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

By A.J. Jacobs
Updated September 11, 2009
Man with a brain filled with distractions
Credit: 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.

Day 1

Today is my first day without multitasking. I start by taking 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. 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 DVD. Next I sit at my desk (I work from home) and read a newspaper. That’s all. Without checking my e-mails or eating breakfast at the same time.

This is awful. I feel as if my brain has entered a school zone and has to slow down to 20 miles an hour. My plan is to leave my BlackBerry off till noon. I break down at 11:30.

At lunchtime, Julie (who also works at home) 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 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. And I realized I had used dishwasher liquid by accident.” At this point during a conversation, I’m usually doing something else. Picking up stray cups, for example.

“So I bring it back to the kitchen, because I don’t want to waste it. And I’m cleaning the coffeepot…” You know, I’d love to invent contact lenses that have tiny TVs embedded in them. You could be looking straight at your coworker, but little does he know, on the inside of your lenses, you’re enjoying CSI: Miami. “...and the suds won’t go away. I had to wash the coffeepot for five minutes.” I’ve always wanted to learn Braille. That way, I could be having lunch with my boss, making polite noises, while my fingertips read an Andrew Jackson biography underneath the table.

Day 4

I’ve got to do something about my desk. This is where most of my crimes against focus occur. There are so many temptations: snacks, cups of water, caffeine. I pop up from my desk once every five minutes. So I decide to engage in some light bondage. I take a long extension cord and tie myself to the gray Aeron chair in front of my computer. I knot it five times in my lap. It feels kind of safe, like a seat belt.

Five minutes later, I think of adjusting the lamp, since the bulb is spotlighting my face like I am about to sing a solo in A Chorus Line. But then I would have to unknot the cord and get up. I keep my bottom 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 18 years of age.

“It’s for my project.”

She frowns and backs out of the room.

If you can take the skeptical looks, I strongly recommend tying yourself down. I finished a ton of work in the last two hours.

It helps that I’m blocking out the always tempting siren call of the Internet. I will not be checking the Hasbro website to see how many marbles we’re supposed to have in our Hungry Hungry Hippos game. Which could lead to an animated YouTube movie of the Green Hungry Hungry Hippo singing “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Which might lead to yet another YouTube viewing of the “Bohemian Rhapsody” scene from Wayne’s World.

Well, I won’t do it again.

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.”

Day 22

I’m 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 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 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 edges away from me.

Saying aloud everything I am doing at a given moment is all part of my new strategy for unitasking. As a kid, I had the admittedly bizarre habit of pretending to be a sportscaster announcing my life. I’ve taken it up again.

If I start to absentmindedly multitask, I’ll be the first to know. No secrets from myself. It has other benefits, too. It forces me to live a mindful life and help balance my emotions. For example, the other day I found myself saying, “I’m walking through Central Park. I’m in the middle of a crowded city, and I can barely make out the buildings, barely hear the traffic. I just see trees and jutting rocks and grass. Amazing.” And when I was upset, the very act of saying “I’m angry” made me calmer. Yes, I still kind of wanted to smack the person who was irritating me, but at least the exercise gave me a little distance and perspective.

Day 26

For half an hour each night, I’ve been sitting on pillows, lowering my lids to half-mast, cupping my hands in my lap, and trying to meditate. 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 one book that said the key to meditation is to remember it’s hard work. It’s mental exercise, like free weights for the prefrontal cortex.

So are my focusing muscles getting ripped? As primitive as my meditation is, it does seem to be helping me in real life, at least a little. These days, when I’m sitting at my desk, I’m quicker to notice when my attention wanders. Where are you going? Get back here, you big lug. I’m also much more aware of what I’m thinking about. It’s as if I’ve created a lifeguard for my mind, always watching, scanning.

Sometimes I’ll let my mind wander a bit. As long as it’s heading into an interesting territory, I’m all for it. The problem is, it usually dwells on ridiculous fantasies, like this one: I wish 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 career. That’s when I force my brain back into the present.

I’ve realized something else, though: If being in the moment is hard, being in the moment in a positive way is even harder. The late author David Foster Wallace gave a famous commencement speech about what we decide to think about during mundane tasks―waiting in line at the grocery store, sitting in traffic. You can decide to give in to your brain’s baser tendencies―to be annoyed, angry, or selfish. Or not. As Wallace said, 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 always try to catch her eye to say hi, and she always looks through me with an empty stare. It drives me crazy.

But Wallace was right. I make a conscious decision to jolt myself out of my brain’s lazy bent toward pettiness. Maybe she’s really shy, I tell myself. Maybe her sister is going through an ugly divorce. Maybe she’s just nearsighted.

The Last Day

The plan is to hunker down and do a full day without multitasking. I stash my BlackBerry on the top shelf of a closet. I do my morning meditation.

And then I blow it. I check CNN at noon. I take a cell-phone call while making my turkey sandwich, though I beg off after 45 seconds, ashamed.

It’s now 5:30, 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 the rug.

His mission is to pour out all the coins and put them back in. Then repeat. He invites me to collaborate on this important project: “Help, Daddy!”

I clink a nickel into the slot. “I’m putting coins in a piggy bank with my son.”

I say this sentence out loud. It could be I’m woozy from fighting off a cold, but I start to tear up. I’m suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude. I have three sons. They are healthy. They get pleasure from putting coins in a slot.

Just outside my brain, 3,000 different things bark for my attention. But right now I’ve put up a soundproof wall. I am going to put nickels in this watermelon with my son.

It is the perfect, undistracted 10 minutes.

A longer version of this essay appears in A. J. Jacobs’s The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment (Simon & Schuster), out this month.