focus, grasshopper

Yesterday was my birthday!  Happy birthday to me!


I subscribe to Real Simple magazine because I like finding new ways to use dental floss.  (You can cut a birthday cake with it!).  I also enjoy the idea of the 30-minute meal, and I find food photography — a small pile of rough-skinned almonds, a slice of artfully-bitten coconut cake — comforting and somehow therapeutic.  Sometimes I’ll browse through pages of eclectically decorated rooms, wondering if that  starburst mirror would ever work in my apartment before checking the price and scrapping the idea.

There are usually a few short essays throughout the magazine, and while I read them, I’m usually not wowed by them.   They’re very optimistic.  They communicate safe messages about family and perseverance and often have the “You Go Girl!” mentality that Oprah has transformed into a not-so-subtle art.

In the latest issue of Real Simple, however, there’s an essay by A. J. Jacobs on multitasking.  Jacobs describes himself as a “manic multitasker,” and for the purposes of his essay he committed to one month of focused unitasking (which I didn’t even know was a word).

This entailed more than the obvious.  Of course, Jacobs didn’t check email and talk on the phone at the same time.  He didn’t write while watching television or check his email on his cell while walking the dog.  But he also didn’t listen to the radio while he showered.  And if he was making a sandwich and his wife started a conversation, he would stop slathering mustard to give her his full attention.  This essay predictably ends in a message of Carpe Diem — a healthy moral, of course, but nothing too innovative.  And I find the message a little disingenuous, anyway, as it’s included in a magazine that, just last month, included a feature on making the most of your shower time.  Whitening your teeth while shampooing and the like.

But the Jacobs essay did make me pause.  I think it says something about my idea of “focus” that those last two activities do not even register as multitasking in my brain.  Talking while making a sandwich?  Is that really multitasking?  I realized that my morning is all multitasking under Jacobs’ definition.  pbhoneybananaI plan my schedule for the day while showering and brushing my teeth, sometimes even jotting down a few tasks with a dry-erase marker on the mirror.  I listen to the morning news on npr while making the bed.  I’m finishing up the daily crossword puzzle while I eat my peanut-butter-and-honey toast with banana (the breakfast of the wise and noble).

I don’t think this is unusual.  I would wager that most people consider themselves multitaskers, and that they often feel empowered and productive when they consider how many tasks can simultaneously divide their attention.  But that’s it, I guess.  Multitasking means you’re dividing your attention, and that isn’t always a good thing.

My focus muscle has been weakened by my GMail notifier and facebook, so I’ve been working on building my focusing skills.  I’ve been keeping a small notebook next to my desk where I can jot down random ideas and grocery lists that occur to me, annoyingly, mid-sentence while I’m revising my dissertation.  I’ve been trying to keep my butt in my desk chair for a minimum of an hour and a half before allowing myself to wander away for a handful of peanuts or a stroll down to the mailbox.

It’s definitely not working.

I think my next step is to start and end my day with a few minutes of quiet meditation time, something I’ve always wanted to do.  My friend Lilian is excellent at such activities.  I, however, am a meditation giggler.  For some reason, my brain registers introspective calm as hilARious.  So we’ll see how it goes.

In the meantime, I’m taking suggestions on how to focus focus focus.


14 thoughts on “focus, grasshopper

  1. all i can think about is that PB, banana, and honey toast and now i can’t do anything else, so thank you for preventing me from multi-tasking till i eat this.

  2. I am physically and mentally incapable of unitasking. In fact, I think I can only do something if I’m doing two other things at once. This has resulted in my evenings, post Andy going to bed, looking like this:
    -watch tv and knit at the same time
    -when commercial comes up, put down knitting, pick up book, and read
    -tv show comes back on, repeat.
    I tried recently to watch a tv show without these other tasks and I couldn’t do it.
    I could, I believe, give full attention to your peanut butter toast, though.

  3. Focusing comes naturally to me. If Terri tries to talk to me while I’m making a sandwich, I don’t hear a word she says.

  4. Hi Victoria, this is Katherine Carlson from ChLA. I found your blog on my gchat feed, and I discovered that we have the same birthday! Happy birthday! I can’t wait to read your forthcoming article. I have two accepted now, so I’ll let you know when they came out. (It is feeling like it will take forever.) The Kipling chapter is coming along slowly, but I’ll keep you posted on that as well. Enjoy the rest of your summer.


    • Two forthcoming! That’s fantastic. Congratulations! Where will I be able to find them? Are they from your dissertation?

      Waiting is a little difficult, and the process seems so slow. I have an article coming out in Dickens Studies Annual this month, and I received word that it was accepted in January 2008.

      I’m so happy I made some connections at the ChLA conference. I hope we can keep in touch!

      • Thanks, Victoria! One will be in Women’s Writing, and the other in the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth . . . at least I hope. I haven’t heard from the latter journal in awhile, though they did accept the piece. They are both from my dissertation.

        You’ve been waiting for your article to come out since Jan. 2008? Ugh!

        I hope we can keep in touch too. Do you mind if I friend you on Facebook? I just searched for and found you.

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