Monday, September 6, 2010


Yesterday at the airport (as we were returning to Houston) I picked up the latest book by one of my favorite authors, A. J. Jacobs.  Jacobs' first two books, The Know-It-All and The Year of Living Biblically are fantastic and so I couldn’t resist when I saw in the terminal bookstore My Life as an Experiment.

Jacobs is am immersion writer, which simply means he immerses himself in various situations and then writes about his experience.  My Life as an Experiment is a collection of essays on 10 different immersions such as living as George Washington for a month.  The first essay is based on a experiment in unitasking.

We all understand multitasking.  Some of us were introduced to the idea as kids as smiling housewives in commercials told us that they were cleaning their ovens as they played bridge or polo or cliff dived - my memory of the commercials is fuzzy but I remember the punchline:  "I'm cleaning my oven!"  Easy Off brilliantly marketed the value of multitasking and we were sold.  In his book Dancing the Soul Salsa, Leonard Sweet nearly makes multitasking (killing two birds with one stone) a spiritual gift.  But its more than a couple of birds that are getting killed.  Multitasking is killing us.  Here’s some of what Jacob learned:

  • Driving Under the Influence of Text Messages causes 630,000 accidents a year.
  • In her book Distracted:  The Eroision of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. Maggie Johnson warns that distractions are changing the way we think, rewiring our brains and making it harder to solve complex problems.
  • Multitasking increases the levels of stress-related hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, prematurely aging us.  Distracted brains make us more depressed, less able to connect with people or form a conscience.
  • And mulittasking makes us dumber (just imagine how much better a sentence that might have been if I haven’t spent so many years multitasking).  Researchers at UCLA found that multitasking shortchanges the higher regions of the brain, the ones devoted to learning and memory.   And the sad truth is we really aren’t multitasking, the brain can’t handle more than one higher cognitive function at a time.  We are switch-tasking – bouncing between one task to another.
And as Jacobs simply puts it:  Multitasking is rotting our skulls.

I read this first chapter uncomfortably.  Do I check my email and facebook status while on the phone?  Ouch!  Do I fall to the distraction of web surfing when I am trying to finish a writing assignment?   It starts by trying to look up quote from Plato which leads to a You Tube animation of The Cave and the next thing you know I’m watching videos of the Annoying Orange.  Ouch!  Do I watch TV with my laptop open while listening to Kim tell me about something going on with someone somewhere?  Ouch!  I am addicted to multitasking.  The idea of trying to stay focused on one task at a time actually frightens me.

But Jacob’s article has convinced me to try.  So for the rest of September I am going to attempt to be a Unitasker (which sounds somehow like a Unibomber and maybe just as dangerous).  When I am writing I won’t bounce from document to document, go online or constantly check my email (it’s been killing me not to do either as I write this post – I especially want to check to see if there’s any new Annoying Orange uploads).  When I am driving, I will drive and the iPhone (which is a must-have tool for multitaskers) will stay in my messenger bag.  When I talk on the phone I will shut my eyes (one of Jacob’s suggestions) so that I won’t be tempted to accomplish another task while on the phone.  I won’t text or surf the web during meetings.  I won’t play Words with Friends (words for nerds) while walking from place to place.  I won’t even text or facebook (is facebook a verb?) while watching tv and I won’t look up interesting trivia about the actors we are watching on IMDb (I love doing that).  For the rest of the month I will focus on one task at a time.

Starting right now – I am a unitasker!   Let’s see what happens.


  1. This is a great post, Doug! Haven't yet read that A. J. Jacobs book, and I love him too. BTW, when you have time to unitask Words with Friends, let me know your handle. I'm Chrustt (long story).

  2. Love the concept,strive to embrace it, but for me (and I suspect many women) multi-tasking is an "I've got kids" thing.

  3. I've tried this - it is hard to do! One thing that helped was setting a stop watch for some tasks (like writing). Knowing that when the stop watch sounded I would be able to check email, google-reader, NYT online, etc. somehow made it easier. Two big helpful side effects of the effort - I was much more efficient (proving the point that switch-tasking doesn't really improve productivity) and I slept much better (guess stress levels were down?). I still fall prey to multi-tasking, but at least now I know what I'm doing and how to try to stop. And, sometimes, I do. Good luck!