Saturday, December 5, 2009


That book I was hoping to read is called “The Guinea Pig Diaries” by A.J. Jacobs. If you’ve been reading this thing a while you might remember Jacobs from my comments about his last book.

Jacobs presents himself as a decent, regular guy in his writing. He’s a working husband and father and seems to be constantly trying to find ways to better himself. Some of his attempts at being a better person have led him to his strange experiments wherein he makes himself the guinea pig. This book is largely a collection of those experiments. He spent a month doing everything his wife wanted him to do, he tried to live by George Washington’s code of conduct, and he gave Radical Honesty a try among other things. The thing about his experiments is that the reader gets to experience them through him without going to all the trouble. The reader gets the best parts of the research in a Cliff’s Notes way. (Do they still make Cliff’s Notes?) And since I don’t have a great deal of free time for lab work, I’m happy to let A.J. take care of this for me.

The book is as informational as it is entertaining. And it’s plenty entertaining. I’m not going to tell you I belly-laughed through the whole thing, but there were a couple of moments when I chuckled out loud. Certainly part of the draw for me is that I find myself relating to the guy. He’s a sort of new father, he has a couple of jobs, and he’s constantly trying to figure out ways to create a peaceful, happy personal life. Of course these things guide his choices when determining what things he’ll try next so I’m generally interested in what he learns and if there’s any way I can use some of his findings in my life.

The most interesting chapter/experiment to me is “The Unitasker”. For this project Jacobs attempted to live his life completely without multitasking. He tried to do no more than one thing at a time and tried to truly focus on the project at hand. As with all his experiments he tries to take things to the funniest extreme. This means wearing blinders while talking on the phone to ensure that he keeps his full attention on the conversation. He ties himself to his computer chair in order to meet a book deadline. He requests a dinner in total silence with his wife. When she tells him that this dinner is actually kind of nice, he suggests they kindly keep to the project rules and refrain from talking.

This idea of shunning multitasking is something I’ve circled around for a while now. With several things on my plate at the same time I’m often forced into multitasking and what I’ve learned over the last few years is that I forget things. I forget to do things or I forget to do portions of them until the last minute. This leads to urgent rushing around and generally having to settle for some things turning out less than perfect and the control freak inside me absolutely hates this. Knowing that I tend to underperform when faced with doing 5 things at once prevents me from trying to do anything besides drive my car and listen to my iPod at the same time. I’m still one of the few people who refuse to talk on the phone while driving and if you drive anywhere between my house and Winthrop….you’re welcome for that.

See, the thing is, while we think we’re getting more things done in less time, what is really going on is that we are doing more things at a below average level in less time. And if you believe recent research on the subject, we are also losing our ability to focus on items for longer than a few seconds, we are short circuiting the way our brains normally work, and we are allowing our kids to kill themselves by driving while texting, taking photos, and sending emails. According to Jacobs’ research our attempts at doing several things at once make us more inclined to depression and much worse at developing personal connections. Our attention spans continue to decline to match the time we are accustomed to spending on things. If TV shortened our attention span into commercial sized spaces just imagine how short our attention spans will be after a few more years of instant messaging, Googling our “facts”, and texting our relationships.
*Side note: The state of North Carolina put a new law into effect on December 1, 2009 making it illegal to send text messages while driving based on overwhelming research indicating that dividing your focus impairs your ability to drive.

The really interesting thing is that while we think we’re multitasking, our brains are actually incapable of multitasking. What we are really doing is what Jacobs calls “switchtasking”. Our brains simply toggle between one task and another and each time we switch tasks, we lose milliseconds of time just from the switch. Then you have to sit there like me and try to figure out exactly where your train of thought was heading before the kid jumped out of his chair and landed on the laundry basket launching a popsicle and juice onto the couch. This apparently, is where the forgetting happens.

In the end Jacobs declares himself “calmer” as a direct result of his unitasking. What better argument could be made for putting an end to multitasking? I’m guessing all of us could use a little more calm. But it’s not as easy as just saying you’ll focus on one thing at a time. While Jacobs did manage to reduce the number of things he did at a time, he was not able to maintain any sort of only-one-task-at-a-time lifestyle. There were just too many distractions available to him.

My schedule demands that I set aside certain blocks of time to work on sculpture and drawings and I typically refuse to allow anything infringe on those times. (Well, there was that one time when I needed about one more hour to finish a sculpture and my wife insisted on having a baby right that instant.) When I’m in a production mode it does me no good to try to read a book or become interested in research. I simply am not able to focus on all those things at one time. I’ll forget what I’ve just read and I’ll miss the best solutions to the sculptures. Multitasking just doesn’t mix well with my creative work. When I block off my time and focus on one specific task my brain is better able to absorb each situation

Despite my attempts, I’m not exactly a shining example of unitasking either. While trying to read that particular chapter of Jacobs’ book on vacation I had to calm a crying baby, watch the final moments of a football game, go out on the balcony to watch some passing dolphins and get Blue dressed and ready to leave the hotel to meet some friends. The reality is that it’s very difficult to give your focus to one thing at a time.

The difficult things are usually worth the effort.

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