Managing People with Self-Induced ADHD (er… Chronic Multitaskers)

“… multitasking people not only perform each task less suitably, but lose time in the process.”

You see it all the time. Wherever a group of people gathers, someone sits with hands cupped around a small object held at about knee level, thumbs flying as he dispenses text characters to a far off receiver. Every few seconds he glances up to make quick, token eye contact with the person speaking, not really seeing the speaker, but offering up a glassy-eyed stare or vacant smile while his brain contemplates the content of the pixels on his screen.  Sometimes he hazards a not-always-appropriate comment, then it’s quickly back to his little LCD screen. At other times, you think you’re engaged in a task-focused, one-on-one conversation when suddenly the table vibrates or a ring tone chirps and the person you’re talking to is gone, staring at the screen and clicking away a response to a distant contact who simply couldn’t wait for a reply.

Meanwhile, somewhere down the hall, hidden away from prying eyes, a writer lurches along forming a sentence, beginning another, then being jolted out of her flow by a little beep announcing the arrival of a new chat message or a fresh news headline. Whether this latest incoming information is of value to the writer’s project really doesn’t matter. It immediately gets full mindshare and pulls attention away from the moment. And when the writer returns to the piece she was creating, she struggles for a few minutes getting back into the rhythms of her phrasing.

They Call It Multitasking

They call it multitasking. And those who practice it are sometimes smugly proud of their ability to do it. But here’s what Wikipedia tells us about multitasking (my bold added):

“Since the 1990s, experimental psychologists have started experiments on the nature and limits of human multitasking. It has been shown multitasking is not as workable as concentrated times. In general, these studies have disclosed that people show severe interference when even very simple tasks are performed at the same time, if both tasks require selecting and producing action… Many researchers believe that action planning represents a ‘bottleneck’ in which the human brain can only perform one task at a time. Psychiatrist Richard Hallowell has gone so far as to describe multitasking as a ‘mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously.’ …

Because the brain cannot fully focus when multitasking, people take longer to complete tasks and are predisposed to error. When people attempt to complete many tasks at one time, or [alternate] rapidly between them, errors go way up and it takes far longer — often double the time or more — to get the jobs done than if they were done sequentially... This is largely because the brain is compelled to restart and refocus… [One study] found that in the interim between each exchange, the brain makes no progress whatsoever. Therefore, multitasking people not only perform each task less suitably, but lose time in the process.” —

I Call It Self-Induced ADHD

ADHD is defined as “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.”  Wikipedia tells us that: “Inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity are the key behaviors of ADHD.”   The article goes on to list these symptoms (among many others) exhibited by people who have ADHD:

  • … easily distracted, miss details, forget things, and frequently switch from one activity to another
  • … difficulty focusing on one thing
  • Become bored with a task after only a few minutes, unless they are doing something enjoyable
  • … difficulty focusing attention on organizing and completing a task or learning something new
  • … trouble completing or turning in … assignments, often losing things (e.g., pencils, toys, assignments) needed to complete tasks or activities
  • … Not seem to listen when spoken to…”  —

In my view, the symptoms above describe many of the self-labeled “multitaskers” who show up in my classes, in meetings, and in social settings ranging from having lunch to enjoying a holiday get-together. And, despite their protests to the contrary, in work-related settings they are simply not as effective as they believe themselves to be. Consider this from, Deborah Gray, a writer who has ADHD and enjoys multitasking (my bold added):

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.”  – Deborah Gray, “Are We Good at Multi-Tasking?”  —

Helping Compulsive Multitaskers Become More Effective

From the perspective of a project manager who is trying to keep people focused on project results, there seems to be no practical reason to distinguish compulsive multitaskers from those who suffer from ADHD. Therefore, if we want to help these people become more effective on our projects, we need to be aware of some of the tips and tools that ADHD treatment professionals suggest for their patients. The website provides personalized suggestions for coping with ADHD based on your taking a short assessment. I believe many of these tips could help our compulsive multitaskers (those with self-induced ADHD) become more effective on our project teams.  Here’s a list of some that seem most promising:

Some “Tips for Work” from

  • Don’t let yourself be interrupted. At work, commit to time blocks when you’ll let the phone and e-mail go unanswered while you focus on the task at hand. If you work in an office, don’t allow colleagues to drop in and take you off track. Instead, suggest that they make appointments to meet with you.
  • Control interruptions, don’t let interruptions control you. Don’t get caught up in another situation until you’ve completed what you’re currently doing.
  • While at your desk, keep only what you’re working on in front of you. Get everything else out of your line of sight.
  • As someone is talking to you, check in periodically to what’s being said. Paraphrasing is a good way to make sure you understand.
  • When working, especially when doing challenging work, find quiet times when others are not around; close your door for added privacy, come in early, work when others take lunch, etc.
  • See if your desk can be placed in an area free from distractions, such as windows and doors, preferably in an area with less traffic. It’ll keep your mind from wandering and discourage unexpected visitors.
  • Have an office? Arrange furniture so your desk faces away from the doorway. It discourages people from walking in and interrupting you.
  • When someone makes a request, repeat it aloud so you hear yourself saying it. This also helps ensure that you both heard the request accurately.
  • Use a color code system of file folders at your desk to keep track of deadlines, due dates, birthdays, school or child information, and tasks to be completed.
  • Divide tasks according to your strengths. Doing things you are best at first will help increase your chances of sticking to them through completion. This may help you finish unwanted chores as well.
  • Use a printed or electronic day planner. Write in daily appointments, important dates to remember, and time allotted for important tasks to be completed. Be sure to include personal things you want to get done as well, like working out, kids’ activities, etc.
  • Don’t critique what you’re doing until you’ve completed it. That way, you can avoid getting distracted by perfectionism or frustrated at how much you have left to do.

Some “Tips for the Home” from

[PM translation: Tips for enhancing interpersonal skills?]

  • Face people and make eye contact when speaking with them. It lets them know you’re paying attention and helps you do exactly that.
  • Pause after expressing each point in a conversation, and wait for a response before continuing to talk.
  • When someone’s speaking, concentrate on waiting until he/she ends his/her sentence before you jump in. If you have a question, ask permission before asking it: “Excuse me, may I ask a question?”
  • Listening silently to someone’s long story bonds them socially to you. And all you have to do is be silent!
  • If you impulsively blurt out comments that you later regret, learn to take notes, and write down what you’re thinking of saying. This will give you time to consider: Is this a good thing to say? What is the best way to say it?
  • Slow down. A breath between sentences will help you control the rush of words bursting out of your mouth and give others a chance to take in what you have to say.

I recommend you share the lists above with your project team. 

Better yet, have the appropriate members of your team go to the website and take the personalized assessment, followed by the personalized diagnosis and suggestions. Talk about this together as a team or in one-on-one sessions with your worst offenders. This way you can get a helpful dialogue started about all your team’s multitaskers and how you can increase their effectiveness.

Conclusion: Don’t Try to Work Stoned!

Here’s a pertinent quote from Brian Johnson’s PhilosophersNotes on Tal Ben-Shahar’s book Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment.  Brian writes:

“For the record, when Ben-Shahar tells us that ‘checking our e-mail every few minutes takes away from our productivity and creativity and ultimately makes us less happy,’ he’s not making a flippant remark. He cites a study that shows workers so distracted suffer a greater loss of IQ than someone smoking marijuana.”

So… would you tolerate your project team members lowering their IQ by smoking marijuana on the job? Probably not. Then how can you ignore the potential loss of effectiveness that comes from their twitchy multi-tasking or “self-induced ADHD?” As project manager, you need to help your compulsive multitaskers find ways to unplug from the data stream, focus on handling one task at a time, and increase the quality of their work.

As Brian Tracy says in his book Focul Point:

“When you concentrate single-mindedly on a single task, without diversion or distraction, you get it done far faster than if you start and stop and then come back to the task and pick it up again. You can reduce the amount of time you spend on a major task by as much as 80 percent simply by refusing to do anything else until that task is complete.”

So for the sake of your project’s efficiency, and the sanity of your project team, you have an obligation to help your compulsive multitaskers kick the habit and transcend their self-induced ADHD!



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