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How I Stopped the Multitasking Madness

One man’s quest to go from manic multitasker to Zen unitasker in one month flat.

By A.J. Jacobs
Man with a brain filled with distractions Christopher Silas Neal

Right now I’m writing this with the stereo silent. The TV black. The room dark. I am focused on nothing else but this glowing computer screen, the blinking cursor, and the words appearing in 12-point Helvetica. I’m not paying attention to the clinking drum solo of my radiator. I’m certainly not paying attention to my two-year-old son Zane outside my office door, apparently doing an impression of Fran Drescher impersonating Alvin the Chipmunk. I’m doing this because I realize I have a problem focusing. My brain is all over the place.

Unless I’m doing at least two things at once, I feel like I’m wasting my time. Phone and e-mail. Walking and reading. Chatting with my wife, Julie, watching The Office, checking Facebook, and playing with my sons ( Jasper, five, and twins Zane and Lucas, two). Oh, to be born in the golden age of attention. When Lincoln and Douglas could have three-hour debates. When people would look at a painting for an afternoon. Paintings! I hear they’re like TV but they don’t move.

In one sense, task-juggling makes me feel energized, fulfilled, like I’m living three lives in the space of one. But I also know I’m overloading my circuits. I can’t think straight anymore. My mom has noticed; she 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”).

I’ve been reading a bunch of books on multitasking. It’s really a life-or-death problem―no exaggeration. The culture of distraction is rewiring our brains, making us less happy, less able to connect with people and form a conscience. Multitasking makes us feel efficient. But it’s an insane delusion; it actually just slows our thinking down. Our brains can’t handle more than one higher cognitive function at a time. We may think we’re multitasking, but we’re really switch-tasking. 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 are a few milliseconds of start-up cost. The neurons need time to rev up.

Hence, I’ve decided to begin a little project I call Operation Focus. I pledge to go cold turkey from multitasking for a month in a quest to regain my brain and sanity. I’ll unitask―that is, perform one activity at a time. And just as important, I’ll stick with each thing for more than my average 30 seconds. I’ll be the most focused man in the world.


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