Single Tasking – When Less is More

Multitasking, or rapidly switching your attention from one task to another and then back again, was once heralded as a necessary survival skill for our fast-paced world. But research has shown that multitasking doesn’t work for cognitively demanding tasks. For the ADHD brain – which craves stimulation and can become easily bored – multitasking is a temptation to be avoided, especially at work.

You might think that multitasking is something we do naturally every day. After all, you can wash dishes and breathe at the same time. You can drive a car and talk to your passenger at the same time. But those activities are automatic, like breathing, or they are relatively easy on the brain – cognitively less demanding. Cognitively demanding activities require focused attention, so doing more than one thing at a time means you have to switch between tasks. Going back to the driving example – experienced drivers will stop chatting with a passenger if road conditions become dangerous and they need to pay more attention to their driving.

Work-related activities are typically more cognitively demanding, and require you to focus to get things done. Trying to multitask in this situation becomes exhausting, especially if you have ADHD. ADHD makes it harder to plan, get started on tasks, manage time, guide our actions and responses, make decisions, and control emotions. This means if you have ADHD, you expend more cognitive energy just to get through daily living activities. By the end of the day, you can feel depleted.

Here are steps you can take to resist the temptation to multitask and use your time to accomplish what needs to get done:

  • Identify the conditions that will help you stay focused – Experiment and identify several specific activities you can do regularly to optimize your ability to focus. This might include regular breaks to refocus, managing sleep and diet, and if you use ADHD medication to be sue to stay  on your medication schedule.
  • Use your times of best focus to plan – This will help to alleviate the sense of being unfocused at other times. Working without a plan makes you more vulnerable to going into multitasking mode.
  • Create motivation to get you through a task – If you are working on something that may not completely interest you, start with the most interest parts first, do the task in a different way, delegate parts of the work if you can, and give yourself a deadline for each part of the task you are working.
  • Limit distractions – Avoid being pulled off task by those little tasks that will eat into the time you need to spend on your main project. This includes things like responding to emails that could be handled later. If you  are afraid you will forget to do one of these later, write it down on a piece of paper as a reminder, then continue on with the main task at hand.

Multitasking on cognitively demanding tasks is rarely produces good results. This is even more the case if you have ADHD. Learning to be a “single-tasker” can make your daily living both more productive and less stressful.


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