Building Mental Muscle

Single-Tasking: Using the Power of Focus to Improve Your Memory

Plus 5 ways to stay in the moment, practice focus and improve your memory as a result.

Leslie Brooks
Dec 14, 2019 · 7 min read

here’s something about going to the kitchen that puts me in forgetful mode. Maybe it’s thoughts of having to cook that make me want to run away and forget everything.

All I know is I often find myself standing in the kitchen dazed and confused with zero clues as to why I decided to go there just moments earlier.

I hear the same tale from lots of my friends. Are we becoming a generation of zombified wanderers aimlessly drifting from one room to another?

Some blame it on instant society. You know…the internet, video games, smartphones, and social media and all the world of distraction in brings.

I’ve seen plenty of articles claim that this is true and then proceed to dance around the idea with little or no support of the claim.

But then I found info on a study conducted by Anthony Wagner, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Memory Laboratory and his colleague Clifford Nass.

They performed research for about a decade on the relationship between media multitasking and various domains of cognition, including working memory and attention.

They collaborated with neuroscientist Melina Uncapher of the University of California, San Francisco to publish their findings in a paper.

Clifford Nass, on the effects of media multitasking and attention. Though Wagner, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Memory Laboratory,

Here’s what Nass had to say in an NPR interview in 2009.

We studied people who were chronic multitaskers, and even when we did not ask them to do anything close to the level of multitasking they were doing, their cognitive processes were impaired. So basically, they are worse at most of the kinds of thinking not only required for multitasking but what we generally think of as involving deep thought,”

Their conclusion after performing the study is that people who frequently use many types of media at once performed significantly worse on simple memory tasks.

They defined these types of people as “Heavy Media Multitaskers”.

Heavy media multitasking is a social norm.

The emergence and eventual domination of the smartphone into the everyday lives of a vast majority of society means that odds are you are a Heavy Media Multitasker too!

Multi-tasking has become such a social norm. Some even talk about it like it’s a badge of honor. I know I’m guilty of it. Sometimes I won’t even go to the bathroom without it!

Don’t judge me! I know I’m not the only one! 😆

I am learning to resist the media lure more and more though. And I definitely don’t want to sacrifice my mental fitness for more rides on the internet waves or a social media fix.

I believe that what we practice most is what shapes us. So if multitasking is causing my mental muscle to atrophy, then practicing the opposite should help me strengthen it again.

So what’s the opposite of multitasking?


How to use single-tasking to improve memory:

Single-tasking is exactly what it sounds like. You go all-in on one thing until it’s done. It sounds simple in theory, but when you try it, you may find that it’s not so simple in practice.

But the practice is exactly what it will take to get your mind in single-tasking mode. Here are some single-tasking exercises you can use throttle back your thinking process in to calm and steady focus.


Meditation is a cornerstone focusing habit. It’s the practice of quieting the chatter in your mind by focusing on one simple thought or action.

The most basic form of meditation focuses on the act of breathing. Just follow the inhale and exhale.

When your mind wanders (and it will) just notice it and return your focus to your breath. That’s the practice. Do it daily and let the compound effects of your practice carry over into how you focus in other areas of your life throughout the day.

Repeating what was said back to the person who said it

I often use this strategy when meeting people and learning their names. This happens a lot for me since I teach fitness classes. I could potentially meet someone new in each class and I’d like to remember them when they come back.

I ask their name, wait for their response and then repeat it as a question to make sure I got it right. Once they confirm, I repeat it again.

If I’m not sure that I pronounced it right, I’ll ask, and wait for the correction. Then I repeat, let them confirm and repeat again.

Then when class is over I give myself a little test by going to them and saying their name again as a question. That way I either have confirmation that I remember or I get corrected and have another chance to learn the name.

Doing this brings all your attention to the person you are talking to instead of mindlessly hearing their name and then losing it as your thoughts go off to something else.

Not only does this boost your memory, but it also boosts your connection with the person.

Putting things in designated places

I remember one time my husband was frantically searching for his clippers. He could not find them and was sure that someone moved them since he could not find them. Never mind that at the time, it was just he and I in the house and I had zero need for clippers.

It just so happen that I was headed to the land of forgetfulness (aka the kitchen). I opened the pantry door and right there next to the peanut butter.

Score: Kitchen 1, Humans 0

My guess is that this was the result of that peanut butter and jelly sandwich I saw him with earlier that day.

If everything has a place you don't’ have to worry about where you left it last time because where you leave it is always the same.

Sometimes the best way to remember is not to have to remember.

Creating habits and processes around things you want to do regularly

Repetition helps you remember. That’s why creating a process around whatever it is that you want to remember works so well.

You can create routines for basically anything. You could have a wake-up routine, a writing routine, a bedtime routine, ETC.

If you’re creating a new routine, create a checklist for it. Then follow your checklist until the routine becomes automatic.

You can do this over and over again for any new activity at any time.

For example, here’s my morning routine.

  • Wake up
  • Brush teeth
  • Do pushups
  • Meditate
  • Do my hair
  • Get dressed.

It works out that way pretty much every day. My current streak of consistency with this habit is over 100 days!

Teaching someone else what you want to remember

Teaching is a great tool for retaining information. Teaching forces you to take what you have learned, process it, and then transmit it in your own words to someone else.

This does wonderful things for memory. I think it’s because teaching forces you to engage most if not all of your senses into what you are doing. And in my experience, multi-sensory experiences are memorable.

When you teach you are forced to develop a clear picture in your mind of what you are communicating. You’re also using your voice to verbalize and transmit the information. You may use your hands to help you describe something.

I’ve used this method in the past to help me remember concepts for things like exams or to help me prepare for a presentation. Once you can teach it, you can be pretty confident that you know it.


Don’t fall into the multitasking trap. It’s not a valuable skill or advantage. It dulls your focus and ultimately gives you the opposite of what you want by making you less productive.

You can have more than one project but you can’t work them all at the same time and get a quality result.

Practice some or all of these five ways to sharpen your memory. They will force you to take your focus down to one thing. In the end, this will strengthen your mind by making it sharper and providing ease of concentration.

You’ll know you’ve reached master status when you can remember what you went to the kitchen for again. 😄

Are you a multitasker? Do you often split your focus between multiple things at once? If so, what advantages and disadvantages have you experienced? What’s one area in your life where you think you would benefit from single-tasking? Let me know in the comments below!

Coach Leslie is a fit mindset and habits coach. She helps her clients build healthy mindsets so they can achieve mind, body, and spiritual wellness.

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Leslie Brooks

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Coach/Behavior Change Specialist. Learn how to be habitually healthy with simple solutions you can use today.

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