Multitasking and Peripatetic Philosophy

by John Holbo on June 4, 2012

I’m sympathetic to a number of points made here (via Andrew Sullivan). I have been trying to institute anti-distraction mechanisms in my own life. Forced offline time. I have little doubt pretty much everyone ought to, these days. At the same time, I’m a big believer in effective multitasking. My philosophy is: peripatetic philosophy is healthy. That is, you can think while exercising. So: audiobooks and podcasts while you run are great. Drawing while listening to audiobooks and podcasts works great, so long as what you are drawing doesn’t take much thought. You are just practicing copying to improve wrist-eye accuracy, or painstakingly shading in something. Practicing musical scales and exercises of a repetitive sort while listening to something less boring works great. Obviously this doesn’t work if either the exercise or the audio experience demands more of your attention.

Over the past 5 years or so I’ve evolved from being an eye-oriented guy, where text is concerned, to being quite substantially an ear-oriented guy, in part because I find this allows me to multitask. My pet theory: this is at once an efficient and a pleasant way to do a lot of things.

I wrote up a version of this post about a year ago, but maybe it’s worth re-inviting submissions of the following: honest-to-gosh cognitive research results on the degree to which my pet theory is correct. (In the linked piece Joe Kraus gestures towards experimental evidence, and I know it exists, and supports a lot of what he says; but the definitions of ‘multitasking’ that get tested seem to me too narrow.)

My thesis, stated a bit more fully: it’s possible to multitask, efficiently, so long as genuinely different ‘parts’ of you are doing the different tasks (not to get all Platonic about ‘parts of the soul’ or any of that. I’m trying to be practical about it.) Brain and hands. Brain and legs. Even ear and eye, so long as they aren’t both trying to process language. Obviously the thesis isn’t self-evident, mostly because it isn’t self-evident that these parts really operate separately, in the relevant sense.

Is it perhaps possible that jogging/practicing something repetitive while listening to lectures is actually better for comprehension than just plain listening? (I’ve never fallen asleep while jogging – or cleaning up my office. But, I confess, I’ve nodded off once or twice in a lecture, over the last few decades. Moving the body keeps the blood flowing; the brain needs blood.)

I’m also unsure whether I really need ‘gap’ time, as Kraus suggests. That is, just plain boredom-tempting stare-at-the-wall-time. I don’t think I suffer anxiety about understimulation, per se. I’m not easily bored, or particularly fearful of that as a painful, psychic sensation. I’m not ADD, by any means. But I am compulsively self-improving. I always like to think that my time is being used ‘profitably’. I feel I have planned badly – or someone else has planned badly – if I am staring out the window and I don’t have an improving lecture on the iPhone, queued up. I’m resentful, not bored, when that happens. And I think it happens often enough, even in this day and age, that I don’t feel inclined to pencil in extra ‘gaps’. (Can’t I at least do yoga, while I’m being intentionally bored? Would be my question.)



maidhc 06.04.12 at 8:03 am

I hate to sound like a snob, but why should I pay attention to someone who doesn’t know the difference between “peak” and “peek”?

As Harry Tate once put it, “things are not what they were!”


John Holbo 06.04.12 at 8:08 am

Hmmm, I think I must have skimmed that bit, first time through. (Or maybe I was checking my email.) It does give his position an erroneously voyeuristic quality.


maidhc 06.04.12 at 8:20 am

Not that I’m opposed to peripatetic philosophy. The podcast and MP3 player is a great advance over the older broadcast and cassette Walkman model. The day I got access to BBC radio online (and some others too) was a great improvement to my life.


Nick 06.04.12 at 9:52 am

for mac users, I’d recommend the Self-Control app over MacFreedom:

It’s free, for one thing. Plus MacFreedom only blocks up to 8 hours, whereas Self-Control blocks up to 24. So you can put a 12 hour block on before you go to sleep, for instance, and ensure the first few hours in the morning aren’t frittered away on email, etc. Most importantly, unlike MacFreedom, you can’t get back online simply by rebooting. If you say you want 12 hours without internet, that’s what you get (short, perhaps, of having special hacking skills).


J. Otto Pohl 06.04.12 at 11:12 am

My problem is not so much self inflicted time wastage. I do a fair amount of it, but I factor it in my scheduling. The problem is unannounced interruptions and delays imposed by other people or nature. Power outages are one big source of delay. Others are having to refile forms with the administration at the last minute, students complaining that a B+ is a very low grade (when btw did a B+ become the new F for students?), and of course the ever popular emergency faculty meetings called every so often by the Dean.


BenSix 06.04.12 at 11:25 am

I tried to listen to Kraus’ talk but then I had an update on Facebook; got challenged to game of Internet chess; had to bid on ebay and, well, one thing led to another. It doesn’t sound dreadfully plausible, though.


Matt_L 06.04.12 at 12:03 pm

Holbo stop that Multitasking. You are bringing down conditions for the rest of us.

I have been a world class wool-gatherer since 5th grade English Class where Mr. Cant-remember-his-name would berate me every Thursday afternoon for staring off into space after I bombed the vocabulary or spelling test. I’m good at woolgathering. And finally, as a member of academia, I have found a place in society where I can exercise this faculty to the fullest. You are going to ruin for me.

So knock it off. The squares will get the idea that we are all supposed to be working at memorizing Polish irregular verbs while grading exams and eating lunch at our stand-up treadmill desks.


Matt 06.04.12 at 12:28 pm

I’ve long engaged in a bit of more literal peripatetic philosophy study, in that I walk a lot, and tend to read while walking. At certain points in my life this was one of my main times for reading- while walking one place or another. These days it’s less so. It’s been suggested to me that keeping on eye on the book and another on the ground or way ahead is bad for the eyes, but I haven’t seen it. My only weakness here is that I’m not good at writing notes while walking (though I sometimes do it) so I have to stop a lot if I need to make notes.


Steven 06.04.12 at 2:47 pm

Some research results.

Listening to music you like while you exercise improves performance:

Multitasking makes us feel better, but reduces performance:

Multitasking reduces performance:


MPAVictoria 06.04.12 at 3:14 pm

“The podcast and MP3 player is a great advance over the older broadcast and cassette Walkman model. The day I got access to BBC radio online (and some others too) was a great improvement to my life.”

So this. I suffer from excessive rumination and before the invention of the ipod my thoughts tended to be negative and persistent in moments of downtime. Now I just turn on a podcast or an audiobook. The change in my quality of life since 2004 has been drastic.


nnyhav 06.04.12 at 4:19 pm

The question of multitasking is mostly ill-posed and is actually many questions trying to be answered simultaneously. Tasks can be complementary, and low-level distractions can serve to cancel out other such (like those noise-reducing headphones on ehears so much about). Worse yet, what works (or not) varies widely among folks (whether nature or nurture), indicating that focus isn’t an elemental executive function.



John Holbo 06.04.12 at 4:29 pm

Steven, I don’t doubt the data you cite. I am sure that reading a book while watching tv lowers comprehension. What I’m less sure about is that running while listening to an audiobook lowers comprehension/performance. I think nnyhav is right that the question is ill-posed because the (clinical) subject is defined rather narrowly but is, intuitively, rather broad. So we get confused about the application of the results.


Gaspard 06.04.12 at 6:09 pm

“But I am compulsively self-improving.”

It’s interesting you put it in these terms rather than thinking of it as entertaining yourself.
For me it’s mainly time and geography-shifting radio listening, as blog-based podcasts can suffer from the same subject burn out, updating and queuing twitchiness as blogs.

The internet has changed self-improvement such that where you would once buy a single manual or handbook on, say, running, you can now waste weeks looking at forums, apps, faqs, marketing of sundry accessories, which can be a bit all consuming. I’ve been reflecting whether re-instituting a “school bag” with a limited number of texts and a couple of hours “homework” is actually a way to limit project creep.


Shelley 06.04.12 at 6:14 pm

Good writers need empty air.

Good readers need empty air.


RSA 06.04.12 at 6:19 pm

Even ear and eye, so long as they aren’t both trying to process language.

It’s a bit more complicated. For example, Marcel Just at CMU has run MRI studies of drivers listening to spoken sentences. Judging whether sentences are true or false disrupts driving performance. This page has a couple of Just’s publications on multi-tasking; here’s part of one abstract:

At the same time, the parietal lobe activation associated with spatial processing in the undisturbed driving task decreased by 37% when participants concurrently listened to sentences. The findings show that language comprehension performed concurrently with driving draws mental resources away from the driving and produces deterioration in driving performance. . .

This result is a little surprising, at least in the magnitude of the effect, because of the different processing required by language understanding and spatial comprehension. There also may be further implications beyond driving and listening. A Science Daily report from a few years ago describes the results this way:

Because driving and listening draw on two different brain networks, scientists had previously suspected that the networks could work independently on each task. But Just said this study demonstrates that there is only so much that the brain can do at one time, no matter how different the two tasks are.


Eric 06.04.12 at 6:31 pm

Am I the only one who read this whole thing hoping to find out what Aristotle said about multitasking?


John Holbo 06.04.12 at 11:29 pm

“Am I the only one who read this whole thing hoping to find out what Aristotle said about multitasking?”

Oh, sorry for the minimal point on that front. Peripatetic philosophy just means walking-while-philosophizing, so it seemed an apt symbol of the possibility of multitasking. But, since you asked, I’m sure Aristotle said you should multitask in moderation.


Belle Waring 06.05.12 at 5:55 am

“I’m sure Aristotle said you should multitask in moderation.”
Totes. NE IV.10


Eric 06.05.12 at 6:02 am

Peripatetic philosophy actually is Aristotelianism – the school of ancient philosophy based in the Lyceum after Aristotle’s death. It was called the Peripatetic School due to Aristotle’s habit of pacing back and forth while he lectured.

*the more you know*


JohnR 06.05.12 at 3:52 pm

As was often the case, some of the students of the Master attempted to follow his teachings by doing what he did rather than thinking for themselves; they (and their many followers to this very day!) teach while pacing back and forth, but (alas) to little purpose as their students are generally either lost, bored or simply blissfully asleep. Bill Watterson seems to have independently derived the contemporary English-language description of these two as ‘a pair of pathetic Peripatetics’.
This has been your lesson for the day in aHistory. No need to thank me, just doing my avocation.


JohnR 06.05.12 at 3:56 pm

errata: “some” = “two”; “teach” = “taught”. All other errors are entirely the fault of the editor, and should not be laid at the author’s feet (or any other body part).


peterv 06.05.12 at 6:36 pm

I am sure the abilities (or inabilities) any individual has regarding particular combinations of tasks will depend on that individual. Classical musicians, famously, don’t enjoy speaking just before or during a performance, perhaps because they typically use the same hemisphere of the brain to process both speech and music. (Non-musicians typically use different hemispheres for these two tasks.) Mathematicians, famously, are either geometers or algebraists, depending on whether they think by manipulating diagrams or think by manipulating strings of symbols. Lawyers typically think in terms of words and sentences, while engineers typically think in terms of diagrams and schematics. There is no one size that fits all, and your mileage may vary.


Frank in midtown 06.05.12 at 7:38 pm

I think this thread was a wonderful demonstration of Gen. Rommel’s 2×2 grid for evaluating Officers. His two criteria were Intelligence and Energy. The High-I/High-E group clearly supports multi-tasking while bemoaning the thought of having to even spend a few minutes idle. The High-I/Low-E group made few brief comments and then gave up the fight as not offering enough reward for the effort. It’s a beautiful thread.


mpowell 06.06.12 at 8:50 pm

I’m kind of shocked to hear that a philosophy guy doesn’t want down time to process his thoughts. In my experience, really simple activities like walking can accomodate deep thought, but more intensive exercise doesn’t work at all. My limited yoga experience was far too intense to qualify, but I understand there are much more relaxed styles and I could imagine this working. But it has to be an activity that requires incredibly minimal focus. You can do it while driving, but then your driving will be much worse, for example.


psycholinguist 06.07.12 at 3:59 am

You’re a pretty good naive cognitive psychologist, in that your reflections on your own experience line up well with the cog research when this was a hot topic (in the 70’s!), although I think you’re more optimistic about multitasking than the research allows. People are really, really bad at multitasking.
some well accepted findings.
Modality matters. We’ve known this for a while, even exploited it back in the day with selective interference tasks as a way of better understanding the role of attention in multitasking. For example, visualize an image, say a room in your house, and then try doing a visual task, such as physically pointing to all the green objects in your current location. Nasty thing to do. But switch modalities of the secondary task, such as humming a known tune, and things aren’t so bad. That’s selective interference, in that the closer the tasks line up, the harder it is to do both, presumably because the tasks are trying to make use of the same specialized and limited resources.

I think what you’re calling multitasking isn’t “really” multitasking, it would be some combination of two factors giving you that illusion. The first is that one or both of the tasks is taking up fewer and fewer resources because you’re getting better at it and it is becoming an automatic, “reflexive” response. Think about learning to drive; those first weeks found you consumed with monitoring and thinking about how hard to mash the brakes, how much correction to make with the steering wheel, coordinating gas and clutch, etc. As those tasks become more practiced, they take up fewer and fewer resources because they are becoming automatic. That can be both good and bad depending on the situation. If you want to get a feel for that, google Stroop task and play around with it, as the effect is based on the automatic nature of translating letters into meaning. But automatic tasks don’t count as multitasking (driving, or rather monitoring the roadway for changing conditions, unfortunately isn’t automatic).

The second thing that is probably happening is that if you habitually need or want to do several demanding tasks simultaneously, you’re probably developing a new method to do them together, so they in effect become one task. The one often cited here is from Spalke et al. ’76. Subjects were given pretty much an impossible job to do – they had to read stories presented in front of them, while at the same time listen to AND dictate a second stream of language, AND at the end of it, they needed to be able to recall both streams of language. Amazingly, these well-paid participants eventually, over the course of many weeks of practice, were able to do this as well as if they were doing only one of the tasks. The only explanation that fit the various manipulations was that they had developed a new method – so they weren’t reading, and listening, and writing in a way a normal person would approach the tasks, they were engaging their newly developed reading-writing-listening heuristic. So, they weren’t then multitasking. When people become “experts” at something, they’ve probably done something similar.


Douglas 06.07.12 at 2:37 pm

Most of this seemed at best arguable as a “value” perspective. Why would I want to multitask? As I assume many of you here are primarily “thinkers” (?) are you simply asking–how can I process more information?

The last comment by “psycholinguist” seemed the best on offer here and very worth considering, especially the last part about dedicated “training” or reconditioning a mode of processing multiple streams of information. But I’m still not sure I understand the “why” involved. Or rather, “who cares?”

This began interestingly as I too have discovered that I am far more “mindful” while walking. Even if I’m not dedicated to the horrifying idea of always “self-improving” (a prison-house idea of humanity!) my mind seems to even wander in interesting ways and I pay attention to where it takes me.

Further I find a very real link between language and walking (not running, heavens!) and we might note that many of our great thinkers/writers (I know nothing of the habits of other artists, painters and musicians for example) were inveterate walkers. Thoreau, Hazlitt, Kant, Coleridge, on and on…walkers all. Mind always seems to go walking.

The question, how can I maximize the efficiency of my walking/thinking/running/driving/commuting life seems to miss the actual benefit of walking and thinking. Spending dedicated time in a clarifying act for mind and body. This is an end in itself and it is muddled by extraneous “goals” of task management. Shake that mentality off and just go for a walk and listen to the world. Relax, I guess!


Douglas 06.07.12 at 3:46 pm

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