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Multitasking and MS

By Matt Cavallo

The longer I live with MS, the more difficult things become for me. It isn’t a drastic, dramatic difference, but rather, more subtle changes I notice that may not be apparent to those who see me every day. One of the areas where I notice a severe drop off in my skills, however, is with multitasking.

When I started my professional career, I would always take on more than I could handle because I knew that no matter what I was given, I could get it done because I was a good multitasker. I could be present and participating in a meeting, while writing a report for a deadline. I could hold down a full-time job, write a full-length memoir, and learn how to walk again after an onset of transverse myelitis

Not only was I able to focus on multiple tasks at once, I could complete them at a high level. That all started to change after my last major relapse in 2016. That relapse affected my cognition. Initially, I focused only on my physical deficits. I had lost function of the right side of my body so I intensely rehabbed to walk without a limp and use my right hand in any meaningful way again. Then, I started to notice the cognitive deficits.

Before this relapse, I could flip my mind back and forth between tasks. No matter how many tasks demanded my attention, I could complete them thoroughly and accurately. After the relapse, everything changed. I try my best to hide it, but it is noticeable especially at work. 

I started missing tasks. If I was working on something and somebody asked me something else, I would have no recollection of the conversation or request because I needed to maintain a singular focus to get anything done. So, with the difficulties associated with MS and multitasking, I had to learn to adapt. Here are some strategies to help manage multiple tasks with MS.

1. Acknowledge that multitasking and focus is a problem. This sounds simple, but the first step to overcoming a problem is to acknowledge the problem. As mentioned earlier, these changes can happen gradually so you may not realize the degree your function has slipped.

2. Seek help. Talk to your neurologist about how difficult multitasking has become. Also think about seeing a speech language pathologist for an evaluation. SLPs can teach you compensatory strategies for managing cognitive issues.

3. Keep a notebook and pen on hand. When I am trying to do two things at once, I need to stop and take notes. If someone says something important, I stop and write it down. This way, I know who said what and what my responsibility is. 

4. Ask questions. If you are looking at your notes and you aren’t clear on your responsibilities, ask questions. When focusing on more than one thing at once, you can miss major details. Asking clarifying questions shows you are engaged without giving away that it was a cognitive issue.

5. Don’t beat yourself up. At first, I would be super frustrated with myself because I could not multitask at my previous levels. Holding onto that frustration can lead to stress, anger and be detrimental to your overall mental health. Accepting that you have some limitations is the key to being able to overcome them.