As I get well into my 50’s it seems harder and harder to remember things. I took great pride in being able to remember, memorize and recall vast amounts of data as an undergraduate and medical student. In an introductory biology class a good friend and I confidently memorized the taxonomic tables of the animal and plant kingdoms, and could spend about a half-hour just reciting this information. Clearly in retrospect this was silly, but it was what it took to get an A in biology, and we did it. Could we have accomplished the same task now with our cell phones ringing, texts interruption our progress and with multiple screens open on our laptops? Maybe not too.
In the office I have decided without doubt that getting alone in a space, getting on my EMR desktop, and managing large numbers of tasks one at a time, after organizing them into types is much faster than doing them in a mixed order in an area where there are distractions. Our EMR allows us to look at specific types of documents, i.e. phone calls, lab results, imaging results, refills etc. By plowing through each type of document then moving on to another I find I can get through them more quickly than if I do them in the order they arrive, i.e. relatively randomly. In addition if I can be alone, without distractions I can work much more efficiently.
Is this just me? All the evidence I can find suggests no, it is an inherent part of multitasking that trying to manage more than one unrelated “media” type task at the same time leads to less recall, slower work rates, and likely to impaired memory. Yes I said impaired memory. Not just reduced recall of the things a person is trying to accomplish at the time that they are multitasking, but rather overall memory. Numerous studies over the last several years come to the following conclusions:
- Multitasking leads to impaired memory, recall and learning. This is more pronounced in older individuals, but has a negative impact at all ages.
- Multitasking can affect an individual’s memory and cognitive function even at times when they are not multitasking.
- The positive effects of multitasking are largely emotional, not higher productivity.
- Older individuals have more trouble turning off their brain’s focus on one stimulus and switching their focus to another stimulus than younger people.
- Some experts have found that individuals who consider themselves very good at multitasking are actually the least effective and productive in multitasking environments.
- Media multitasking is becoming more prevalent and raises a concern about chronic multitaskers developing an emotional tie, almost an addiction, to the type of pleasurable brain stimulation media multitasking provides. (1)
- One type of media multitasking that does not seem to impair cognitive efficiency is listening to instrumental music.
So am I just developing a minor age related memory problem, or is being forced, or maybe seduced is a better term, into trying to multitask and paying the cognitive price? Maybe I’m just an optimist, but I suspect the latter and am going to try to stay more focused on the desired task at hand.