 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that multitasking doesn’t just lead to sloppy work; people also sacrifice speed. Those of us who are especially bad at bouncing back and forth can get weighed down. That’s why I’m lucky I work from home -- where I can control my environment and keep distractions at a minimum. My poor husband, who also works in the same cramped home office, is constantly being shushed, snapped at or ushered out of the room. As you can imagine, this propensity made me the least popular girl in my college dorm. Without fail, I was the one who broke up impromptu parties and asked people to turn their music down.

I am a singularly-focused kind of person. I zero in on one thing and block out the rest of the world. A perfect example: The other night I was at a work dinner with my husband, and was so engrossed in the conversation that I barely took in our surroundings. (I could have been on Mars for all I knew). I didn’t realize how consumed I was with trying to make a good impression until, on our way out, my husband apologized for being so distracted by the person who was sitting beside us: Gene Wilder. One of the most easily recognizable celebrities was sitting at the table next to us and I was completely oblivious. I suddenly realized why I never spot celebrities the way all of my other friends in New York do. I’m too clueless!

Want to test how stellar your attention skills are? Watch this famous video that tests your ability to focus on several things at once. Then come back and let us know how you did. Make sure you count the basketball passes accurately or the results don’t count.

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