Wait, what? I thought people with ADHD were supposed to be good at multitasking!
There’s something intuitively appealing about the idea that people with ADHD compensate for their inattention by being able to juggle ten tasks at a time.
It’s a satisfying narrative, where us ADHDers ultimately redeem ourselves: sure, our attention might be all over the place and we might not be able to sustain our focus the way other people can, but we actually make up for it with a preternatural ability to do multiple things at once.
Why would that be the case? Well, recall that people with ADHD have impairments in what’s called executive functioning. Essentially, executive functions are our ability to efficiently make use of our cognitive resources – that is, to tell our brains what to do, to self-regulate, and to decide how to use our brainpower.
Attention is an example of an executive function. We’re telling our brains what to focus on, and what to tune out.
But, here’s the thing: multitasking is also an example of executive functioning. In fact, paying attention to multiple things simultaneously is quite a complex exercise in telling our brains what to do!
To put it another way: as far as we can tell, concentrating on multiple tasks seems to require the same cognitive skills as concentrating on one task. So if we can’t do the latter very well, doesn’t it seem like a bit of a leap to assume we’d be good at the former?
And the research that’s been done suggests that people with ADHD do seem to have a subtle but real disadvantage in situations that require multitasking. For example, children with ADHD tend to have slower response times when multitasking than children without the condition. Meanwhile, adults with ADHD seem to have their mood and motivation drop more when they have to multitask.
Of course, if there’s one thing that’s true of people with ADHD, it’s that they’re inconsistent. I’m open to the idea that multitasking could be helpful for certain people with ADHD in certain situations.
But the idea that people with ADHD are generally more adept at multitasking that those without the disorder just doesn’t appear to hold up when examined scientifically. And it doesn’t really ring true in my experience either – sure, we may end up “multitasking” more just because we have a tendency to get distracted, but that doesn’t mean we’re actually better at working on multiple projects simultaneously in a productive way.
We should let go of the idea that multitasking is our saving grace, the myth of the multitasking ADHDer. After all, we’ve got plenty of other redeeming qualities we can talk about that don’t contradict the science!