I’m writing this chapter with the stereo silent. The TV black. The room dark. The pinging of the e-mails silenced. I am focused on nothing else but this glowing computer screen, the blinking cursor, and the words appearing in Helvetica twelve-point font.
I’m not paying attention to the honking taxis on the street, or the clanking drum solo of my radiator. I’m certainly not paying attention to my two-year-old son, Zane, who is outside my office door, apparently doing an impression of Fran Drescher impersonating Alvin the Chipmunk.
I’m trying to do this because I realize I have a problem focusing. My brain is all over the place.
Consider this: multitasking almost killed me. Maybe I’m being melodramatic here. You be the judge. Two years ago, Julie and I were driving a rented Taurus to my cousin’s wedding in Woodstock, New York. The kids were at home with our babysitter, Michelle.
I was at the wheel, weaving my way north, listening to the audio book we’d brought along: the biography of Albert Einstein by Walter Isaacson. It’s a good book. Dangerously good.
Interesting, I thought to myself, as we listened to chapter 8. When Einstein was a clerk at the patent office, he did a lot of work on clocks that were synchronized at the speed of light, which led to his early ideas on relativity. His day job was crucial. If he’d been a regular old tenured professor, we might not have relativity and our kids would be watching videos called Baby Heisenberg.
I’m not a fan of driving. I know a lot of people get a dopamine rush from steering a powerful steel machine down a road. I’ve seen the postcoitally blissful faces of men in Honda commercials. But for me, driving holds all the allure of operating an electric can opener. In other words, I found the life of the world’s greatest scientist more intriguing than the Saw Mill River Parkway.
My mind drifted from the road. The car drifted from the road. Julie screamed.
I snapped my attention back to the highway and jammed the steering wheel hard to the left. Tires squealed. An overcorrection. Now to the right. We serpentined for a few seconds, then hit the shoulder and launched into space. We jumped a waist-high concrete median and bounced down ass-backward into oncoming traffic on the other side of the highway. A “real Dukes of Hazzard” move, as the tow truck driver later described it. If only Julie had been wearing jean shorts.
We sat for a few seconds in our rental car, the bottom ripped off, the hood crinkled. For reasons only weird Einsteinian physics can explain, no other cars smashed into us. I was relieved to still be breathing. Julie was crying—somewhat relieved, but mostly furious at me for losing control. The rest of the afternoon consisted of cops, rental car insurance forms, rubberneckers, and strained silence. We were three hours late for the wedding.
Julie has since banned me from all driving except in parking lots and cul-de-sacs. On road trips out of New York, I get to sit in the back and negotiate peace treaties about which Nickelodeon movie we’re going to put in the portable DVD player. That may seem like it’s emasculating, but is just fine with me. I know I’m a terrible driver.
My near-death experience put an end, at least for now, to my driving career. But it didn’t put a speed bump in my multitasking habits. Not a bit. Unless I’m doing at least two things at once, I feel like I’m wasting my time. Phone and e-mail. Watching The Office, checking Facebook, and reading the Times op-eds online. Texting and peeing.
My friend Andy taught me how to read-walk. He could read an entire Newsweek magazine on his walk from the subway to his apartment. Just be sure to glance up once every paragraph or two, he told me.
I recently read a quote from actress Jennifer Connelly in The Atlantic: “I do like to read a book while having sex. And talk on the phone. You can get so much done.” Julie would never go for that. But I do remember a girlfriend who allowed Law & Order to play in the background, which made for some efficient, suspense-filled romance, with a plot twist at 10:41 P.M.
In one sense, task-juggling makes me feel great: busy, energized, fulfilled, like I’m living three lives in the space of one.
But I also know I’m scattered. I’m overloading my circuits. I know, deep down, this overstimulated, underfocused world is driving us all batty. My mom—who complains when I click through my e-mails while talking to her on the phone (and by talking, I mean that I toss out an occasional “uh-huh,” and “sounds good”)—recently sent me a Times article about how multitasking is actually inefficient.
Hence Operation Focus. I’m going to recapture my attention span, which currently can be measured only by one of those atomic clocks. I pledge to go cold turkey from multitasking for a month. Only single tasks. Unitasking. And just as important, I’ll stick with each task for more than my average thirty seconds. I’ll be the most focused man in the world.
I collected a shelfful of books on attention. I won’t even mention how hard it was to focus on them. (Note to William James: I love you, but easy on the dependent clauses, please!)
What I took away was this: when I said multitasking is a life-or-death problem, I wasn’t exaggerating. And not just because Driving Under the Influence of Text Messaging causes 630,000 crashes a year. The stakes are even higher. We’re talking survival of civilization itself—at least if you believe some of these writers. Author Maggie Jackson wrote an intriguing and frightening book called Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.
Okay, maybe “Dark Age” is a tad alarmist. I don’t think we’re going to stop reading books and start waging religious wars. Umm, let me rephrase. Let’s just say I think “Dark Age” might be an overstatement. But the gist of Jackson’s book is right. The culture of distraction is changing the way we think. It’s rewiring our brains. It’s making it harder for us to solve complex problems. Nicholas Carr writes in The Atlantic in an article called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (hint: yes), “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet-Ski.”
Our hopscotching brains make us more depressed (it’s harder to focus on the positive), less able to connect with people and form a conscience. And our attention spans are to blame for America’s dismal math skills. Malcolm Gladwell points out in Outliers that Japanese kids stick with a hard math problem for fourteen minutes, while American kids give up after 9.5 minutes.
Oh, and it’s all an insane delusion, to boot. Multitasking makes us feel efficient. But my mom is right: it actually just slows our thinking down. In fact, multitasking is the wrong word. Our brains can’t handle more than one higher cognitive function at a time. We may think we’re multitasking, but we’re actually switchtasking. Toggling between one task and another. First the phone, then the e-mail, then the phone, back to the e-mail. And each time you switch, there’s a few milliseconds of startup cost. The neurons need time to rev up.
Multitasking costs the economy $650 billion a year, according to the Institute of Pulling Numbers Out of Its Ass. (That’s a real estimate, though not the institute’s real name.) Whatever the actual total is, I’m starting to think this isn’t a problem along the lines of love handles or bad cell service. This is the Eleventh Plague.
Today is my first day without multitasking. When I get up, I take a shower. That’s it. No NPR on the shower radio. It’s weirdly quiet, just the sound of water splashing into the tub.
Embrace the stillness, I say to myself. Feel the water on my face. Experience it. Be present. Be mindful.
My brain is not cooperating. What the hell is going on? it whines. It sounds a lot like my kids in the backseat demanding a Berenstain Bears DVD. Where’s my damn stimulation?
I sit at my desk and read the newspaper. That’s all. Without checking my e-mails or eating breakfast at the same time. Simply flipping the pages.
This is awful. I feel like my brain has entered a school zone and has to slow down to 25 mph.
My plan is to leave my BlackBerry off till noon. I break down at eleven-thirty.
At lunchtime, Julie and I are in the kitchen.
“Somehow the liquid soap in the bathroom dispenser disappeared,” she says.
I stop what I’m doing—making a peanut butter and raspberry jam sandwich—and look at her. Must unitask.
“So I filled it up with soap from the kitchen. And I was washing my hands with it, and it smelled weird.”
I’m watching her face. Maybe staring too much. That reminds me. I have to call the Fox publicist about their new show on reading people’s faces. Focus, Jacobs!
“It smelled…industrial. And I realized I had used dishwasher liquid instead of regular soap.”
It’s not that the topic isn’t interesting. As someone obsessed with handwashing, this is actually relevant stuff. It’s just that I’m usually doing something else during a conversation. Picking up stray cups, or putting away sweaters.
“So I bring it back to the kitchen because I don’t want to waste it, and I’m cleaning the coffee pot. . .”
Keep looking at the face. You know, I’ve always fantasized about inventing contact lenses with tiny TVs embedded in them. You could be looking straight at your coworker as he tells you about his trip to Knott’s Berry Farm, but little does he know, on the inside of your contact lens, you’re enjoying CSI: Miami. Just remember to nod occasionally.
“. . . and the suds won’t go away. I had to wash the coffee pot for five minutes.”
Or braille. I’d always wanted to learn braille. That way I could be having lunch with my boss, making polite noises, while my fingertips read the latest Andrew Jackson biography underneath the table.
“And the coffee still tasted soapy,” says Julie.
“Why are you writing that down?” she asks.
“It’s for a project.”
“Is everything I say fodder?”
She makes a pouty face. “I’m not just a character.”
THE DECLINE AND FALL OF WESTERN ATTENTION
Baboons have a better attention span than I do. This is true. My favorite theory about attention comes from a baboon study. Male baboons, it argues, evolved attention partly so that they could guard the female baboon for a good long time after sex, to make sure no one else conducted any monkey business that might interfere with their sperm. (My question: If this is true, why are men so opposed to cuddling?)
However it started, attention had a decent run in humans for a couple of millennia there. In the book Distracted, I read about “attention athletes” such as eighteenth-century Swiss entomologist Charles Bonnet, who “studied a single aphid from 5:30 A.M. to 11 P.M. for twenty-one days straight in order to learn about its reproductive cycle.” That guy is my new hero.
Oh to be born in the golden age of attention. When Lincoln and Douglas could have three-hour debates, or the faithful could pray without ceasing for four hours. When people would look at a painting for an afternoon. Paintings! They’re like TV, but they don’t move.
Then it all broke down. The Industrial Revolution came. We began to fetishize speed and equate quickness with intelligence. We bought into the myth that, as writer Walter Kirn puts it, nonstop connectedness equals freedom. We started to chop everything down into component parts. And worship at the altar of Frederick Taylor and other efficiency experts with clipboards and stopwatches.
I used to be proud of my attention deficit. Or at least I pretended to be proud. Focusing on only one thing for a long time? That went out of style with snuff boxes. I’m part of a new generation, man.
I loved to Jet-Ski across the surface. Even when I read the encyclopedia—my longest attempt at sustained focus—it actually fed right into my ADD personality. Each essay is a bite-size nugget. Bored with Abilene, Texas? Here comes abolitionism. Tired of that? Not to worry, the Abominable Snowman’s lurking right around the corner.
I still think it’s got its advantages. It helped me when I chose articles for Esquire. As an editor, if a story grabbed me, I knew it had to be interesting, since my brain was tugged in forty-two directions.
The first hint I was missing something came during my biblical year. The Sabbath—which I still try to practice—taught me the value of stillness.
The science drove it home. In another excellent antimultitasking article in The Atlantic (that magazine is all over this beat!), Kirn explains the problem with frightening clarity. Multitasking shortchanges the higher regions of the brain, the ones devoted to learning and memory.
Kirn describes a recent UCLA study:
[R]esearchers asked a group of 20-somethings to sort index cards in two trials, once in silence and once while simultaneously listening for specific tones in a series of randomly presented sounds.
The subjects sorted the cards just as successfully in both trials. But here’s the key: when they had the distracting tones in the background, they had a much more difficult time remembering what they were sorting.
It comes down to the brain’s real estate: “The subjects’ brains coped with the additional task by shifting responsibility from the hippocampus—which stores and recalls information—to the striatum, which takes care of rote, repetitive activities.”
And speaking of the brain, Kirn writes: “Even worse, certain studies find that multitasking boosts the level of stress-related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and wears down our systems through biochemical friction, prematurely aging us. In the short term, the confusion, fatigue, and chaos merely hamper our ability to focus and analyze, but in the long term, they may cause it to atrophy.”
In short, multitasking rots your skull.
Of course, not all multitasking is created equal. It helps if one of the tasks requires less intellectual wattage. If you’re mopping the floor while talking on the phone, it’s a lot better than texting while on the phone. But even with the mopping, you’re eating away at attention. Your conversation will suffer, if only mildly.
THE ODYSSEUS STRATEGY
I’ve got to do something about my desk. This is where most of my crimes against focus occur.
There’s a great Onion headline: EMPLOYEE’S MULTITASKING DOESN’T INCLUDE WORK. That’s the way I’m feeling these days. My book is way overdue. My editor keeps sending me e-mails that say, “How’s writing?” the subtext being, “Turn in your book this week or you’ll be publishing it on your Epson printer and binding it at the copy center.”
It’s just that there are so many temptations. So many needs to fulfill. Snacks, cups of water, caffeine, curiosity about what Julie’s doing. I pop up from my desk once every five minutes.
I’m in Day Four of the experiment, and I decide to engage in some light bondage. It worked for Odysseus. During Project Rationality, I read about how Odysseus demanded his sailors tie him to the mast so that he wouldn’t take a swan dive off the starboard side when he heard the alluring singing of the Sirens.
Eminently rational. So in an homage to Odysseus, I’ve tied myself to the gray Aeron chair in front of my computer. I tried to use my leather belt, but it didn’t fit. Instead I’m running a long black extension cord behind the chair and knotting it five times in my lap. It feels kind of safe, like a seat belt.
Five minutes ago, I thought of adjusting the lamp, since the bulb was spotlighting my face like I was about to sing a solo in A Chorus Line. But then I’d have to unknot the cord and get up. I keep my butt in the chair and return to my computer. It’s working!
“A.J.!” Julie wants something.
“What’s up!” I start untying myself.
She opens the door to my office and catches me fiddling with the cord. She furrows her brow. She looks at my computer to see if I’m signed on to a site that requires you to be at least eighteen years of age.
“For a project?”
I’m trying not to tell her about my plans in advance, not even the topics of my experiments, so her reactions can be more rigorously scientific. She’s stopped asking questions.
“When you’re, um, finished, can you get down the small suitcase?”
If you can tolerate the skeptical looks, I strongly recommend the tying yourself down. I finished off large chunks of my book in the last two hours.
It helps that I’m blocking out an equally tempting siren: the Internet.
I will not be checking the Hasbro website to see how many marbles we’ve lost from Hungry Hungry Hippos. Which could lead to an animated YouTube movie of the green Hungry Hippo singing “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Which might lead to the Wayne and Garth “Bohemian Rhapsody” scene. Which then could lead to a page about the scandal caused when Wayne made unkind remarks about Chelsea Clinton. Well, I won’t do it again.
Because I’ve made accessing the Internet an enormous hassle. Simply turning it off isn’t enough for me. I’d just go back and turn it on. Instead I went into my system preferences and went trigger happy. I clicked a bunch of random tabs and buttons until I was disconnected from my wireless. I did actually get some work done. My brain was still craving stimulation—I keep clicking on the Firefox icon wistfully. But I know the dry spell is good for me.
Oh, and those four minutes it took me to get back on the Internet at the end of the day—that was collateral damage.
(Note: My hard drive crashed during one of these games of Russian roulette. I’m not sure whether it was the fault of the Russian roulette. But if it was, then it cost me another six hours on the phone with Apple tech support, during which time they said such unwelcome phrases as “That’s not good” and “I’ve never heard of that happening before.” So the jury’s still out on this method.)
Studies show that perhaps the best way to improve your focus and learn to unitask is by meditating. There’s something called an executive system—it’s the part of the brain that oversees where your attention goes, like the conductor of a symphony. Meditation is like going to conducting school.
So a week into my quest, I take the subway to Greenwich Village and ride an elevator up to the Zendo on the eleventh floor. It’s as I expected it—a lot of white walls, blond wood, a statue of Buddha.
Today is beginner’s class, and there are eight students—all of us men. Which is odd. I never considered meditation up there in the list of manly pursuits next to fantasy league hockey and invading countries. But here we are, eight males, ready to kick some meditation butt.
The teacher is named Derek, and looks exactly like Jimmy Carter, if Jimmy Carter were to put on a pair of loose black pants and a T-shirt with Japanese characters.
“Let’s bow to our pillows,” says Derek.
Each of us dutifully presses his palms together and bows to his assigned round, chocolate-colored cushion. We sit down in a circle.
My fellow meditators are all in their twenties, thirties, and forties. A couple have come straight from the office, their ties loosened but intact. They look like they’ve taken a hammering from the S&P 500 and are hoping to find some ancient Eastern-style peace.
“Tonight, we’re going to sit. That’s what meditation is all about—sitting.” Derek’s voice is Mister Rogers–style soothing. I guess that’s a job requirement. You can’t teach deep relaxation if you sound like Gilbert Gottfried, which means I can scratch it off my list of potential careers.
Derek talks calmly and wisely. He talks about how meditation helps us slow down and see the “amazingness of the universe” and the beauty of koans. “You have to appreciate your life,” he says. “The pain, the struggles, the farts.”
We men chuckle. After fifteen minutes he asks, “Does anyone have any questions? Because I could ramble on all day.”
I raise my hand. I like musings and fart references as much as the next guy, but I want to get to the meat. So I say, “Can you tell us the technique for meditating? Some tips?”
“I’m going to get to that,” he said. There was just a tiny ripple of annoyance in his pond of serenity.
I’m chastened. Not so Zen of me.
Derek does give us some simple marching orders—sit up straight, keep your eyes open but don’t focus on anything, try not to move. Our starter gun is a wooden chime that he knocks. And we’re off on a fifteen-minute sit.
I sit. And sit, staring at the floor in the middle of the circle. I listen to the guy next to me breathe. He’s breathing loudly. Really loudly. Like Darth Vader. With asthma. During heavy foreplay.
It makes me self-conscious about my own inhaling and exhaling. I’m a heavy breather myself. When we were growing up and watching TV together, my sister would tell me to stop breathing so loudly. I’d make an elaborate show of holding my breath, then after half a minute I’d say, “Would it be okay to inhale now, ma’am?”
It’s just a sound, this wheezing. Rise above it. Don’t focus on it.
Tock-tock. Derek hits the wooden chime again.
“How’d everyone do?” he asks.
“Great.” “Really good.” “Good.”
I say nothing, too ashamed to confess.
A few minutes later, we try our second and final sit. This time we’ve graduated from the bunny slope. It’ll be twenty minutes, we’ll be facing the wall, and we’ll be counting our breaths.
Things go a bit better. I’m not annoyed by the background noises, the taxis, and the sighs. I let them flow in one ear and out the other. But I still can’t settle my mind. My monkey mind, as they call it in meditation.
The thoughts keep pinging around in my skull. Dozens of them. I think of my aunt’s bizarre ex-husband Gil, who spent months meditating on an ashram, and who claims in his autobiography that the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi “couldn’t keep his hands off Mia Farrow’s butt.” Eighty-two. Eighty-three. I think of the time I went to see Buddhist poet Gary Snyder speak in Berkeley, and how he said he liked to go to museums and stare at the white spaces in between the paintings. One hundred four. One hundred five.
I wonder what’s the highest anyone has ever counted in meditation. What if you get up to the millions? Would you still be able to say the numbers in one breath?
I haven’t quite got the hang of this yet. I leave the Zendo at the same time as one of the guys with a tie, who proceeds to fart in the elevator.
DINNER WITHOUT DISTRACTION
“Can we eat dinner tonight without multitasking?” I ask, a couple of days later.
“What does that mean?” Julie says.
“No TV. Just a quiet dinner.”
“Also, no talking to each other. I just want to concentrate on eating.”
Julie is sitting on the bed. She collapses her head on her knees.
“Why do you choose the worst times to ask me these things?”
She’s had a long day, and is in no mood to sit in silence.
“It’s for the project.”
I put out the plates and we each take some spoonfuls of the vegetable pad thai we ordered.
“I’m at least going to call my mom,” she says.
“No. You can’t. That’d distract our focus.”
We sit across from each other. I smile and chew.
It reminds me of this astounding passage from George Washington’s letters. At one point, he wrote, he and Martha had not had dinner at home alone for twenty years. Every night for twenty years—7,300 days in a row—they had guests and visiting dignitaries to entertain.
Julie’s and my guests were TV characters. How long has it been since we’ve eaten together at home without firing up the TiVo to 30 Rock or a Mad Men?
We’re silent for several minutes. Julie nods at me. I nod back.
“This feels very Revolutionary Road,” Julie says.
I laugh. I know she thinks the whole experiment is absurd.
“No talking, please,” I say.
I concentrate on my pad thai. The salt, the crunch, the grease.
“This isn’t so bad,” I say. “It’s relaxing.”
“No talking,” she says.
Julie once told me that every month or so, she’ll look at me and think, “Hey, that’s A. J. Jacobs from the twenty-eighth floor. What the hell is he doing here in my house?”
We met when we both worked at Entertainment Weekly—I was on the twenty-eighth floor, she was on the twenty-ninth. We knew each other as colleagues for five years before our first date.
I’m looking at Julie across the table, and I’m having a “Hey, that’s Julie Schoenberg from the twenty-ninth floor” moment.
“I’m glad I met you,” I say.
The next morning, I decide to track down a unitasker par excellence. During my biblical year, I’d run across a job called a sofer. These are the Jewish scribes who copy the Bible one painstaking letter at a time. A single Bible can take years to finish. And the stakes are high. If your attention wanders and you make an errant stroke while writing the name of G-d, you have to start the whole section again, losing hours or maybe days.
This, I figure, is Extreme Focus.
I find a sofer on the Internet and dial him up. I put the phone to my ear and shut my eyes. That’s how I’m talking on the phone nowadays. I’m a Blind Caller. Remember those Mesozoic days when people actually sat and talked on the phone—just talked? I’m trying to re-create that. The key is to close the eyes and remove temptation. So much less stressful. It’s a blissful freedom from choice that leads to phone conversations with actual substance.
He answers. I explain my project.
“I’m Xeroxing something,” he says. “Can I call you back in five minutes?”
An hour later, my cell phone chimes.
“Okay, that was more than five minutes. I don’t know if you work in an office where you have to go somewhere to. . .” He pauses. “Come in!” Another pause. “Oh, I need to sign this. Okay, the signature here?
“I’m going to put the phone down for one minute,” Neil says.
In the background, I hear shuffling.
“Have you seen my calendar downstairs?” Neil shouts to someone.
Hmm. Is this the right man to talk to about sustained focus?
Twenty minutes and several interruptions later, we’ve arranged to meet next Monday at the Applejack Diner in midtown.
Neil looks a bit like a yarmulke-clad Harvey Fierstein. He’s wearing a striped blue shirt and a gray vest. A former advertising man, he became a scribe twenty-five years ago. And his handwriting is beautiful. When he writes down my address to send me a book, it appears on the page full of swirls and flourishes. My ZIP code looks as elegant as the Preamble to the Constitution.
It takes him up to a year to write a Torah, working ten hours a day. Has his head hit the board from exhaustion? Yes. But he does love it. “When the scribe is not present, the letter is not alive. It just becomes a series of strokes.”
When I ask him how he keeps from being bored, he shows me by taking out a calligraphy pen and a piece of paper. Each letter can be viewed from a thousand different angles. The shape of the letters—the slender, graceful Italian style or the blockier Czech look. You can think of the frequency the letters appear in. Or how the letter relates to its original pictogram. He speaks quickly, excitedly.
That’s the secret to getting into the state of flow—being totally in love with your topic. I remember I once met an ornithologist who was visiting my grandfather’s house. The man stood at the back door with a stoned-like smile on his face for an hour, just watching the birds.
I’m not in a state of flow. I’m battling a nasty cold, and can barely keep my eyelids from drooping as Neil talks about the personality of the different letters. I tune out, coming in occasionally to hear things like “The orange juice is there, was there, and always will be there.”
To keep myself engaged, I ask him another question: How do you keep from making errors?
“You can’t think about it. You’re going to mess up. So what? You start over. If you want to avoid making a mistake, you cannot try to avoid making a mistake. You just have to forget about it.”
I know what he means. It’s a strange tic of our brain. Sometimes, the more goal-oriented we are, the less likely we are to attain that goal. If you really, really want something, you have to forget how much you want it. Or else you’ll be too nervous to get it. But dear Lord, that’s a cruel and paradoxical system evolution has devised.
And it invades even the lowliest of human endeavors. If I’m standing next to my boss at the urinal and really want to pee, I can’t think about peeing. If I say, “Okay, now pee,” I’ll be standing there till the building closes down. I have to think about, say, the color of the wall. Sometimes, it seems, you can pay too much attention.
A week ago, Julie and I went to see Doubt. And Philip Seymour Hoffman’s charismatic priest (who may or may not have done something horrible) teaches the basketball team how to toss a free throw. He says you can’t think about throwing the free throw, or you’ll get too nervous. You have to have a routine. Bend your knees. Bounce the ball twice. Whatever it is, do it every time. And you’ll be thinking of your routine and you’ll forget to be nervous.
Sometimes, you have to focus on the trees, not the forest.
My cell phone rings. It’s my mom.
“A.J., I’m trying to buy Julie a present for—”
“Can I call you back?”
She seems a little put out. I usually talk to her, seeing as I’m not an air traffic controller and can take a couple of minutes out of my day.
“It’s just that these are work hours,” I explain.
It’s two-thirty in the afternoon and I’m trying to be one of the only people in America who still works a nine-to-five job. I want to work, then stop. I don’t punch a clock, but I do jot down my starting and ending time.
“I’ll call you at five-fifteen.”
Maggie Jackson, the author of Distracted, says it’s essential to set borders around work. She does it physically, by sitting down, stretching her arms, and saying to herself, Okay, this is work time.
I call back at five-fifteen. Then Julie and I have dinner. Then I go back to work at eight-thirty. Workaholism is a hard disease to cure.
THE WISDOM OF GURU BILL MURRAY
I am in line at the corner deli to buy a Diet Coke. So naturally, I say to myself, “I’m waiting in line to buy a Diet Coke.” I speak it out loud, as confidently as I can.
The guy in front of me—wearing a CBS Sports hat—swivels his head.
“I’m looking around the store,” I continue. “I see a stack of oranges and bananas.”
He looks at my head for an earpiece. Maybe a Bluetooth headset to reassure himself that I’m on the phone. Nope. I’m just talking to myself.
“And now I’m getting my wallet out of my pants.”
He looks at me like, well, like he’s just seen a child vomit into an Easter basket.
It’s all part of my new strategy for unitasking. It’s a strange one, but it does have scientific backing. I call it the Bill Murray Method of Extreme Focus.
Maybe you remember the scene in Caddyshack? The one in which Murray’s whackjob, gopher-hunting greenskeeper pretends to be playing golf. He’s got a gardening tool and he’s thwacking these fancy white flowers outside the clubhouse, sending the petals spraying. All the while, he’s also pretending to be a sportscaster covering the event. He’s providing his own real-time color commentary:
“Incredible Cinderella story. This unknown, comes out of nowhere, to lead the pack at Augusta…[thwacks a flower]…The normally reserved Augusta crowd, going wild…he’s gonna hit about a five iron it looks like. He’s got a beautiful backswing [thwack]…oh, he got all of that one! He’s got to be pleased with that…[thwack] It looks like a mirac—IT’S IN THE HOLE! IT’S IN THE HOLE! Former greenskeeper, now Masters champion.
After I saw Caddyshack when I was twelve, I started to do the same thing whenever I played sports by myself (which was my preferred way to play sports, since it cut down on the chances of losing). “Jacobs bounces the ball. He shoots! He scores! Un-bah-liev-able!”
I liked the idea of a crowd cheering me on. It jacked up the excitement. So I started to expand the self-narration to other activities. Why should sports have all the fun? “Jacobs has the Tater Tot in sight,” I’d say when eating at the brown Formica table at the cafeteria. “He spears it with his fork. Jim, will you look at that? Exquisite form. He is a master. Down goes that Tater Tot! Down goes the Tater Tot!”
I weaned myself from sportscasting my own life in high school. But now, during Project Focus, I’ve brought it back with force. Well, at least a version of it. I’ve cut down on the “crowd goes wild” and I’ve switched from “Jacobs” to first person. But I’m narrating my own existence.
If I go to the bathroom, I say, “I’m going to the bathroom.” I know I sound like Rain Man. But I’m telling you, it’s changed my life.
First, it’s a good torch to keep away the multitasking monsters. If I start to absentmindedly multitask, I’ll be the first to know. No secrets from myself.
But more than that, it’s Buddhist enlightenment by way of Bob Costas. More specifically:
• It forces you to live a mindful life. You are present. “I am walking through Central Park. I’m in the middle of a crowded city, and I can barely see the buildings, barely hear the traffic, just trees and jutting rocks and grass. Amazing.” It makes me thankful for nature and New York and Frederick Law Olmsted. When I interview attention researcher Meredith Minear from the College of Idaho, she says I stumbled onto an ancient technique. Part of the reason that evolution developed vocalizing was to hone our attention.
• It helps balance your emotions. The very act of saying “I’m angry” makes you less angry. It lights up the language centers in the brain, which are in the more evolved cerebral cortex, which allows you to better control yourself. When you label something, you gain a level of mastery over it. You’ll still be pissed, you may still want to smack that person with numchucks, but you’ll have a little distance and perspective.
• It tips you off to warped thinking. The other day, Julie told me she left her New York magazine in one of the suitcases she took on a weekend trip, but she couldn’t remember which. I searched the first, then the second, then the third. I found the magazine in the third suitcase. “Of course, it’s in the third,” I said out loud. “That’s my luck.” I paused. “Actually, maybe that’s not my luck. I learned from my Rationality Project, my luck is average. It’s just that I remember the unlucky incidents more often.”
“I’m bringing you the New York magazine,” I said.
“I see that,” Julie said.
“I’m handing it to you, my wife, and then I’m going to leave the room.”
“Thanks for the update!”
“I’m noticing the painting in our living room for the first time in two years. It’s nice and bright and yellow.”
“Good to know.”
She’d already started to read the magazine.
Yesterday, I made a crucial discovery: Wii Fit offers a meditation video game. A video game! And here I had been trying to do it in real life without electronic equipment, like some loser from the eighth century.
The “game” is called “Lotus Focus,” and the idea is to watch a pixellated candle flicker onscreen while you are sitting on a Wii sensor board. And then continue sitting really still. If you move, you lose.
I crossed my legs, sat down, and pressed start. Forty-three seconds later, I must have shifted a butt muscle. The game finished with a curt sayonara.
Until they add a secret trapdoor where you can enter an opium den and flirt with geisha girls, Lotus Focus is probably not going to outsell Grand Theft Auto IV. It’s basically a really expensive version of Statues—a “game” my mom made us play at my seventh birthday when we kids got too rowdy. Same goal: stay really still. At least Statues had candy prizes involved at the end. (Incidentally, I found out the ultimate cheat on Lotus Focus. I packed up a suitcase with books and put it on the Wii sensor board. Can’t get much stiller. A winner every time! What is the sound of one hand high-fiving, suckah?)
So Wii is not the path to enlightenment. I’m going to have to keep meditating without electronic devices. Which is why, for half an hour each night, I’ve been sitting on some scrunched-up pillows, lowering my lids to half-mast, cupping my hands in my lap, and trying to do it old school.
The first four or five times I thought I might die of boredom. I fell asleep twice, once with my eyes open. I also tipped backward once, just about banging my head on a bookshelf. (Business idea: meditation helmets.)
I read a knee-high stack of meditation books. I was doing all different styles—Samatha, Vipassana. Eyes open, closed, half-mast. I chanted in Hindi, in English. (“Don’t worry, be happy,” one book recommended.) I paid attention to my breath as it entered my nostrils and filled my lungs. I bought a book called 8 Minute Meditation. Eight minutes! You can get washboard abs and become a bodhisattva with the exact same daily time commitment.
I read one book that said the key to meditation is to remember it isn’t passive. It’s hard work. Aha! This shifted my whole paradigm. It’s basically working on your brain like a muscle. Meditation is free weights for my prefrontal cortex. I’m going to be the Mr. Universe of brains.
It’s all about maintaining focus. You focus on something—your breath, your mantra, a soft-boiled egg—and if your mind wanders, you yank it back. It’s a death match between your focus and your brain’s desire to go gallivanting.
I meditated like I was going into combat. I will squash extraneous thoughts! That lasted a week, until I realized that’s too violent. That’s not Zen. I’m being pathetically Western.
You have to “gently and without judgment” guide your thoughts back to your breath. If I’m going to go with a sports metaphor, I’ll go with surfing, which seems appropriately Californian. The mind has plenty of churning whitecaps. But you just need to stay above them. You watch your thoughts pass by as if you’re watching a boat glide in the distance. Oh, look, now I’m thinking about how I’m older than Sherman McCoy, the Master of the Universe character in The Bonfire of the Vanities, and how ancient he seemed when I first read that book. Okay. Well, so be it. Now focus again on the breathing.
Nowadays, when my alarm chimes after half an hour of meditating, I emerge in one of two states. Either I’m calm, serene, and sharp-minded, and feel as if I’ve just taken a run around the reservoir, but without having to put on sneakers or sweat. Or else I’m calm, serene, and befuddled, as if my brain has been soaking in some thick clam chowder.
So is it working? Are my focusing muscles getting buff? As novice as my meditation skills are, it does seem to help me in real life, at least a little. When I’m sitting at my desk, I’m much more quick to notice when my attention starts to wander. Where you going? Get back here, you big lug. I firmly but kindly pull the leash back to, say, my article on Mike Huckabee for Esquire.
That’s the key. I’m much more aware of what I’m thinking about. It’s like I’ve created a lifeguard for my mind, always watching, scanning. I’m obsessed with metacognition.
Sometimes, I’ll let my mind wander a bit. As long as it’s wandering into an interesting territory, I’m all for it. The problem is, it usually wanders into the same old neighborhoods. It dwells on ridiculous and embarrassing fantasies, like this one: I wish I had been the subway hero—the guy who jumped onto the tracks and saved another passenger—so I could have used my exalted moral status to promote my Bible book.
That’s when I force my brain back into the present. Focus on what’s around you. Unitask.
I’ve realized something else, though: when you’re in the moment, you can be in the moment in a good way or a bad way.
I read David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to Kenyon College the other day. It’s a brilliant speech. It’s about what we decide to think about during everyday, mundane tasks—waiting in line at the grocery, sitting in traffic.
We can let our thoughts follow our brain’s default mode—annoyance, pettiness, outrage, selfish fantasies. Or we can make a conscious choice to “exercise some control over how and what you think.”
Instead of snarling at the guy in the Hummer who just cut you off in traffic, you can consider the possibility—however remote—that the Hummer “is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to rush to the hospital, and he’s in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in his way.”
Today I passed a woman on the street who’s a mom in Jasper’s class. I’ve passed her several times before, and I always try to catch her eye to say hi, and she always looks through me with an empty stare, like an Egyptian pharaoh’s funerary mask. It drives me crazy.
But Wallace was right. I should make a conscious decision to jolt myself out of my brain’s lazy tendency toward pettiness: maybe she’s really shy, maybe her sister is going through an ugly divorce, maybe she’s just nearsighted. That’s the noble path of unitasking.
It’s my last day. The plan was to really hunker down and do a perfect day without multitasking. I stashed my BlackBerry on the top shelf of a closet. I did my morning meditation to pump up my focusing muscles.
And then, at 10 A.M., I blew it. I watched a Demetri Martin video while researching an Esquire article. I checked CNN.com at noon. I took a cell phone call while making my turkey sandwich, though I begged off after forty-five seconds, ashamed.
It’s now five-thirty and I’ve just punched the clock. I walk to the living room, where Zane has just dumped all the pennies and nickels from his watermelon-shaped piggy bank onto our striped rug.
His mission is to pour out all the coins and put them back in. Then repeat. His brothers are working on an equally important task: taking DVDs out of a drawer and putting them back.
Zane invites me to collaborate with him on his project. “Help, Daddy!”
I clink a nickel in the slot.
“I’m here with my three sons, putting nickels in a watermelon bank.”
I say this sentence out loud, per the Bill Murray Method. I have three sons. They are healthy. They get pleasure from putting coins in a slot. I am overwhelmed with gratitude. Maybe it’s the lingering effects of cold medication, but I start to choke up. A real “Cat’s in the Cradle” moment.
Just outside my brain, three thousand things bark for my attention. My book deadline. Worries about the death of journalism. The invoice to the German magazine I forgot to send. But I’ve put up a soundproof wall. I’m going to put nickels in this watermelon with my son—and that’s all I’m going to do.
It is the perfect, undistracted ten minutes.
I’ve decided to try to write this coda without taking a break. And to raise the stakes, I’m doing an experiment within an experiment: I’m writing it on a typewriter, so I cannot be tempted by the evil Internet. I have to say, this is quite satisfying, seeing the words appear on an actual piece of paper. It’s so direct. No waiting for a laser printout. it’s like cooking dinner instead of ordering in. That’s not a very good metaphor, but I can’t delete. It’s actually quite freeing. No turning back!
Huh. This isn’t working. I’m not staying on task. This sensation of typewriting is far too interesting. Haven’t done it in twenty years.
Back to multitasking. I’m still an addict, but I’ve taken it down from a three-pack-a-day habit to a half-dozen cigarettes a day. Addict is the right word. Because I know it’s counterproductive and harmful to check my e-mail every two minutes, but I do it anyway. then I feel shameful and dirty about it.
I’m very thrown off by the way that this typewriter does not automatically capitalize the first letter of the word. I’m at my dad’s office because none of my friends had typewriters, but his law firm still has one Panasonic electronic typewriter. I read somewhere—and I can’t check the Internet to see where—that Nietzsche’s writing changed significantly whe he went from longhand to the typewriter. It went from being more flowing and discursive to more telegram-like, bulleted and epigrammatic.
Which brings up the question (look at that segue—thanks typewriter): During my month of unitasking, did my thinking change at all? I hope so. A little. I’m calmer. I have a sense that I’m in charge of my brain more often, that it’s not a slave to the blips and bleeps that pop up outside. I shut my eyes during phone calls. I’m getting more work done, which is huge. There’s a lot of overlap with the Rationality Project and the George Washington project. The key is self-mastery. I’ve got control of my brain’s steering wheel.
I don’t think I fully comprehended how distracted I was before this project. One example: You know Walter Kirn’s Atlantic article that I quoted? I must have skimmed that article three times before writing my essay. But only when I finished my essay and looked back at Kirn’s for fact checking did I notice something unsettling. Kirn’s essay has the same introduction as mine. Not the exact same. But similar. It’s about him being distracted while driving. I must have been listening to music or watching the Mentalist the first few times I read it. my mind didn’t even process what the first few paragraphs were about.
Speaking of which, a month after the end of the unitasker project, I had a chance to do something I hadn’t done in two years: drive. We were visiting julie’s dad in Sarasota, and Jasper desperately wanted to play miniature golf, his true passion. Julie had to take care of the twins. So Julie very nervously decided I could drive jasper. It was a five-minute drive, no highways. But it was a tense five minutes. Hands on two and ten. No playing with the window or fiddling with the radio. “Daddy! Daddy!”
“Can’t talk now,” I responded. No time for pronouns, even.
We did get there safely. I can drive, as long as there is silence and the highway is straight and there are no flashing billboards to distract me.
© 2009 A. J. Jacobs