Multitasking after 40

I’ve always prided myself on my ability to multitask—I hate to do just one thing if I can manage two at the same time. I never go anywhere without a book just in case I get a chance to read. If I have to walk a few blocks, I can often finish a chapter as I plod along. I usually do my driving with a news program or talk show on the radio.

At home, if I get a phone call that seems likely to last a while, I immediately check the kitchen sink for dishes that need to be washed. Some days when I hang up the phone, I have no memory of clearing out the sink—my hands have been on autopilot. I spend some time on most evenings reading the newspaper while watching TV. I’ve always done that, and when I was younger, I could have passed tests afterward on what I’d read and what I watched. That would be much harder now. 

The ability to multitask declines with age. In fact, it peaks when we’re in our 20s or 30s. While those of us over 40 can still walk and chew gum, we’re not the multitasking phenoms we once were. And our hurry-up, get-it-done culture says we should be. 

Please note that nobody can actually carry on two mental activities at the exact same time. When I tackle a couple of tasks simultaneously, my brain doesn’t just run along smoothly on parallel tracks; instead, it switches back and forth rapidly from one task to the other. That switching is what becomes harder to do as we grow older. 

But research suggests there’s hope for aging multitaskers. First of all, studies show that physical exercise can slow down—or even stop—the decline in that particular mental ability. And for couch potatoes like me, the good news is that there’s also a video game that seems to improve multitasking, though you can’t buy it just yet.

The game, called NeuroRacer, was invented as a tool for research by neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley, MD, and his colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco. To play it, you use a joystick to “drive” a winding road, laid out before you on a computer screen, while watching closely for road signs because if you see one that’s a green circle, you must immediately push a button. 

In Gazzaley’s study, 20-somethings were much better than older adults when both first tried the game. Then he sent everyone home with a version to practice on, which increased in difficulty as a player improved. After a month, the older adults were so much better at it that they bested people in their 20s who were new to the game. What’s more, the elders had also improved on tests of memory and attention, and recordings of their brain waves suggested that something had changed in the way their brains behaved when they tried to focus on two things at once. Gazzaley says it’s too soon to be sure playing the game will improve the way people function in the real world, but on tests its effects did last for six months. 

Some social scientists are dubious about multitasking partly because studies show it’s not efficient—most people do better if they focus on one job at a time. But mainly they’re doubtful because drivers distracted by a cell phone conversation or texting cause almost one out of every four car accidents. When researchers at the University of Utah studied people who were convinced they were terrific at multitasking—and who often drove with a phone glued to one ear—they found that these individuals tended to be impulsive risk takers. They liked to do two things at once because they had trouble staying focused on just one. 

If I were younger, I might be tempted to make phone calls while driving. After all, just as I do dishes with my hands on autopilot, I react automatically to conditions on the road. If the driver ahead of me hits his brakes, my reflexes kick in and I immediately hit mine too. But I realize that driving is much more complicated than washing dishes. Behind the wheel, I’m bombarded with visual information and have to watch out constantly for dumb moves other drivers make. If I were also trying to concentrate on a cell phone conversation or text message, multitasking could cost me my life.

So I remind myself that I’m no longer a demon multitasker and refuse to make or take phone calls on the road. But I’m not about to give up my other multitasking habits, even if they’re somewhat inefficient. And I’m convinced that doing two things at once can sometimes be a creative solution to a problem.

I remember riding on the top deck of a London bus one day some years ago when a cell phone shrilled. The young woman sitting alone in front of me dug it out of her handbag and held it to her ear.

Head tipped back to soak up the sun streaming in through the window, looking thoroughly relaxed, she said briskly, “Mr. Smith’s office.”