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

 

Day 10

Studies show that meditating is an excellent way to improve your focus. There’s something called an executive system in your brain; it directs your attention, almost like the conductor of a symphony. So meditation is like going to conducting school. A little more than a week into my experiment, I take the subway to a nearby Zen meditation center.
 
“Let’s bow to our pillows,” says the instructor, Derek, to us eight beginner students. Each of us dutifully presses his palms together and bows to his assigned chocolate-colored cushion. We sit down in a circle. Derek speaks soothingly. He talks about how meditation helps us slow down and see the “amazingness of the universe.” After 15 minutes, he asks, “Does anyone have any questions? Because I could ramble on all day.”
 
I raise my hand. I like random musings as much as the next guy, but I want to get to the meat. I say to him, “Can you give us the technique for meditating? Any tips?”
 
“I’m going to get to that,” he says. There is a tiny ripple of annoyance in his pond of calmness. Oops. Not so Zen of me. Derek does give 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 15-minute sit.
 
I sit. And sit, staring at the floor. I listen to the guy next to me breathe. He’s breathing loudly. Really loudly. Like Darth Vader. With asthma. Worse, my monkey mind is still hopping all over the place. I’ve got a ways to go before I reach unitasking Nirvana, apparently.
 
 

Day 16

“Can we eat dinner tonight without multitasking?” I ask Julie.


 

“What does that mean?” she says.


 

“No TV. Just a quiet dinner.” It’s 9 p.m. The boys are already in bed.


 

“Sounds nice.”


 

“Also, no talking. I really just want to concentrate on eating.”


 

She’s sitting on the bed. She collapses her head on her knees. “Why do you choose the worst times to ask me these things?” She has had a long day and is in no mood to sit in silence.

I put out the plates, and we each take spoonfuls of our vegetable pad thai takeout. We sit across from each other. We’re silent for several minutes. How long has it been since Julie and I have eaten together at home, just the two of us, without firing up the TiVo to 30 Rock or Mad Men?


 

“This isn’t so bad,” I say. “It’s relaxing.”


 

“No talking,” she says.


 

Julie and I met when we both worked at the same magazine. I was on the 28th floor; she was on the 29th. We knew each other as colleagues for five years before our first date. Julie once told me that now, every month or so, she looks at me and thinks, Hey, that’s A. J. Jacobs from the 28th floor. What the hell is he doing here in my house? I’m looking at her across the table, and I’m having a Hey, that’s Julie Schoenberg from the 29th floor moment.


 

“I’m glad I met you,” I say.


 

“No talking.”

 

 
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