Susan Krauss Whitbourne is a professor of Psychology and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She writes the Fulfilment at Any Age blog for Psychology Today.
You’ve gone back and forth into the kitchen at least 25 times, and you’ve only been up for an hour. The counter on your fitness app registers hundreds of steps, but if you could map your tracks, it would show a set of endless and somewhat confused circles. If your movements are any indication, it would seem that you’re not really doing things in an efficient or direct manner.
The reason is perfectly self-evident to you: Try as you might, you literally forget what you’re doing halfway in the middle of doing it. You can’t remember if you actually turned the coffee pot on and when you look everywhere for your mobile phone, you find it in your pocket. How did it get there, anyway?
Losing track of what you’re doing is certainly a form of absent-mindedness, but even though it can frustrate you no end, it’s a condition you can cure or at least counteract. In part, the cure comes from taking control over your own mindset. As you’ll see, multitasking is one of the most detrimental, but reversible, factors working against the kind of cognitive performance you need to keep on top of your daily memory challenges.
Michigan State University’s Reem Alzahabi and colleagues (2017) proposed that media multitasking, or what they refer to as MMT, would be related to the more general cognitive ability known as task-switching, or the capacity to go back and forth between mentally engaging activities. They also wished to learn whether MMT could actually lead to improved task-switching abilities due to the “dramatic cortical reorganisation” (p. 1882) that such activities might promote. There are potential memory costs, however, to switching between tasks in that information from Task A might decay while Task B is being performed. In other words, you can forget where you were in that first task when you turn your attention to the second one.
To test these alternative task-switching effects, the Michigan State researchers presented their 187 undergraduates with the daunting job of classifying objects shown on a screen over a series of 1,728 trials. In one task, for example, participants classified an animal shown to them on the screen as a fish or bird and in the second task, they classified an item of furniture as either a chair or a table. The tasks alternated with each other, and the investigators compared performance when there were different time periods between tasks or competing task requirements.
The experimenters manipulated the length of time participants had to prepare their responses at the beginning of each trial, the length of time between tasks, the number of stimuli presented at a time (1 or 2), and whether the tasks required the same or opposite responses. These were, then, mentally challenging tasks but they were made easier or harder by varying the cognitive demands involved in each specific task-switching arrangement.
Relevant to our question of how memory is affected by task switching, the main findings showed that although some people are better than others at multitasking, there are ways to prevent damage to memory when you are doing two or more things at once. Because good multitasking involves forgetting Task A when you switch to Task B, you want to do the opposite if you actually need to remember Task A after completing Task B.
For example, when you’re looking for your keys, but get a text message before you find them, you want to be able to remember that you need to locate those keys after you’ve responded to the message. To keep that key-searching in your active memory, you would want to get the message out of the way as soon as possible.
Secondly, the Michigan State researchers found that for preventing interference between tasks, it’s all about the preparation. Setting yourself the mission of looking for your keys, despite whatever other tasks tear you away, will help you get back to it without much decay. If you’re a good task-switcher, these preventative steps will be less important, but if you’re not, they should help you accomplish this mental juggling.
With the results of this study in mind, we can consider these 7 practical tips that will help you with task-switching, and more:
1. Give yourself sufficient warning to get back to what you need to finish when something interrupts you. Tell yourself you need to empty the trash, and remind yourself of this if you then decide to stop and add something to your grocery shopping list.
2. Stop and look at what you’re doing when you put something away. Whether in a drawer, a cabinet, your backpack, briefcase, or purse forgetting where you put an item is a special case of multitasking. Typically, people put things away while they’re thinking about or doing something else at the same time and so they forget where they stashed it. Register the location of your item by taking a “mental photo” of it and you'll be able to return to that image when you conjure up your item's possible location.
3. Do the same routine in the same order. To take advantage of pre-preparation in a sequence of tasks, making the tasks automatic will allow you to coast through them without having to check and double check at every step along the way.
4. Look behind you before you get up to leave, especially in a public place. Because people tend to think more about where they’re going rather than where they’ve been, it’s all too easy to forget that you put your phone on the armrest of the bus while you packed up your bag and put on your coat. One quick look around you will provide a built-in guarantee against multitasking taking away your attention in these potentially disastrous situations.
5. Talk to yourself or read out loud when you’re trying to remember. Locking information into your memory, even if it’s just your active memory needed at the time, will help provide another piece of insurance against forgetting. By narrating your activities while you’re completing them, you’ll take advantage of a deeper level of processing than you would if you only giving them fleeting attention.
6. Practice retrieving things you’ve lost. You know that you had your favourite pen with you a few days ago, but you can’t remember where it ended up. Develop a systematic retrieval strategy in which you force yourself to recall everything you did and where you were the last time you had that pen. This process will help you learn how to focus your attention while completing your everyday tasks so that the next time, you’ll be more conscious of what you’re doing while you’re doing it.
7. Don’t get down on yourself for forgetting. The Alzahabi et al. study showed that some people are better at multitasking than are others. The people who are good at it have undoubtedly developed a feeling of self-confidence around their mental abilities. Once that self-confidence erodes, your concern about your poor memory can become its own distraction, further detracting from your ability to attack your daily tasks with a sense of purpose and focus.
Although we think about multitasking in the “MMT” sense of the Michigan State study, everyday life is in and of itself a series of multiple tasks. Giving those tasks the attention they deserve, or at least making them more automatic and predictable, will help reduce the number of times you lose your way while performing them. Once your memory starts to improve, you can feel surer of yourself as you go about your everyday tasks. Fulfillment in life involves a range of abilities, and when you can add a good memory to the list, you’ll be able to succeed in those all-important cognitive challenges you face each day.
Written by Susan Krauss Whitbourne. First appeared on Psychology Today.