Is the Load Too Much to Bare?

By Sarah C. McSparin

You feel as though everything is piling up and you’ll never get it all done. Join the club! Your not alone; there are thousands of students and employees with a mountain of responsibilities that seem too overwhelming. Not to mention the countless distractions life throws at you, especially cell phones. You wish there was some formula for completing all the tasks your assigned. Unfortunately there is not but by gaining knowledge about your ability to pay attention you can learn some tips and tricks to help you focus your attention on the things you want while ignoring the things that are distracting.

¹How much information we are able to pay attention to, our process capacity, is limited; only so much information can be coded in the brain at a time. When we attend to something, we focus our thoughts on specific sensory information while ignoring others whether intentionally or not. This concept is referred to as the Load Theory of Attention. Some tasks are more difficult than others. The weight each task holds is called it’s perceptual load. Tasks that are more difficult have a high perceptual load and thus take more process capacity and easier task are considered to have a low perceptual load and take less process capacity.

“Driven to Distraction”, a study conducted by David Strayer and William Johnston in 2001, is just a simple example of how our process capacity is limited. In their first experiment, they took 48 undergraduate students and asked them to participate in simulated pursuit tracking task. This consisted of three phases: phases one was a 7 minute warm-up round to allow the participants to understand the concept of the tracking task, the second phase was the single task phase in which the participants completed just the pursuit tracking task for 7.5 minutes before and after the dual task phase. In the dual task phase, participants were asked to complete the tracking task as well as talk on the phone to a confederate or, if in the control group, listen to a radio broadcast, for 15 minutes.

²In Strayer and Johnston’s experiment, the results show that, although the overall missed traffic signals were low, the probability of a miss more than doubled in the dual task phase when participants were also talking on a cell phone. Both tasks seem to have a low perceptual load and yet cell phone use showed a considerable amount of distraction. You can use this as a simple example of how all the tasks you have can be considerable distracting to one another. According to the Load Theory of Attention, the double in the rate of missed traffic signals is due to the perceptual load of another task, such as talking on the cell phone, interfering with the original task.

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Now that the Load Theory of Attention has been explained and the terms perceptual load and process capacity have been defined, we gain a better understanding of how our attention works. Our attention is limited and we hold only enough processing capacity for limited attention spread across tasks. The perceptual load from one task may interfere with the attention posed on other tasks. This can potentially hold a negative effect on the tasks that need our undivided attention, such as homework. From this knowledge here are 4 tips to limit our distraction to heighten our attention:

Mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness is defined as paying attention in the present moment. Sounds like what we need right? Participating in mindfulness meditation techniques can help us train our brains to focus on the present and filter out the distracting thoughts. ³Results of mindfulness training research on attention shows that mindfulness training may improve attention-related behavioral responses by enhancing the function of specific sub components of attention.

Put away your cell phone
4Justin Worland, in his article, “How Your Cell Phone Distracts You Even When You’re Not Using It”, suggests that, based on research, cell phones are significantly responsible for most of our distractions today. One research study showed that participants did better on difficult tasks when their or the leader’s phone was not visible compared to the groups where the group leader’s phone was visible or their own phone was visible. Next time you sit down to study, put your phone away.

Don’t watch TV or listen to music with lyrics while studying

Based on Strayer and Johnston’s 2001 study, we’ve learned that multitasking leads to a deficit in attention. Don’t multitask. When working on a particular homework assignment, put everything else away. Refrain from watching television or listening to music with lyrics; the dialog will catch your attention and distract you from your original task.

Set goals and take breaks

Unlike our research examples that show simple, low perceptual load tasks, life is full of high perceptual tasks. Most of the tasks we face in college have a high perceptual load. Break up your high perceptual load tasks into multiple smaller, low perceptual load tasks. Set goals for each task and reward yourself with a break after completing a goal. This will give the difficult tasks a guideline of easier tasks that you won’t find yourself getting frustrated to follow. By the end you’ll be wondering why you’d gotten so stressed over one tasks.


¹Goldstein, E. Bruce. “Attention” in Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research and Everyday Experience (Cengage Learning, 2014), 91-92.

²Strayer, L. David, and Johnston A. William. “Driven to Distraction”, University of Utah, 2001, 2-3.

³Jha, A.P., Krompinger, J. & Baime, M.J. “Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention”, Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience (2007) 7: 109.

4Worland, Justin. “How Your Cell Phone Distracts You Even When You’re Not Using It” The Time Magazine, 2014.

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