Early in my career my job routinely required me to juggle multiple responsibilities at the same time. A typical morning involved reading through accumulated emails with a phone wedged between my ear and shoulder while a line of sales reps formed just outside my cubical. I wasn’t necessarily the most efficient with my attention divided like this, but it was the nature of the job. There was so much to get done during the course of the day that I did not have the luxury to focus my attention exclusively on one item at a time. Fortunately, I was able to successfully multitask.
Now as I approach retirement age I am beginning to believe the multitasking I used to be so good at may do more harm than good. In my daily endeavors I find it increasingly challenging to juggle more than a few things at once. And I quickly forget the specifics. Without focusing my attention I miss important details along the way. Here’s what I’m doing to work on improving my memory:
Pay attention. I am discovering that my memory improves when I try to concentrate only on the specific task at hand. For example, when in a parking lot I make a conscious note of exactly where I leave my car. I pay particular attention to the name when introduced to someone new, trying to make some association that will help me remember. When listening to a lengthy discussion, I make the extra effort to stay focused rather than allow my mind free reign to wander. I find that by focusing in on the one thing immediately at hand my memory miraculously improves. When we are constantly bombarded by advertising, noise and stimuli from all sides, it is easy to become sidetracked and distracted. But if we can cut through the noise and think clearly about what we are doing right now, perhaps we can resist the temptation to let our minds wander off the subject.
Forgetfulness. I don’t think that my memory challenges are entirely due to getting older. It is not that I am forgetful, but I am less able to divide my attention across multiple topics. If my mind wanders to a future dinner party at the instant I put my car keys down, chances are I will have a hard time relocating those same keys when it is time to head out the door. Should my wife share important events of her day while I am looking at the clock to see how close it is to the 49er’s kickoff, I risk missing her message entirely. And then I feel like a fool having to ask her to repeat what I know she just explained. The more I allow myself to be distracted by what I should be or can be doing, the less aware I become of what I am doing right now. Many a glass of water has overfilled and spilled onto the counter as I distractedly set about doing too many things at once. Maybe my younger mind was capable of this multitasking challenge, but these days it isn’t.
Live in the moment. It is easy to find your thoughts wandering, even when engaged in something as simple as walking the neighborhood after dinner. If your mind is out there somewhere, you can miss all that is going on around you at this specific moment. You may find yourself planning tomorrow’s projects, but by doing so overlook the magnificent world around you right now. As your thoughts stray, you miss the rising moon and first twinkling stars of the evening. More significantly, you ignore the person walking at your side when both of you are caught up in distant thoughts. By trying to live consciously in the moment, your attention is not diverted toward other horizons. You can become more aware and attentive. You may be surprised what you begin to notice, appreciate and remember.
Do one thing at a time. For me, maintaining a better memory really comes down to doing one thing at a time. I can still multitask but not as efficiently as I used to. In retirement I hope to be busy doing things I want to do at my own pace. I will have the luxury of putting off for later what I cannot manage right now. And this new freedom should allow me to focus on and appreciate each individual activity to the fullest. Rather than having my attention diluted across too many events, I plan to give each my all. With this focus, I hope my memory will be my friend in the years ahead.
Dave Bernard is the author of "I Want To Retire! Essential Considerations for the Retiree to Be". Although not yet retired, he focuses on identifying and understanding the essential components of a fulfilling and meaningful retirement. He shares his discoveries and insights on his blog Retirement-Only The Beginning.