I Tried Doing Just 1 Thing at a Time For 72 Hours, and, Wow, I Could Not

A few weeks ago, I spent nearly an hour attempting to book a spot in a workout class. It wasn't because there was something wrong with the studio's website. It was because there was something wrong with me. I kept getting distracted, forgetting what I was doing, accidentally closing the tab in my browser, doing something else, remembering the workout class, reopening the tab . . . in my quest to do everything at once, I was failing to get even the easiest of sh*t done. Why couldn't I just focus on one thing at a time? What if I at least tried?

I decided to spend a few days doing just that — which is not to say I think multitasking is purely bad. (In fact, just after I signed myself up for this experiment, the brilliant and prolific Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote a glorious defense of living chaotically.) I also know the ability to avoid multitasking is often borne of privilege and circumstance. I don't have young children demanding my attention, I have the kind of job where I can somewhat control my own time and distractions, and I have the luxury of occasional free time. But if the workout class debacle was evidence, I'd gotten so carried away with trying to accomplish several things at once that I was accomplishing almost nothing.

Full disclosure: I initially was going to try this experiment for a week, but I wimped out. I am training for a half-marathon and had to run nine miles over the weekend; there was no way I was going to make it without a playlist (running + listening to music = two things). But even after I downgraded the commitment, I was still tempted to make it even easier on myself. Of course I could listen to podcasts and music while I was driving! Or cleaning up around the house. Or grocery shopping. But I kept thinking about an episode of Call Your Girlfriend with Jenny Odell, the author of the book How to Do Nothing, which argues against our modern obsession with being productive at all times. Odell recalled a performance art piece by John Cage that encourages people to newly focus on the sounds around them by incorporating noises like a blender or a deck of cards being shuffled. She said the experience forever changed the way she experiences and pays attention to everyday sounds. The thought of having such an epiphany of my own was appealing enough to go cold turkey. So I did.

Day 1: Monday

  • 7:10 a.m. — I get in my car and do not turn on NPR or the Rap Caviar Spotify playlist. I am already experiencing everyday sounds more acutely — has my dashboard always made that annoying rattling sound? I feel a muscle-jerk reaction to turn up the volume knob even though nothing is on. My brain starts playing the "Cellino and Barnes, injury attorneys, 100-888-8888" TV commercial jingle. In fact, I discover, I am whistling it out loud.
  • 7:30 a.m. — Coincidentally, I start the day with a meditation session with the serene Megan Monahan, who wrote the book Don't Hate, Meditate! and has worked at the Chopra Center (as in Deepak). She tells me to think of meditation like that little Fisher-Price game we had as kids — you know, the one with the little plastic fishing bowl and magnetic fish. Meditation, she says, is like purposely selecting a thought fish from our mind bucket. It is not about clearing your brain of thoughts. If your brain were clear of thoughts, she reminds me, you'd be dead.
  • 11:53 a.m. — My first notable failure to singletask comes at 11:53 a.m. I'm reading a Washington Post article when I see a Slack notification from a colleague. She asks me to send her a link to a Google doc, and I pop back into my browser, where the half-read article is languishing. I'm sure I've f*cked up myriad other times before this, but this is the first time that it's egregious enough for me to notice.
  • 1:17 p.m. — Lunch is monotonous. I get out of a meeting late, so no one else is eating in the office kitchen. I mindfully chew my Trader Joe's paneer masala while staring at a wall. Eating in solitude, without any distractions, feels both decadent and sad. It strikes me that much of our multitasking is just accounting for our society's transition to a more antisocial structure. If lunch breaks used to be a time to venture into the outside world while chatting and forging bonds with our coworkers, scrolling Instagram and scanning our inbox are the handiest substitutes for human and environmental interaction.
  • 5:47 p.m. — On my drive home, I find myself thinking about the finale of Mad Men, which I viewed for the first and last time approximately four years ago. I am supremely bored and suspect this experiment is actually making me worse at driving. I keep staring at buildings or signs, at people walking down the street, at dogs hanging out of windows. I slam on my brakes to narrowly avoid rear-ending someone twice. Normally, I'd spend my commute learning something new on a podcast, catching up with my mom on the phone, or just enjoying some music. This is joyless.
  • 9:56 p.m. — My partner and I are watching a movie, and I don't look at my phone once. At one point, I think of a good line for a short story I'm working on, so I pause the film to write it down. (Does this count as cheating?) It's one of those indies that makes no sense but still has the audacity to contain a lot of plot intricacies. I feel extremely self-satisfied when I don't miss even a single one of them. I'm paying so much attention!
  • Day 2: Tuesday

  • 7 a.m. — I have a four-mile run on my half-marathon training schedule. Luckily, my boyfriend is a runner, too, so we set out together. Running without music is fine with me — as long as I'm running with someone. We're going at an easy pace so we can actually have a conversation. We even stop and look at some baby turtles in a fountain, which is kind of weirdly romantic, I guess. We part ways when I'm a half-mile from home. The silent, short distance solo is not that bad.
  • 9 a.m. — I'm working from home, and while my boyfriend is getting his things together to leave, he starts telling me about something he heard on a podcast. I'm not uninterested, but I catch myself half-reading an email. I shut my computer and feel like a jerk.
  • 11:45 a.m. — My willpower is waning. I am tired today and want nothing more than to flit between tabs, Slack conversations, and petting my dog to try to keep up my energy.
  • 1:17 p.m. — Speaking of my dog, he is extremely unsupportive of my singletasking journey. While I try to discuss some Facebook best practices with a colleague, he barks relentlessly. It is past time for his walk. Still, I insist on finishing my conversation before we go.
  • 3:26 p.m. — I catch myself slipping again. I am editing a story and slide on over to Twitter without even realizing it. And, as I am writing that last sentence, my phone screen lights up, and I stop typing to look at the notification. This is taxing.
  • 4:57 p.m. — The Democratic debates are starting, which I should watch for work, and I also have to leave for a dinner reservation in an hour. I am going to have to do it: MULTITASK. I turn on CNN while I'm getting dressed and fixing my hair and makeup. At least I'm not going to tweet during it? I think in mental upspeak, because I know I inevitably will, and I do.
  • Day 3: Wednesday

  • 8:45 a.m. — Oh my god. I am so over this sh*t. On my way to work, I crack and listen to the author of a running book I just read on a podcast. It is glorious. I feel like my brain has been dipped in an oxygen bath. I decide to abort the experiment after 50 hours instead of 72 and don't feel even a little bit guilty about it.

I won't deny that I gained something by trying to do fewer things at once for a while. My average screen time went down by more than an hour a day; then again, being very online is part of my job, so this may not even be an objectively good thing. I was reminded to do a few things better: listen with my whole self to the people I love when they speak to me, read with attention and care, and stop worrying about the incessant demands of iPhone notifications when I am doing something else important or enjoyable. But let's be honest — there are tiers of tasks and the mindfulness they require. Do I really need to give my full attention to putting away the groceries? (That seems like the kind of insidious, brain-dulling advice a guide to being the best possible 1950s housewife would include.) We reportedly think up to 70,000 thoughts a day, and, as it turns out, most of mine are stupid and do not require my undivided focus.

Life is brief, and I want to crowd mine with good things. Multitasking is often a way to do that. For example, if I didn't call my mom on my drive home, when we both tend to have a free moment, we would probably talk a lot less. Believe it or not, she is calling as I write this conclusion — and, sorry, but I've gotta take this.