Are ADHD adults good at multitasking? How about you? Do you think you’re good at multitasking?
In fact, I often hear from clients when we initially start working together that this is one of their strengths. Like my clients, if you think you’re good at multitasking, this belief probably comes from the fact that you have operated this way for so long, and you do get stuff done.
But I’ll suggest that this is usually a false equivalency. Because, while there may be exceptions, you are likely not very productive when you are multitasking. That is, in many cases, if not most, you are not working efficiently, doing your best work, or doing what is most important to you in alignment with your values and goals.
What is Multitasking?
Let’s start with a definition.
Multitasking is when you are working on multiple tasks in the various contexts in your life seemingly at once or focusing on more than one task at a time. Typically, you are switching back and forth between tasks in rapid succession.
Some common examples include:
- working on a document or other computer-related work and checking email as it comes in.
- listening to music while reading.
- switching back and forth between preparing multiple dishes and setting the table when getting a meal ready.
- riding a stationary bike while sketching out a plan for a project.
- driving while talking on the phone.
- studying while texting.
Consider the above examples.
There are times, such as listening to music while reading or writing a stationary bike while planning, when multitasking is helpful for ADHD adults. In these instances, you can perform two tasks at once, allowing you to better focus on your primary task, reading and planning, as you are giving your floating attention job to do.
In the other examples, though, you can not give your full attention to any one task. So multitasking will come at a cost.
How Your ADHD May Contribute to Your Tendency to Multitask
One of the reasons ADHD adults may tend to multitask is because of various executive function challenges. Dr. Brown’s Model of Executive Functions Impaired in ADHD can help us see some of the reasons for this.
For example, since prioritizing, planning, and initiating tasks can be challenging for adults with ADHD, you may encounter difficulties at this stage. Consequently, you can become stuck starting or transitioning to a different task. Furthermore, if you encounter another roadblock, you could oscillate between returning to the original task or starting something entirely new. This behavior can often stem from concerns about whether you are focusing on the correct task.
ADHD adults also face the challenge of focusing on a single task for an extended period, especially when the task lacks intrinsic interest. In these situations when you feel bored, shifting between tasks might be a means to keep yourself engaged and interested.
Also, it’s essential to remember that ADHD adults have an interest-based nervous system. Unlike your neurotypical peers who can be motivated by the importance of a task, you are often motivated by interest, novelty, challenge, and urgency. So, when something captivates your attention because of one or more of these factors, it’s natural for you to switch to that task.
Another reason you may engage in multitasking could be because of your ADHD challenge managing frustration when a task becomes challenging. So, rather than persevering and seeking help when you need it, you may opt to switch to a different task.
In all the previous examples, it may appear as though you’re not consciously choosing to multitask, as it often seems to happen automatically. It does happen automatically, as by now it is a habit.
Multitasking as a Response to a Heavy Workload or a Chaotic Schedule
Aside from your ADHD symptoms, you may also multitask because you feel overwhelmed with everything you need to do. Sometimes it may feel like everything is important, and you need to put out all the fires now, right?
This sense of urgency gives you the energy to keep working without regard for priorities or a plan. And, as you drop balls when you operate this way, you may see this as evidence you need to work more and faster. I know it can feel like you do not have a choice but to keep doing everything, seemingly at once.
What Is the Cost of Multitasking for ADHD Adults?
So far I’ve covered the definition and the reasons you may multitask, including those related to your ADHD. The reason you may consider changing this habit is because of the cost associated
Let’s turn our attention to the question of why you would want to change this. And that reason is that there can be cost related to operating this way.
Multitasking can give the illusion of being busy, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being effective. You may be tackling whatever captures your attention without a regard for priorities. Even if it is not necessarily what is most important in alignment with your values and goals. You are jumping from task to task, working fiercely to keep all of the balls in the air.
Also multitasking often leads to reduced productivity because of switching costs. When you switch between tasks, your brain needs time to refocus and get back into the flow. And, as transitions are even more difficult for ADHD adults, you likely lose more time than your neurotypical peers, as you try to engage in a task.
Multitasking can also result in lower-quality work. When you’re not fully engaged in a task, you’re more likely to make mistakes or miss important details. Again, your ADHD may exacerbate this, as attention to detail can be a challenge for ADHD adults
Remember, working memory is “the small amount of information that can be held in mind for 20 to 30 seconds and used in the execution of cognitive tasks. ADHD adults have a weak working memory. When you multitask and your attention is divided you have more of a challenge holding information in your working memory to use the information to complete a tasks, such as cooking multiple dishes from recipes.
You also may not be as creative if you often multitask, as creativity can require deep focus and uninterrupted thought.
Constantly switching between tasks can also be stressful and overwhelming. If this is a habit for you, over time this may lead to burn out and impact your physical and mental well-being.
While there may be other consequences of multitasking you can think of, the last one I want to share with you is that of the increased risk of errors, mistakes and, yes, even accidents. Think of the last time you were using your phone while driving or cooking in the kitchen while juggling multiple dishes. Right.
The Habit Loop
And because it has become a habit, just as it is hard to adopt habits, it will be hard to unlearn the habit of multitasking. There is the cue, which might be boredom, frustration, difficulty starting, etc. The cue is the prompt for the behavior or habit, switching to a new task. Then you receive the reward, which might be not being bored, frustrated, or faced with a challenge.
It will be helpful to remember that it will take time to unlearn this habit of multitasking so that you will not have unrealistic expectations. And can give yourself the time and compassion you need as you work towards operating in a different way.
The Solution to Multitasking For ADHD Adults Is Monotasking
To reduce the amount of multitasking, start by practicing the habit of monotasking using the five triggers.
First, choose a task. The goal is to practice focusing on one task at a time. So it does not matter what it is.
Then, choose the location. If your usual workplace is too distracting, you might opt for a cafe or a conference room at work.
Next, choose the time. You might decide to work on the task every day for 45 minutes at the start of the day. Alternatively, you might work on it one day a week for half a day. Again, like location, it doesn’t matter. It just has to be a time that works for you.
It might be helpful to work with other people. If you don’t have someone you can work with, you could use a service like Focusmate.
Since habit stacking can help you learn a new habit, in this case, monotasking, think about the preceding action. You could start writing right after you get coffee at the cafe. Then writing will become associated with getting your coffee.
The last trigger is emotions. You know your emotions can trigger multitasking, such as jumping to a new task when bored. To reduce the chances of this, if it works for you, you could listen to music while writing, for example.
How To Get Better At Monotasking
Here are a couple of final tips to help you focus on monotasking.
When you decide what you’re focusing on, you will still get distracted by other tasks you think you should be doing.
One way to address this is to choose a time in advance when you will do those other tasks. Alternatively, you might decide to table them. When these thoughts come up while you are working, write them down on a separate piece of paper so you don’t have to worry about forgetting them. Then remind yourself, I’m doing this and not that!
Also, break down the task as much as possible. So, when you are ready to work, you feel capable of doing whatever is in front of you.
Multitasking Is A Mythical Activity
Multi-tasking rarely works. In fact, Dr. Ned Hallowell refers to multitasking as a:
mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously.