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'Great' multitaskers usually pretty terrible at it: study

No doubt you've heard that multitasking is less efficient than it sounds. But you're a human octopus – a whiz at doing many things at once.

You wish. The truth is people who think they are good at multitasking are often worse than average, according to a new study from the University of Utah.

"What is alarming is that people who talk on cellphones while driving tend to be the people least able to multitask well," says psychologist David Sanbonmatsu, a senior author of the study, published Wednesday in the journal PLoS One.

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Presumably, the same goes for the surprising number of people who walk while texting – and stumble off the curb.

Sanbonmatsu and co-author David Strayer tested 310 undergraduate psychology students to measure their actual multitasking ability, perceived multitasking ability, cellphone use while driving, personality traits and use of a wide array of media, including smartphones, television, video games and computers.

In the study, 70 per cent of participants thought they were above average at multitasking. But, in fact, the 25 per cent of participants who performed best on the test of multitasking ability were the people least likely to multitask "and most likely to do one thing at a time," Sanbonmatsu says.

The researchers suggest that people who are best at multitasking prefer to focus their attention on the job at hand.

By contrast, rabid multitaskers, who watch TV, pay bills and talk on the phone all at once, often do so not because they're good at it but because they are less able to block out distractions, the researchers concluded.

Behind the wheel, for example, "they get bored and want that stimulation of talking while they are driving."

Multitaskers appear to share certain personality traits. Sanbonmatsu and Strayer identified that people who multitask the most tend to be impulsive, sensation-seeking, overconfident of their multitasking abilities – and less capable of multitasking.

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Maybe it's time to delete "good multitasker" from the résumé. It's nothing to brag about in a job interview.

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About the Author

Adriana Barton is based in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. Her article on growing up with counterculture parents is published in a McGraw-Hill anthology, right after an essay by Margaret Atwood. She wishes her last name didn’t start with B. More

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