I'm writing this chapter with my Pandora silenced. The TV black. The room dark. The pinging of the emails muted. I am focused on nothing else but this glowing computer screen, the blinking cursor, and the words appearing in Helvetica 12-point font.
I'm not paying attention to the honking taxis on the street, or the thumping sneakers of my upstairs neighbors, or my ancient air conditioner that sounds like an asthmatic who just ran a 10K.
I'm trying to Unitask. Because unless you've been too busy clicking on Reddit stories about the 100 greatest Hank Hill quotes, you've probably read that multitasking is the 11th plague -- it makes us less efficient, less smart, less conscientious.
A few years ago, in my book 'My Life As an Experiment: One Man's Humble Quest to Improve Himself,' I wrote a chapter called "The Unitasker." For the chapter, I devoted a month to becoming the most focused person in the world. (Never quite made it; Buddhist monks can still out-meditate me with one frontal lobe tied behind their backs). But I did pick up some secrets. Here are four:
1. THE ODYSSEUS STRATEGY
As you might remember from high school, Odysseus demanded his sailors tie him to the mast so that he wouldn't take a swan dive off the starboard side when he heard the alluring singing of the Sirens. He didn't trust himself. He prepared for his future weakness. He was smart.
At one point in my month-long experiment, I tried a literal interpretation of the Odysseus strategy. I tied myself to my Aeron desk chair. It actually worked. I was super-efficient. No trips to inspect out the snack situation in the kitchen or to ask my wife if she'd seen my baseball cap.
This is a little extreme, I realize. But you don't need to engage in light bondage to take advantage of the Odysseus strategy. There are plenty of less literal ways to prepare for temptation and outsource your willpower. During work hours, I often put my iPhone in another room so that it's not enticing me. Preferably on a high shelf or deep in a drawer. Out of sight, out of mind.
I'm also a big fan of Internet-blocking software such as Freedom and Anti-Social. There's also Workflow, which gives you 25 minutes of digital detox, followed by 5 minute breaks. Studies show we only have a limited reserve of willpower. Why waste that on resisting a viral video about a foul-mouthed local news anchor?
My friend -- and fellow LinkedIn influencer -- Gretchen Rubin writes her books at a library and never signs onto its Wi-Fi. She told me about another friend who writes by plugging a portable keyboard into the iPhone. This woman finds Internet surfing much less tempting on on the iPhone's miniature screen.
During my experiment, I also talked on the phone. As in just talked. Remember those Mesozoic Days when people actually sat and had conversations on the phone without simultaneously emailing or texting or watching Season 2 of Scandal on Hulu? I recreated that. The key is to close the eyes and remove temptation. So much less stressful. It's a blissful freedom from choice that leads to phone conversations with -- here's the amazing thing -- actual substance.
2. THE TONYA HARDING STRATEGY
I realize Tonya Harding -- the C-list supervillain of 1990s figure skating -- is not someone we want to emulate. But during an interview, she once said something surprisingly wise. Or at least useful.
The interviewer asked Harding how she could concentrate on her routine with the scandal swirling around her. Harding's answer? As she enters the rink, she picks a spot on the wall by the door, touches it with her finger, and pretends to store all her worries in that one spot. Then she skates with a clear mind, knowing she can resume her worrying when she leaves the rink.
Luckily, I've never been accused of conspiring to kneecap a fellow non-fiction writer. But I love the idea of a stress spot. It's a simple, physical way to compartmentalize. I have a spot in my office. It's doing some excellent stress storage right now.
Maggie Jackson, the author of the helpful and terrifyingly titled book 'Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age', has a somewhat similar idea. She says it's essential to set borders around your business time. She does it physically, by sitting down, stretching her arms and saying to herself, okay, this is my time to work.
3. FOCUS WITH YOUR FEET
The Treadmill was used in British prisons to reform criminals -- at least until it was banned for cruelty in 1902.
I have spent a good chunk of money to live like a British prisoner. For a couple of years, I've been a member of the Treadmill Desk movement. I put my laptop on top of my Treadmill and type while walking very slowly (about 1 mph). It took me about 1,200 miles to write my last book.
The Treadmill Desk has become increasingly trendy -- and increasingly mocked, as in this funny backlash article in the New Republic.
But I find that, oddly enough, the treadmill helps with my focus. That nervous energy I might use to walk down the hall or check out the fridge? It's all channeled into the treadmill.
There's some science behind this. According to book 'Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain' by Harvard psychiatry professor John Ratey, walking raises your level of serotonin, a chemical crucial to attention.
So even though it's technically multitasking, walking and working makes me more efficient. The real multitasking problems occur with two mental tasks.
4. GET ALL META
I've come to believe that meta-cognition -- being aware of what you're thinking -- is one of the most important human skills, right up there with generosity and knowing which direction to swipe your debit card at the grocery checkout counter.
Studies show that meta-cognition plays a huge part in happiness, emotional regulation, productivity -- pretty much all good mental activities.
There are many methods to improve your meta-cognition. The most famous perhaps is meditation. Unfortunately, I'm not a very good meditator. I'll continue to try, even if it's only one-minute lightning sessions.
But I've found another method. It may sound strange, but I encourage you to keep an open mind. Or open mouth.
Because the strategy is this: Talk to yourself. When you're alone, speak your thoughts out loud. Narrate your life. Admittedly, if you're spotted by passersby, you may get some raised eyebrows.
But vocalization forces you to live a mindful life. You are present. For instance, the other day, I found myself saying "I am walking through Central Park. I'm in the middle of a crowded city, and I can barely see the buildings, barely hear the traffic, just trees and jutting rocks and grass. Amazing." It made me thankful for nature and New York and Frederick Law Olmsted. When I interviewed attention researcher Meredith Minear from the University of Michigan, she says I stumbled onto an ancient technique. Part of the reason that evolution developed vocalizing was to hone our attention.
Talking out loud also helps balance your emotions. I interviewed John Fossella -- a professor at Cornell who specializes in attention -- who told me the very act of saying "I'm angry" makes you less angry. It lights up the language centers in the brain, which are in the more evolved frontal cortex, which allow you to control yourself more.
When you label something, you gain a level of control over it. You'll still be pissed and might still want to stomp on their big toe, but you'll have a little distance and perspective.
And now I'm off to unitask on my next book. If you need to reach me, I'll be trying to ignore your email until later. No offense.
A.J. Jacobs is the author of the New York Times bestsellers 'The Year of Living Biblically' and 'Drop Dead Healthy.' (Here's a taste). Find A.J. at his website ajjacobs.com or on Twitter @ajjacobs.
How to Focus: The 4 Best Secrets to Unitasking
Combat the plague of multitasking with a few, fairly focused steps.