A. J. Jacobs. Jacobs is an immersion writer, which simply means he immerses himself in various situations and then writes about his experience (his books The Know It All, The Year of Living Biblically and Drop Dead Healthy are great examples). 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.
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 Ice Bucket Challenge. 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. 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 Ice Bucket 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 attempt to focus on one task at a time.
Starting right now – I am a unitasker! Let’s see what happens.