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Just one thing at a time please – the perils of multi-tasking as we get older

Posted in Aging, and Health

How I feel most days – arms flailing independently of me

“We have become these people who have multiple jobs” mused sofagirl, during our last Skype session, both bitching about carving out time to accommodate all the jobs – paid and unpaid – that are suddenly on our plates.

When a stranger asks me what I do, I always hesitate a split second before deciding whether to bore him with the full story or just randomly pick one of my part-time jobs, possibly the one that will shut him up the fastest. Why is everyone so compulsive in needing to find out what fellow humans do for a living?

The truth is that our experiment to work part-time and dedicate the rest of the week to growing old graciously and/or write has gone a bit awry for the both of us: we are now busier than when we worked full-time, or just about. Usually, 7 pm was the time I would come back from the gym or yoga, set out to make a light dinner or just vegged on the couch with a book for a little while. Now 7 pm is the time I am still writing syllabi, start answering e-mails or am otherwise engaged in other laptop related tasks.

A few days ago, while preparing the notes for an upcoming class (job #2 – teaching Italian), the phone rang. No matter how I divvy up my days in carefully organized chunks devoted to different activities, something else, in the guise of a phone call or an email or message that pop up on my screen, often bleed into what I am doing and always ignoring it is not a viable option.

At the other end of the line was the friend I collaborate with on large catering events (job #3), wishing to discuss some menus.  I pried my brain away from conjunctives and tried to refocus on calamari with peas.

Calamari with peas
I was going to go with an image of a juggler but calamari with peas looked a lot more appetizing

Once I hang up the phone, I asked my front cortex to please switch quickly back to Italian verbs and I couldn’t help but notice that my cortex was a bit slurry, taking more sweet time than I felt was necessary. Come to think of it, if I analyzed my interactions carefully, I had to admit that this switching back and forth between unrelated tasks felt time-consuming and burdensome in a way it never did before. True, I never held four different jobs before but, come on, like most women, I am the queen of multi-tasking, forever teasing my husband for not being able to hold more than one thought at a time. It turns out he might be smarter than me.

While poring over papers on multi-tasking I found out we are not exactly wired for it. Whenever we need to pay attention, we rely on an area called the prefrontal cortex, which straddles both sides of the brain, functioning as a gatekeeper of sorts, alerting the brain to what needs to be done. Then either the right or left side of the brain engages to perform the task required. If we add a second task, the opposite side will engage at the same time, thus splitting the brain in two. So far, so good – we are taxing the brain, but it can be done. Add a third task, though, and one of the two initial tasks will be forgotten – scientists believe this might be because we only have two front lobes (source: INSERM, Institute Nationale de la Sante e de la Recherche Medicale in Paris). This explains why we get up from our desk, while talking on the phone, aim for the kitchen and then we have no clue why we went there in the first place.

Things get trickier as we get older. Scientists at the University of California – San Francisco looked at the impact of distractions and interruptions on the “working” memory. This is the memory that allows us to process information without committing it to permanent storage, such as doing a simple calculation while we are working, or scanning an email before deleting it. The scientists carried out experiments with two groups of people of different ages and discovered that it takes longer for older folks to disengage from a task and refocus on something else, especially if that task is something related to our “working” memory.

I suppose science is trying to tell me I should stick to one thing. Or else invest in one of those programs that would lock me out of the internet for an allotted amount of time. Then I would have to remember to just silence all my phones. At which point, I would have no clue what I was supposed to be doing in the first place.

Images found in the public domain

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  1. […] is a problem entirely of my own doing. A few days ago I wrote about the perils of multitasking – it’s not as if I haven’t lived with myself for over 50 years and haven’t previously […]

    March 18, 2014
  2. silvia

    I think that multitasking is overrated with the exception of Tuesday night at my place where after having gotten rid of my adorable half things were suddenly smooth and the dinner I had prepared for my girlfriends turned out to be not bad at all.
    So the lesson I learnt is multitasking in the kitchen is perfect if you’re left alone, especially in a small kitchen.

    March 15, 2014
    • Another couple of years and you will be a gourmet cook. Just don’t leave it to him all the time

      March 17, 2014
  3. Jen

    I am very good at multitasking but love my life so much more when I can be focused. 🙂

    March 12, 2014
    • I feel guilty if I am not tackling more than one thing at a time (unless I am writing). Need to work on this

      March 13, 2014
  4. I am so with you on this one, it’s exactly how I feel, and probably look (love the image) to outsiders. Multiple jobs + post menopausal brain = dazed and confused. I too have realised that I need to focus on thing at a time if I want it done properly. Sad, but in a way good because it means you slow your pace down and get to enjoy the things you like doing as well as cope better with the not so pleasant things. At least that’s what I’ve found. Bravissima!

    March 11, 2014
    • I like it that you look at the bright side of things: more time to smell the roses. Here’s to hoping!

      March 11, 2014
  5. Being a much older being I confirm the prognosis. Physical activity (joga) blocks out both phone and web. Sex might too – non ricordo.

    March 11, 2014
    • Exercise can also stand in for sex – not as pleasurable but it can be had more often….I think

      March 13, 2014
  6. I also find that I’m not as good at multi-tasking as I age, but sometimes I think I’m just plain tired of being expected to do it, and my brain is just sort of going on strike…

    March 10, 2014
    • Interesting thought. I expect it of myself, which makes the problem even worse

      March 13, 2014

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