More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Do multitaskers spread their attention too thin?
Sunday, September 19, 2004
By Diana Nelson Jones, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

To do nothing at all but drive while driving seems like a Buddhist discipline these days. For a restless people chased by time and anxiety, the easiest of ways to live is just too hard.

So instead of doing just one thing at a time, we do two (drive and talk on the cell phone, maybe) or three, or even four or five (drive, eat, smoke, listen to music and talk on the phone).

It's called multitasking, a term that was born of the computer age and a trait that has become so hard-wired into the way we live, work and play, we hardly notice when we're doing it.

But some -- state legislatures, scientists who study brain function and ethicists who worry about quality of life issues -- are taking notice. And many question what they see.

California last week became the latest state to limit cell-phone use in vehicles, making it illegal to talk on one while driving a bus. New York state and Washington, D.C., prohibit drivers' use of hand-held phones, and two bills in Harrisburg propose restrictions in school zones and school buses. In June, New Jersey lawmakers went for broke, banning not only cell-phone use by drivers but making lawbreakers out of drivers who sneak a hand to the radio or the cup holder.

The American International Automobile Dealers association cites a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study that estimates cell-phone use contributed to 292,000 accidents from 1997 to 2002.

On a recent visit to Pittsburgh from New Jersey, Natalie Samaha, 26, described what cured her of cell-phone use while driving: "I was almost in an accident. My boyfriend and I were on the phone arguing and I was concentrating on that and," she clapped her hands as if one were her car, "almost got hit."

She said she still multitasks outside the car to beat time: "My friends call me Roadrunner. They sit and eat their lunch quietly, but I do everything while I'm eating. I think it's a personality thing, plus all the pressure."

The pressure? What pressure?

"It seems like the world is so fast-paced that if you don't multitask, you fall behind," said Michael Cooney, 27, a bank employee from Forest Hills who watches TV while paying bills, works on a computer while on the phone and eats dinner reading. "I seem to make it through life OK that way."

But many researchers warn that multitasking undermines our best efforts. At Carnegie Mellon University's Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, Marcel Just, director of the center and professor of psychology, has been studying how multitasking affects brain activity.

He currently is comparing a brain driving; a brain driving and having to pick lanes; and a brain driving, navigating and answering questions.

From inside an MRI machine at Carnegie Mellon, research assistant Sarah Berson simulates being one of his subjects: She drives using a hand-held device. Her sandaled feet are still, but on the computer screen, she is changing lanes at breakneck speed, veering dangerously along a curvy road.

One might assume that if Berson had to concentrate only on driving, she would drive better. And one would be right: When trying to focus on several tasks, the brain does each less well than when it hones in on one, Just said. In other words, the brain is limited in how much attention it can distribute.

In one study, he asked 18 right-handed subjects to decide whether two rotating 3-D objects were the same while listening to sentences. The result was that the listening exercise reduced the brain's processing of the objects by 28 percent and the brain's synthesis of the sentences was reduced by 50 percent in the effort to process the shapes.

A just-published study at Vanderbuilt University found that, when presented with a stream of images and asked to recall them later, people can remember only three or four.

Just doesn't condemn multitasking as another cultural bad habit, however. He's a multitasker himself. "There are some really great mental jugglers out there," Just said. But there's a time and a place, he added: "I can speed read but I don't speed read poetry or love letters. Right now, technology is providing a luxury of information. It doesn't mean you have to eat more of it."

Humans naturally stop multitasking when they have to, he added: "When people listen to books on tape in a car, I'm sure they turn it off in heavy traffic."

Some people work at turning up the volume.

Dana Takach is trying to be a better multitasker. In past jobs, she would moonlight as a cocktail waitress and bartender because "two jobs wasn't enough." Now, her job is like three in one.

Takach, 36, of Pleasant Hills, is what co-workers call "the first line of defense," at the Pittsburgh Technology Council. Right through the double glass entrance doors she sits, ringed by a desk with notes and reminders tacked to it, a phone apparatus that looks like it belongs in a cockpit and people coming and going at times as if at a train station.

It is typical for her to be on the phone, with another line or two ringing, when a deliveryman needs her to sign for a package. She fields all calls, keeps track of council member status, slots the mail, orders supplies, tends to the copier, hangs visitors' coats, gets them water, handles employee schedules, plans for and sets up company functions, decorates the lobby at Christmas and 15 other things.

Her job is about being distracted.

"A lot of people will want 10 things at once," she said, "and I feel I have to keep a finger on everything. I haven't lost it yet, but, well, to be quite honest, there have been a couple times when I went back there," she points at a door, "and kind of screamed."

Some people's jobs require mental juggling, but so many of us multitask when we don't have to. It's just too compelling.

David Levy, a professor in the information school at the University of Washington, says the rush of information and the speed it has fueled was addictive: "It's a high to think you're on top of it all, and sometimes you are. Look at how rapidly these technologies have gotten such a strong claim on us. The Internet is not even 15 years old," the cell phone just a few years older.

"We jump on our cell phones when they ring. And why am I checking my e-mail all the time? Because there could be something wonderful. These things point to very deep-rooted needs in us."

But at what cost? he asks: "It seems we're losing the capacity for that slow, concentrated attending to things."

Levy orchestrated a conference in May for people from many fields to discuss quality of life issues in light of our zeal for speed and multiplicity. He says the technology "high" people strive for indicates a life out of balance, just as the environmental movement in the late-60s pointed to planetary distress. Unlike the environmental movement, he said, "maybe we can catch this early."

Of a similar mind is John de Graaf, national coordinator of Take Back Your Time, a program of Cornell University's Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy. This movement, with 12,000 members, emphasizes voluntary simplicity, he said: "Spend less, work less, keep out of debt, slow down, know that the best things in life aren't things."

He says multitasking is a symptom of a ruthless marketplace, that it causes unnecessary stress, anxiety and hyperactivity disorders that are affecting more adults. People are working more hours than they should because of downsizing and doing more than one person's work, he says. It carries over at home, where families "overschedule their time to the max," without building in time to relax.

"It's pop-up everything," he said, "and it's theft of our time. There's a high cost in thinking that the 'good life' is really a good life."

Daniel E.
One of my college professors used to like saying that he wished he was a Neanderthal since, according to him, Neanderthals only worked 10 hours a week with hunting and gathering, etc. Regardless, I'm sure Neanderthals did a great job in maintaing focus since mistakes were more likely to be fatal.

One person in Florida got in an accident because he had the nerve to watch a DVD while driving. He had his DVD player in the front seat. Of course, he got a ticket for distracted driving.


I live on the 8th floor of an apartment building, and from my window I can see down to street level, where I have a good view of a busy intersection controlled by stop lights. From my vantage point, I have seen drivers (a) eating an entire plate of food brought from home (b) applying make up from the foundation up (c) reading a book or newspaper (d) balancing their McDonald's meal and drink, one thing in each hand (e) driving with their dog in their lap with the dog's head hanging out the driver's side window!

Daniel E.
eating an entire plate of food brought from home.

Oh my. If things got any worse, "pass the gravy" would be part of car conversation.

driving with their dog in their lap with the dog's head hanging out the driver's side window!

That reminds me of the Lexus commericial where the old, rich lady holds up and talks to her dog while "driving."

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Daniel said:
One person in Florida got in an accident because he had the nerve to watch a DVD while driving. He had his DVD player in the front seat. Of course, he got a ticket for distracted driving.
With all the senior citizens in Florida peering like desperate cliffhangers over the dashboards of their Mercury Crown Victorias and Cadillacs and driving around with that ever present "eventual left turn" signal going, I'm astounded that "distracted driving" is even an offence in that state...


Not only driving!!

I was in the middle of a phone call when my receptionist came in with an envelope from a courier and a short note asking me to quickly sign the pick up sheet. So clamping my ear down on the phone, keeping up with the conversation I signed the receipt. I noticed that my receptionist had a nice dress on and smiled at her and thought I was mouthing the words, "you look very nice today", but... I was saying it out loud! Suddenly the conversation on the phone changed and the male voice on the phone said, "Dennis, if you are trying to pick me up, I am not that type of man, Sorry." The person I was speaking with was a Judge!! I was trying to work out a visiting schedule for one of my clients!!

I guess the moral of the story is, I can do two things but add a pretty girl, nice outfit and a receipt, was a tad too much.

Daniel E.
That is very funny dmcgill.

At a previous job as a web designer, I was sometimes asked to fill-in for absent employees, such as those taking credit card phone orders. It may have been a mistake to ask an absent-minded computer programmer like myself to process credit card numbers while in the process of having to meet deadlines for creating public web pages. I learned right away to clear the Windows clipboard between tasks. This was after a web page I edited had a credit card number accidentally pasted at the top before going public.

Daniel E.
There's a high cost in thinking that the 'good life' is really a good life."

This reminds me of the absurd internet/TV/digital camera refrigerator by the LG "Life is Good" company. The refrigerator has a LCD TV panel and digital camera on the refrigerator door. Of course, this must be technology's answer to the obesity crisis in America. The best part is that you can now get e-mail spam while baking cookies or posing for pictures in front of your refrigerator.

The Internet refrigerator presents a refined kitchen with a 15.1-inch TFT-LCD TV that, with LG's own digital technology, provides much clearer and brighter pictures than conventional TVs.
- Perfectly flat and clear images without
- 160" -wide viewing angle provides clear
images from any viewing angle.
- Watch movies by connecting to your DVD.
- Smart remote control

Equipped with a digital camera that you can use to take and store pictures.
Anyone can easily take photos and display them on the screen. Capture the moments in your life.
- Allows for footnotes like date and
additional memos
- Screen saver using the photos you have

The Internet, a sea of information - With our virtual keyboard, you can enjoy Internet services such as e-mail, search, shopping.
Also, handwriting recognition will provide a more convenient digital lifestyle for you.
- Handwriting recognition and virtual keyboard
- Convenient sorting of favorites
I like that kind of "no new ideas, just cram every piece of popular existing technology into one" invention. They forgot to include robotic household systems including a robotic chef, conveyor belts, between the microwave oven, dishwasher, letter box and dining room table (or car as the case may be!) and automatic re-ordering of your personal shopping list to be delivered to your letterbox conveyor belt/air pressure tube.

Eventually the goal is, we are drip fed while we sleep, boyant in vats of electrically charged liquid that react with our muscles with a nano tech HUD attached to our eyeballs so we can eat, sleep, exercise, learn all at the same time 4 hrs a day. To increase productivity, look beautiful and know a lot that is rarely applicable ;)
Multi tasking may reduce our ability to perform tasks at full capability but the other side of the coin is information overload. That is becoming so involved in a single task that it never leaves your mind for an instant, even during sleep. It's something I have experienced, obsession is a mind warping disorder.

Spending every waking moment on an activity affected my mind so much that in verbal communication I adopted internet mannerisms into speech. I actually caught myself saying "say" before saying something out loud as that was a prompt for communication in the activity that I spent my time on.

Even during *** I have been so focused on the afterthought of a single other activity mentally that the physical, emotional experience of intimacy was seperated and delegated into the background. I would compare that experience to watching a movie while asleep and trying to write a review on it after waking up.

Wow.. I'd like learn the ability to control multi tasking at some point instead of having a predisposition to be "all or nothing".


More than likely a rather large reason in becoming known for many things but being good in few things is a result of some of us who are multitaskers. Sort of in-line with the topic heading of this thread. We get spread too thin. Using the example of the refrigerator, does it keep the food at the correct temp, while it entertains?
Can't really count how many times I have sat down with my day planner and had everything worked out, and the day flies by without a hitch only to remember at 5:30 it was someone's birthday and I had totally forgot it while I was being so efficient in all my other tasks. Sort of brings it into perspective doesn't it.


slightly similar topic

multitasking - but not of the sort mentioned here. This response also pertains to the article about 'happiness is'.

i multitask my life on the large scheme, not in individual situations. i don't drive and talk on the cell phone, when at work i don't answer the phone while selling a ticket.
Instead, my multitasking has to do with my happiness:
i do many things that keep me very fun and happy - i play videogames, i play d&d, i hang out with my friends, i dance at work, i visit my girlfriend a lot, i go over and visit my family reasonably often.
In fact, my entire week is generally planned out. Every single week. And yet i don't see my roommates more than about 3 times a week, my girlfriend more than 3 times a week, and anyone else more than once or MAYBE twice a week on specially planned out weeks.
i am constantly out with friends, constantly doing things that make me smile, laugh and joke, and the people around me are almost always happy.
But i feel like i don't get to see anyone nearly often enough. i feel like i'm doing just enough that absolutely no one can complain that i 'don't' spend time with them, while doing almost that. i spend very little time with any given individual. my friends, my family, some of my coworkers, and even myself say that i am trying to live 6 lives, 'succeeding' at living 4 lives, and mourning the loss of the other 3 lives that i've had to give up on. Having a life disappear as you change is one thing - giving up on a life, and all the people in it, is a very bad thing.
i live very much in the now, but i have never had a situation come up that i wasn't planned for. i may not think about the future but i do just enough that the future can't ever QUITE turn out badly.
As long as i'm in one of my 'lives' and doing something with someone i'm a very happy person. Life is grand - and i DO love my life - i have amazing friends, family, relationships, and a good job. Because of this i hate saying i'm not happy, it's not enough. i can't tell my friends or family because it doesn't seem right to say that 'my life is great.. but you know.. i'm not getting anything at all'

i don't really know exactly what the problem is, but there is one, and i don't know how to find out what the problem is, let alone fix it.

Thanks in advance for any comments anyone can give me.

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
i feel like i'm doing just enough that absolutely no one can complain that i 'don't' spend time with them, while doing almost that.
It seems to me that is the problem.

I don't see anything that says you are doing what you want to do. What I see is you doing what you think you should do so that people don't get hurt feelings or get upset with you in one way or another.

Living your life for other people or according to what you believe to be other people's expectations of you is a recipe for ultimate resentment and unhappiness.


Oh yes, I agree very loudly with Davids remark. Live your life for you and make time for others and others expectations. Otherwise you are like the foolish man and his son who long ago went into a town with their donkey laden down with a heavy load. People of the town shook their heads and wagged their fingers at the man and his son and accused them of being mean.
The next time they entered, they decided to carry the donkey and the very same people wagged their fingers and heads again and said they were being stupid.
Moral: You can't please everyone but you should at least try to please yourself.


hmm.. possible, though my immediate response is 'no, i am doing what i want', but that may just be my surface reaction.

With one group of friends whom i play d&d with, we used to play d&d 2-3 times a week, and hang out on a smaller level 3 or 4 times a week. Now i play d&d with them once a week, and every few weeks that gets cancelled, and i hang out with them on the smaller level once a week to play frisbee, and sometimes a second time in a given week.
This pattern is repeated through 3 groups of friends, though not the exact same details.

My girlfriend i only see 2-3 times a week, and often it is right after one of us has been at work (or both of us) and so we don't get to actually do a lot together as we'll be too beat to go out and do anything. My previous girlfriend i actually lived with so i spent almost every day with her for at least a little while, and while i don't nescessarily need to see my girlfriend every single day, i wouldn't be adverse to it.

Thus what seems to be the surface problem is that i do things with too many different groups of people. In order to spend more time with any given group, i would have to spend less time with someone else, and with some groups that would mean not seeing them at all.

Daniel E.
Everyone, please note that the quote below is a new message from jean. I accidentally, temporarily deleted her post below when intending to edit/delete my own post.

Jean's new, first message to the forum:

jean said:
hi~ i'm new here =). although i cannot come up with a solution for your 'problem', i would like to relate;

it's weird, i'm doing something i like doing, and i'm around people i care about and am supposed to be happy with. but sometimes i just feel empty on the inside. it's like, what is the meaning of all this? surface, i know. but why aren't i feeling satisfied or worthwhile?

what is the ruler that measures how much doing this is more 'worth it ' than the other? i mean, does life have to be 'doing what's most beneficial'?

other times i suspect that i just needed plain and simple companion. a soul mate, to be specific. right. i know i'm dreaming.

what is it that fulfills us? i don't want to offend anyone on religon basis, but in christianity it mentions that our soul is like a living body, it needs nourishment. so when we feel empty on the inside, it is our soul that is hungry. even though we are doing what we are supposed to do in our lives and living a 'good' life according to our individual standards, but the satisfaction Inside isn't measured by that.

i know i am babbling here, maybe i don't even talk sense, but please bear with me and do be generous with your comments.

*bows and retreats =).

Daniel E.
Jean, I have had the same problem, at least generally speaking. In my case, I wasn't getting enough intellectual stimulation from day-to-day activities, so I started auditing online college courses by just watching the freely available, streaming videos of graduate school lectures. Adult learning can be one way to avoid a "blah" feeling of boredom and dissatisfaction.


Following your a matter of identifying that pursuit which you are truly passionate about and attempting to give yourself absolutely to it. In so doing, you will find your fullest potential and serve your community to the greatest possible extent.

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
That was a great PBS series and book, The Power of Myth, basically a series of interviews with Joseph Campbell by Bill Moyers. Powerful stuff... well worth reading.

Daniel E.
Most libraries, in addition to having the book form, also have all six videos in the Power of Myth series.
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