Keep Your Midlife Memory Sharp with These 7 Practical Tips

Keep Your Midlife Memory Sharp with These 7 Practical Tips
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One of the most frustrating aspects of life that seems to hit post-50-somethings particularly hard is dealing with memory slips. You may blame your aging brain on the problem, or - worse - regard a “senior moment” as the sign that your mental abilities are rapidly going downhill. Rarely do you consider the fact that people in their 50s and older have a lot on their minds. If it isn’t keeping track of upcoming appointments, it may be trying to get out of the house on time without having to delay while you look for something you’ve misplaced. Perhaps your mind is stuck on trying to remember the name of your new neighbor, and no matter how hard you try, it’s not coming to you.

The key to overcoming these annoying memory slips involves taking control over the part of your brain that manages your mental resources. It’s safe to assume that one important cause of memory slips is the failure to track your thoughts. You’re in the middle of getting your breakfast ready, suddenly remember that you need to check on when your first appointment is, and by the time you’ve done that, can’t find the spoon that you know you took out of the drawer. Although you may think of multitasking in the conventional sense of switching from one app to another on your cellphone, many situations in life actually involve the very same process of mental gymnastics. Learning how to multitask effectively could therefore benefit you in getting through your day, whether or not you flip from texting to email and back to texting again on a regular basis.

Michigan State University’s Reem Alzahabi and colleagues (2017) investigated this more conventional type of multitasking, or what they refer to as MMT, in a study that you can put to practical use in your own multitask-filled day. The Alzahabi et al. team wanted to learn whether MMT would be related to the more general cognitive ability known as task-switching, or the ability to go back and forth between mentally engaging activities. They also wished to learn whether MMT could actually lead to improved task-switching abilities due to the “dramatic cortical reorganization” (p. 1882) that such activities might promote. These advantages are balanced against the memory costs in that information from Task A might decay while Task B is being performed. In other words, you can forget where you were in that first task when you pay attention to the second one.

The Michigan State researchers presented their 187 undergraduate participants with a daunting procedure in which they completed 1,728 trials of a set of classification judgments involving differing degrees of task-switching. In one task, for example, participants classified an animal shown to them on the screen as a fish or bird and in the second task, they classified an item of furniture as either a chair or a table. The tasks could be made easier or harder by varying the cognitive demands involved in each specific task-switching arrangement.

The main findings showed that some people are better than others at multitasking in that the smarter ones can keep more in mind as they go back and forth from one task to another. However, because good multitasking involves forgetting Task A when you switch to Task B, you want to do the opposite if remembering Task A is important. When you’re looking for that spoon but then stop to check your day’s schedule, you want to be able to remember where the spoon was, not shove it out of your consciousness. The findings from the Alhazabi et al study imply that you should go as quickly as you can back to your original task if something interrupts you. Secondly, the Michigan State researchers found that for preventing interference between tasks, it’s all about the preparation. Setting yourself the mission of getting your breakfast on the table, despite whatever other tasks tear you away, will help you get back to it without much decay. If you’re a good task-switcher, these preventative steps will be less important, but if you’re not, they should help you accomplish this mental juggling.

With the results of this study in mind, we’ll look now at the 7 practical tips that will help you with task-switching, and more:

1. Give yourself sufficient warning to get back to what you need to finish when something interrupts you. Tell yourself you need to empty the trash, and remind yourself of this if you then decide you need to add garbage bags to your weekly shopping list.

2. Stop and look at what you’re doing when you put something away in a drawer, a cabinet, your backpack, briefcase, or purse. Typically, people put things away while they’re thinking about or doing something else at the same time. Register the location of your item by taking a “mental photo” of it`

3. Do the same routine in the same order. To take advantage of pre-preparation in a sequence of tasks, making the tasks automatic will allow you to coast through them without having to check and double check at every step along the way.

4. Look behind you before you get up to leave, especially in a public place. Because people tend to think more about where they’re going rather than where they’ve been, it’s all too easy to forget that you put your phone on the armrest of the bus or cab you were riding in while you packed up your bag and put on your coat. One quick look around you will provide a built-in guarantee against this special case of forgetting.

5. Talk to yourself or read out loud when you’re trying to remember. Locking information into your memory will help provide another piece of insurance against forgetting. By narrating your activities while you’re completing them, you’ll take advantage of a deeper level of processing than you would if you only giving them fleeting attention.

6. Practice retrieving things you’ve lost. Here’s an interesting idea you’ve probably never tried. Let’s say you can’t find your water bottle even though you know you had it somewhere around the house. Maybe it’s not that important to you, and you figure you’ll eventually find it. However, use this situation to practice your memory skills. Force yourself to recall everything you did and where you were the last time you had the bottle This process will help you learn how to focus your attention while completing your everyday tasks so that the next time, you’ll be more conscious of what you’re doing while you’re doing it.

7. Don’t get down on yourself for forgetting. The Alzahabi et al. study showed that some people are better at multitasking than are others. The people who are good at it have undoubtedly developed a feeling of self-confidence around their mental abilities. Once that self-confidence erodes, your concern about your poor memory can become its own distraction, further eroding your ability to attack your daily tasks with a sense of purpose and focus. Because people automatically associate aging with memory loss, the worst thing you can do is conclude that you’re headed down that road even though it’s just stress getting in the way of your mental efficiency.

Getting on top of your task-switching ability with these practical tips will pay off in a myriad of ways. You’ll feel better about yourself, and your own post-50 mind, once you realize you can conquer those everyday memory slips.


Alzahabi, R., Becker, M. W., & Hambrick, D. Z. (2017). Investigating the relationship between media multitasking and processes involved in task-switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception And Performance, 43(11), 1872-1894. doi:10.1037/xhp0000412

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