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 cellphone, 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 reorganization” (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:
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.
Alzahabi, R., Becker, M. W., & Hambrick, D. Z. (2017). Investigating the relationship between media multitasking and processes involved in task-switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception And Performance, 43(11), 1872-1894. doi:10.1037/xhp0000412