How I Stopped the Multitasking Madness
One man’s quest to go from manic multitasker to Zen unitasker in one month flat.
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.