More evidence that we’re not good at multi-tasking

As the popular proverb says, ‘Lessons are repeated until they are learned’.  Oh too true.  Further evidence of just that from a recent psychology study by David Strayer and David Sanbonmatsu.   70% of respondents rated themselves as ‘above average’ at multi-tasking, but it proved that only 25% of them actually were.  Two things were going on here:

  1. The well-documented ‘Lake Wobegon’ phenomena, where the majority of people tend to rate themselves as above average, as Garrison Keillor’s characters are in ‘Lake Wobegon Days’.  Most of us think we’re better drivers than average, better managers than average, more intelligent than average and so on.  We’d really rather not consider ourselves average at too many things. Yet the fact is, most of us are…average.
  2. More surprising is the finding that, when compared on a series of multi-tasking tests (including the Operation Span or OSPAN*, which requires the respondents to memorise a sequence of letters that are interspersed with simple maths problems), those who performed in the top 25% were the respondents who self-reported as least likely to multi-task. 

So the people who are more likely to focus on one thing and get it done, rather than be easily distracted and do several things almost simultaneously…are the people who are better at multi-tasking.

This is intriguing.  Did they perform better because they were able to focus better on the task, as is their habit?  Or are they squandering a gift?  What would happen if they spent a week or so multi-tasking like mad, as too many of us seem to do?  I suspect they might struggle a little more with the OSPAN test, but still not as much as those who self-reported high multi-tasking capability.  This latter group also tested with higher levels of impulsivity and sensation seeking, so are ‘less able to block out distractors and focus on a single task’.

So I’m going to stick by my plan to focus on a task and check in with my digital media at certain points in the day.  Right, I’m off to find an OSPAN test to take…


Relevant posts you may want to check out:

Why you’re not achieving your goals

Have a ‘not to-do list’

What are your priorities – really?


You can find Strayer and Sanbonmatsu’s research here 

The original OSPAN research by De Neys et al can be found here 

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