Answer: “lack of focus.”
I don’t mean to sound like an old fuddy-duddy (of course, using the term “fuddy-duddy” does tend to portray me as such), but like it or not, I am officially of a “certain age.” More times than I care to admit, I have strutted with strong intention into the kitchen, and upon arrival, completely blanked as to why I was there. Or, finding myself looking for an item in the closet, I will be briefly distracted, and forget what I was looking for. I have, embarrassingly enough, “lost” my keys on the way to the door on more than one occasion.
My wife and I have entire conversations without ever using proper nouns.
“Hi Honey, I saw that guy today.”
“You know, the man who did the thing around the house last summer.”
“Oh, with the stuff and that equipment?”
“No, the other one. He worked on the what-do-you-call-it with those tools. You know, over by that place…”
“Oh, him! With all that oily gear?”
“Why didn’t you just say so?”
We’re not trying to be secretive; it’s simply that the words don’t form as quickly as we need so, undeterred, we press on in the language of “pro-noun-cia.” (What’s bizarre is we actually understand each other.)
Distractions are prominent in my work, which causes me to regularly bounce from one task to another. As illustration, the vast majority of my time is in front of a computer monitor. I might be — as I am now — writing a column. Whilst engaged in said project, my email program beeps, alerting me to a new message. Like a bright shiny object on a string in front of a cat, I immediately shift gears to examine it. The sender included a link; now I find myself online, searching for a new book. Not remembering the title I wanted, I go to our bookcase for inspiration. There I notice an accumulation of dust, requiring me to retrieve the vacuum cleaner. This routes me through the kitchen and it dawns on me that I must eat. Since I am forever dieting, I track everything I consume, so I return to the computer to do so and remember that today is “bill-paying” day. To get organized for the endeavor, I rearrange my file cabinet — until I recall that I was on deadline. I return to the original mission, having accomplished none of my interim goals and now desperately behind schedule. Oy vey!
So it comes as no surprise that a report this week finds older people have less of an ability to multitask, possibly because they can’t refocus as well after getting interrupted. Dr. Adam Gazzaley, the study’s co-author, explains, “Older adults pay too much attention to the irrelevant information.” The problem is they (we?) have “trouble switching back” to the issue at hand and disengaging from the interruption.
The difficulty with multitasking is that we can’t really focus on multiple assignments all at once, said Russell A. Poldrack, a psychology professor in Texas. “We are almost always switching back and forth between the different tasks, and there is a cost to this switching, which is why people are nearly always worse when they try to multitask compared to focusing on single tasks.” The solution, according to Mr. Poldrack is — if you absolutely have to multitask — “improve general brain health, and the best way that we know [to do that] is aerobic exercise.”
I just hope I can remember that.
(If you’d like to see a very funny video about forgetting, follow this link.)