Why Older Adults Are Lousy Multitaskers

I’m a multitasker. I started today by simultaneously eating breakfast, watching CBS
This Morning, and reading an article on Pope Francis. Later, I jumped from
computer to tablet to phone. Unfortunately, whenever I multitask I miss out on
important information, skip steps, and often have to backtrack. I’m a multitasker, but not a successful one.

Multitasking. Image from www.Christmaholic.nl

Multitasking. Image from http://www.Christmaholic.nl

Part of the problem is my age. Multitasking depends on working memory, the memory system that keeps information in awareness so that it can be manipulated or worked on. We rely on working memory not only to multitask but to keep in mind what we’re doing as we complete such everyday things as cooking, cleaning, carrying on a conversation, and remembering why we just came into a room. Unfortunately, working memory declines with age. That means that as we age we can keep fewer things in mind, and often a single task fills or overflows our working memory baskets, with no room for anything else.

One study, described by Charles Q Quoi at Livescience, had younger (average age 25) and older (average age 69) adults work on a task, then interrupted them periodically. Young and old subjects paid equal attention to the interruption, but the older subjects had more difficulty in subsequently uncoupling attention from the distraction and reattaching it to the original task. We older adults can’t move readily from one task to another. Susan, who blogs at “Help! Aging Parents!”  describes how, in the midst of multitasking holiday chores, she forgot to publish her planned post. She recommends that we follow the example her 100-year-old mother-in-law, who solved her problem with disorganization by focusing on one task at a time. She also provides a helpful link to a Mayo Clinic webpage titled “Stop Multitasking and Learn to Focus.” The author Amit Sood, M.D., recommends that we do the following to improve our ability to complete tasks:

• Eliminate distractions, particularly those from electronic devices such as TV and phones.
• Schedule the tasks that require the most concentration at times when energy is highest
• Get rid of off-task mental clutter by writing down what we want to remember later
• Practice improving your focus via attention training or meditation

When I multitask, I inevitably miss elements of one or more of the tasks. I don’t mind being inefficient and having to retrace my steps when I’m doing things that aren’t urgent or important (I actually liked my morning with Nora O’Donnell, Pope Francis, and Cheerios), but get frustrated when I’m trying to perform well. In such situations, it’s time to leave the mental juggling to young adults and be a uni-tasker.

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About bobritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to my parents' home and provide them with assistance. I maintain part-time therapy practices in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Fayetteville, North Carolina. I currently worship at Square Inch Community Church in Grand Rapids. I can be reached at bobritzema@hotmail.com.
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2 Responses to Why Older Adults Are Lousy Multitaskers

  1. valleygrail says:

    Hooray for the uni-tasker! We may only do one thing at a time, but we do it well.

  2. bobritzema says:

    Absolutely! And that works better than doing lots of things poorly!

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