For his first hit title, Jacobs read the Encyclopedia Britannica. For his second, he followed every single rule in the Bible. Now comes a collection of his most outrageous and thought-provoking experiments yet. In The Guinea Pig Diaries, Jacobs goes undercover as a beautiful woman. He outsources everything in his life to India, from answering his emails to arguing with his wife. He spends two months saying whatever is on his mind. He lives like George Washington. Plus several other life-changing experiments—one of which involves public nudity.
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A.J. Jacobs is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Know-It-All, The Year of Living Biblically, and The Guinea Pig Diaries. He is the editor at large of Esquire magazine, a contributor to NPR, and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Entertainment Weekly. He lives in New York City with his wife and kids. Visit him at AJJacobs.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I’m writing this chapter with the stereo silent. The TV black. The room dark. The pinging of the e-mails silenced. I am focused on nothing else but this glowing computer screen, the blinking cursor, and the words appearing in Helvetica twelve-point font.
I’m not paying attention to the honking taxis on the street, or the clanking drum solo of my radiator. I’m certainly not paying attention to my two-year-old son, Zane, who is outside my office door, apparently doing an impression of Fran Drescher impersonating Alvin the Chipmunk.
I’m trying to do this because I realize I have a problem focusing. My brain is all over the place.
Consider this: multitasking almost killed me. Maybe I’m being melodramatic here. You be the judge. Two years ago, Julie and I were driving a rented Taurus to my cousin’s wedding in Woodstock, New York. The kids were at home with our babysitter, Michelle.
I was at the wheel, weaving my way north, listening to the audio book we’d brought along: the biography of Albert Einstein by Walter Isaacson. It’s a good book. Dangerously good.
Interesting, I thought to myself, as we listened to chapter 8. When Einstein was a clerk at the patent office, he did a lot of work on clocks that were synchronized at the speed of light, which led to his early ideas on relativity. His day job was crucial. If he’d been a regular old tenured professor, we might not have relativity and our kids would be watching videos called Baby Heisenberg.
I’m not a fan of driving. I know a lot of people get a dopamine rush from steering a powerful steel machine down a road. I’ve seen the postcoitally blissful faces of men in Honda commercials. But for me, driving holds all the allure of operating an electric can opener. In other words, I found the life of the world’s greatest scientist more intriguing than the Saw Mill River Parkway.
My mind drifted from the road. The car drifted from the road. Julie screamed.
I snapped my attention back to the highway and jammed the steering wheel hard to the left. Tires squealed. An overcorrection. Now to the right. We serpentined for a few seconds, then hit the shoulder and launched into space. We jumped a waist-high concrete median and bounced down ass-backward into oncoming traffic on the other side of the highway. A “real Dukes of Hazzard” move, as the tow truck driver later described it. If only Julie had been wearing jean shorts.
We sat for a few seconds in our rental car, the bottom ripped off, the hood crinkled. For reasons only weird Einsteinian physics can explain, no other cars smashed into us. I was relieved to still be breathing. Julie was crying—somewhat relieved, but mostly furious at me for losing control. The rest of the afternoon consisted of cops, rental car insurance forms, rubberneckers, and strained silence. We were three hours late for the wedding.
Julie has since banned me from all driving except in parking lots and cul-de-sacs. On road trips out of New York, I get to sit in the back and negotiate peace treaties about which Nickelodeon movie we’re going to put in the portable DVD player. That may seem like it’s emasculating, but is just fine with me. I know I’m a terrible driver.
My near-death experience put an end, at least for now, to my driving career. But it didn’t put a speed bump in my multitasking habits. Not a bit. Unless I’m doing at least two things at once, I feel like I’m wasting my time. Phone and e-mail. Watching The Office, checking Facebook, and reading the Times op-eds online. Texting and peeing.
My friend Andy taught me how to read-walk. He could read an entire Newsweek magazine on his walk from the subway to his apartment. Just be sure to glance up once every paragraph or two, he told me.
I recently read a quote from actress Jennifer Connelly in The Atlantic: “I do like to read a book while having sex. And talk on the phone. You can get so much done.” Julie would never go for that. But I do remember a girlfriend who allowed Law & Order to play in the background, which made for some efficient, suspense-filled romance, with a plot twist at 10:41 P.M.
In one sense, task-juggling makes me feel great: busy, energized, fulfilled, like I’m living three lives in the space of one.
But I also know I’m scattered. I’m overloading my circuits. I know, deep down, this overstimulated, underfocused world is driving us all batty. My mom—who 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”)—recently sent me a Times article about how multitasking is actually inefficient.
Hence Operation Focus. I’m going to recapture my attention span, which currently can be measured only by one of those atomic clocks. I pledge to go cold turkey from multitasking for a month. Only single tasks. Unitasking. And just as important, I’ll stick with each task for more than my average thirty seconds. I’ll be the most focused man in the world.
I collected a shelfful of books on attention. I won’t even mention how hard it was to focus on them. (Note to William James: I love you, but easy on the dependent clauses, please!)
What I took away was this: when I said multitasking is a life-or-death problem, I wasn’t exaggerating. And not just because Driving Under the Influence of Text Messaging causes 630,000 crashes a year. The stakes are even higher. We’re talking survival of civilization itself—at least if you believe some of these writers. Author Maggie Jackson wrote an intriguing and frightening book called Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.
Okay, maybe “Dark Age” is a tad alarmist. I don’t think we’re going to stop reading books and start waging religious wars. Umm, let me rephrase. Let’s just say I think “Dark Age” might be an overstatement. But the gist of Jackson’s book is right. The culture of distraction is changing the way we think. It’s rewiring our brains. It’s making it harder for us to solve complex problems. Nicholas Carr writes in The Atlantic in an article called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (hint: yes), “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet-Ski.”
Our hopscotching brains make us more depressed (it’s harder to focus on the positive), less able to connect with people and form a conscience. And our attention spans are to blame for America’s dismal math skills. Malcolm Gladwell points out in Outliers that Japanese kids stick with a hard math problem for fourteen minutes, while American kids give up after 9.5 minutes.
Oh, and it’s all an insane delusion, to boot. Multitasking makes us feel efficient. But my mom is right: it actually just slows our thinking down. In fact, multitasking is the wrong word. Our brains can’t handle more than one higher cognitive function at a time. We may think we’re multitasking, but we’re actually switchtasking. 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’s a few milliseconds of startup cost. The neurons need time to rev up.
Multitasking costs the economy $650 billion a year, according to the Institute of Pulling Numbers Out of Its Ass. (That’s a real estimate, though not the institute’s real name.) Whatever the actual total is, I’m starting to think this isn’t a problem along the lines of love handles or bad cell service. This is the Eleventh Plague.
Today is my first day without multitasking. When I get up, I take 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. Experience it. Be present. Be mindful.
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 Berenstain Bears DVD. Where’s my damn stimulation?
I sit at my desk and read the newspaper. That’s all. Without checking my e-mails or eating breakfast at the same time. Simply flipping the pages.
This is awful. I feel like my brain has entered a school zone and has to slow down to 25 mph.
My plan is to leave my BlackBerry off till noon. I break down at eleven-thirty.
At lunchtime, Julie 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 raspberry 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.”
I’m watching her face. Maybe staring too much. That reminds me. I have to call the Fox publicist about their new show on reading people’s faces. Focus, Jacobs!
“It smelled…industrial. And I realized I had used dishwasher liquid instead of regular soap.”
It’s not that the topic isn’t interesting. As someone obsessed with handwashing, this is actually relevant stuff. It’s just that I’m usually doing something else during a conversation. Picking up stray cups, or putting away sweaters.
“So I bring it back to the kitchen because I don’t want to waste it, and I’m cleaning the coffee pot. . .”
Keep looking at the face. You know, I’ve always fantasized about inventing contact lenses with tiny TVs embedded in them. You could be looking straight at your coworker as he tells you about his trip to Knott’s Berry Farm, but little does he know, on the inside of your contact lens, you’re enjoying CSI: Miami. Just remember to nod occasionally.
“. . . and the suds won’t go away. I had to wash the coffee pot for five minutes.”
Or braille. I’d always wanted to learn braille. That way I could be having lunch with my boss, making polite noises, while my fingertips read the latest Andrew Jackson biography underneath the table.
“And the coffee still tasted soapy,” says Julie.
“Why are you writing that down?” she asks.
“It’s for a project.”
“Is everything I say fodder?”
She makes a pouty face. “I’m not just a character.”
THE DECLINE AND FALL OF WESTERN ATTENTION
Baboons have a better attention span than I do. This is true. My favorite theory about attention comes from a baboon study. Male baboons, it argues, evolved attention partly so that they could guard the female baboon for a good long time after sex, to make sure no one else conducted any monkey business that might interfere with their sperm. (My question: If this is true, why are men so opposed to cuddling?)
However it started, attention had a decent run in humans for a couple of millennia there. In the book Distracted, I read about “attention athletes” such as eighteenth-century Swiss entomologist Charles Bonnet, who “studied a single aphid from 5:30 A.M. to 11 P.M. for twenty-one days straight in order to learn about its reproductive cycle.” That guy is my new hero.
Oh to be born in the golden age of attention. When Lincoln and Douglas could have three-hour debates, or the faithful could pray without ceasing for four hours. When people would look at a painting for an afternoon. Paintings! They’re like TV, but they don’t move.
Then it all broke down. The Industrial Revolution came. We began to fetishize speed and equate quickness with intelligence. We bought into the myth that, as writer Walter Kirn puts it, nonstop connectedness equals freedom. We started to chop everything down into component parts. And worship at the altar of Frederick Taylor and other efficiency experts with clipboards and stopwatches.
I used to be proud of my attention deficit. Or at least I pretended to be proud. Focusing on only one thing for a long time? That went out of style with snuff boxes. I’m part of a new generation, man.
I loved to Jet-Ski across the surface. Even when I read the encyclopedia—my longest attempt at sustained focus—it actually fed right into my ADD personality. Each essay is a bite-size nugget. Bored with Abilene, Texas? Here comes abolitionism. Tired of that? Not to worry, the Abominable Snowman’s lurking right around the corner.
I still think it’s got its advantages. It helped me when I chose articles for Esquire. As an editor, if a story grabbed me, I knew it had to be interesting, since my brain was tugged in forty-two directions.
The first hint I was missing something came during my biblical year. The Sabbath—which I still try to practice—taught me the value of stillness.
The science drove it home. In another excellent antimultitasking article in The Atlantic (that magazine is all over this beat!), Kirn explains the problem with frightening clarity. Multitasking shortchanges the higher regions of the brain, the ones devoted to learning and memory.
Kirn describes a recent UCLA study:
[R]esearchers asked a group of 20-somethings to sort index cards in two trials, once in silence and once while simultaneously listening for specific tones in a series of randomly presented sounds.
The subjects sorted the cards just as successfully in both trials. But here’s the key: when they had the distracting tones in the background, they had a much more difficult time remembering what they were sorting.
It comes down to the brain’s real estate: “The subjects’ brains coped with the additional task by shifting responsibility from the hippocampus—which stores and recalls information—to the striatum, which takes care of rote, repetitive activities.”
And speaking of the brain, Kirn writes: “Even worse, certain studies find that multitasking boosts the level of stress-related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and wears down our systems through biochemical friction, prematurely aging us. In the short term, the confusion, fatigue, and chaos merely hamper our ability to focus and analyze, but in the long term, they may cause it to atrophy.”
In short, multitasking rots your skull.
Of course, not all multitasking is created equal. It helps if one of the tasks requires less intellectual wattage. If you’re mopping the floor while talking on the phone, it’s a lot better than texting while on the phone. But even with the mopping, you’re eating away at attention. Your conversation will suffer, if only mildly.
THE ODYSSEUS STRATEGY
I’ve got to do something about my desk. This is where most of my crimes against focus occur.
There’s a great Onion headline: EMPLOYEE’S MULTITASKING DOESN’T INCLUDE WORK. That’s the way I’m feeling these days. My book is way overdue. My editor keeps sending me e-mails that say, “How’s writing?” the subtext being, “Turn in your book this week or you’ll be publishing it on your Epson printer and binding it at the copy center.”
It’s just that there are so many temptations. So many needs to fulfill. Snacks, cups of water, caffeine, curiosity about what Julie’s doing. I pop up from my desk once every five minutes.
I’m in Day Four of the expe...
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