Do you ever have trouble keeping track of all the things racing through your mind? Do you ever feel like your life would fall apart without to-do lists, calendars, and constant reminders?
Most of us believe the subtle shifts in memory we experience are the result of aging. The older we get, we think, the harder we have to work to encode new memories.
Researchers at the Stanford Memory Lab, however, found that aging isn't the only factor that diminishes what psychologists call “working memory”: our ability to process and store information. Another key factor is the amount of time we spend multitasking.
In the modern attention economy, we’re all guilty of this habit. We all have moments where we're on a conference call while texting, emailing, and sneaking an occasional peek at the news or social media. When this becomes a way of life, however, multitasking can begin to diminish cognitive performance and memory.
After examining over a decade of data, these Stanford researchers found that “heavy” multitaskers significantly underperformed “light” multitaskers on tasks that required working memory and sustained attention. Multitasking, in other words, went hand-in-hand with a diminished ability to process memories and sustain a single point of focus.
Why does the amount of time we spend multitasking have such a negative impact on memory?
Stanford psychologist Anthony Wagner theorizes that “reduced working memory occurs in heavy media multitaskers because they have a higher probability of experiencing lapses of attention.” The more time you spend watching TV while emailing and surfing social media, in other words, the more difficult it becomes to sustain your attention. Instead of building concentration, multitasking reinforces the mindset that psychologist Linda Stone famously calls “continuous partial attention.” It turns this scattered state of attention into a habit.
So how can we reverse the damaging impact of multitasking on memory? Here are a few strategies:
Build ‘no multitasking zones’ into your day.
The most basic way to counter the momentum of multitasking is to block your calendar for periods of full engagement on the task at hand. Close all the windows on your computer. Put your phone on airplane mode if you have to. Do whatever you need to do to silence the continuous distractions of the attention economy, so you can focus on a single task at a time.
Notice when you crave mental stimulation.
It’s no accident that so many of us struggle to kick this habit of multitasking. As Adam Alter notes in Irresistible, many of the technologies we use have been designed to create a kind of “behavioral addiction” to continuous digital stimulation. We’re drawn to that dopamine-induced hit of pleasure that results from pulling out our phone, reading the news, or scanning our Facebook newsfeed.
As a result, multitasking through over-consuming digital media is easy. Blocking out these distractions to focus is hard. That's where awareness becomes crucial. Notice each time you feel drawn to this base form of informational pleasure. Then see what happens when you resist, when you look at the sky for a minute rather than looking at your phone.
Train the muscle of sustained attention.
Multitasking is to the brain as junk food is to the body. It's the thing we crave that's keeping us from feeling our best. Mindfulness is to the brain as physical exercise is to the body. It's the daily practice that helps us build greater mental strength and endurance. So if you haven’t started some sort of practice already, try meditating for five or more minutes each day. And if you can’t do that, try using your walk from your car or from the train station to work as a time to bring your full attention to the sights and sounds around you.
Donald Hebb, an early neuroscientist, noted the core problem and opportunity at the heart of this modern predicament:“neurons that fire together, wire together.” When we multitask, we’re firing the neural pathways of distraction and diminished memory over and over again. Eventually, these neurons that fire together, wire together.
When we break this habit, however, we're firing new, more productive neural pathways. We’re wiring together mental habits that allow us to achieve deeper levels of focus and heightened levels of memory processing and recall. In short, we're smarter when we just do one thing at a time.