Are We Good at Multi-Tasking?

Patient Expert

The other day a student came into our office to ask me about a room request she'd put in online. I schedule classrooms at UC Berkeley for anything that is not an academic class - about 40,000 reservations a year. What with the beginning of the semester and the onset of midterm reviews, I'm swamped right now. So although I greeted the student, I didn't stop working on the computer, doing a room search for a request. When I noticed that she stopped talking, I looked at her and said, "Go ahead. I'm listening. I can do both." She looked dubious, but asked her question. Believe it or not, I was able to listen to her question without turning away from the computer, although I stopped working when I answered her question.

I think that I'm good at multi-tasking, probably because of my Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. When I was diagnosed with ADHD and my doctor and I were discussing treatment, he told me that he had one patient, a lawyer, who did not take his medication when he was going to be in court. He felt that he could more effectively divide his attention between the judge, witness and jury that way. That totally made sense to me.

It's possible, however, that I'm deluding myself about my ability to be effective when I multi-task. According to a study at Stanford University, I'm probably not as effective at multi-tasking as I think I am. Researchers put both a group of habitual heavy multi-taskers, people who frequently are receiving multiple streams of unrelated input at one time, and a group of light multi-taskers through a series of three tests to find out how effective they actually were. They hoped to find that the heavy multi-taskers had some kind of natural ability that allowed them to divide their attention effectively.

What they found, instead, was that the heavy multi-taskers were worse at multi-tasking than the light multi-taskers. So what accounts for this perception that heavy multi-taskers can have that they're more effective when multi-tasking? One of the study authors theorized in an interview on NPR's Science Friday that frequent multi-taskers just enjoy doing things that way.

Now that theory makes sense to me. I think that people with ADHD think they're good at multitasking because the switching back and forth is similar to our thought processes, and we're comfortable working that way. But there's a good chance we're not, at least in some situations.

For instance, the situation with my student. How was I able to listen to the student while I was still typing? For one thing, I've done both those things so often that I could practically do both things in my sleep. It seems that we are able to multi-task best when the activities are related, or if they're so basic that they don't interfere with another task. Folding laundry, for instance, can be done at the same time as watching television. After all, how much brainpower does each activity take?

I have to admit, that even after reading that study, I think it's unlikely that I'll stop multi-tasking. For one thing, I'm pretty much incapable of watching television and doing nothing else. My ADHD just won't permit it - I get too antsy, and that is not a wonderful experience for the person sitting next to me. So I may be less effective in certain situations, but I'm definitely happier.