Jane, Stop This Crazy Thing

Joshua Quittner and Michelle Slatalla

Jane, Stop This Crazy Thing

Joshua Quittner and Michelle Slatalla

Jane, Stop This Crazy Thing
An email conversation about the news of the day.
Nov. 3 1999 5:47 PM

Joshua Quittner and Michelle Slatalla

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And another thing. It just hit me a few minutes ago when I was in the study repainting the red walls a redder red--a project that I estimate will take me approximately 21 painting hours since there also are 28 bookshelves and the back of each will need three coats since red paint streaks so badly--that the way we flit around from topic to topic here (and at our real breakfast table) is indicative of a bigger problem in how we live our lives. We're so fragmented. My attention, at any given moment, is divided among so many competing thoughts that it makes my teeth ache. An example: This morning after you left for work, I was playing with the baby on the couch and she was wiggling her fingers in the air in a way she considered menacing as she shrieked, "I am the dinosaur. ROARRRRR. The dinosaur is scaring Mommy!" This was perhaps the cutest sight I have ever witnessed in my life. But even as I was saying, "Help, save me from the dinosaur," I was simultaneously thinking: How am I going to wrap up that column today, the kicker I have stinks; should I roast a chicken for dinner or not because it's not worth it unless I go get the good chicken and that's at a butcher store 20 minutes away, and if waste 40 minutes going to a butcher store, how many of those red shelves will I be able to paint today; did I forget to give Zoe that permission slip she needed this morning; is my skin starting to look old; do I hear the dog throwing up a sock in the kitchen; maybe I should just end the piece by referring back to the lead, but then I always do that so ...

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A certain percentage of these thoughts were perhaps valid. If I considered them in an appropriate time and place. But the baby is only going to be this cute and want to play dinosaur for about 10 seconds before she grows up enough to get mean and criticize my hair like the others. So why am I wasting the millisecond? This used to be called multi-tasking and be considered a skill. Even earlier, it was called juggling. And I used to envy people who kept all the balls in the air. I thought they got more out of life because they did more. But now I don't know. It's been so long since I fully concentrated on one idea or one task or one anything that my attention span has contracted to be about as long as ... well, as long as it takes to paint the backs of three bookshelves. And these, as you know, are not big bookshelves.

Joshua Quittner is Time's technology columnist and editor of Time Digital. Michelle Slatalla writes a weekly column about online shopping for the New York Times "Circuits" section. They are the authors of Masters of Deception: The Gang That Ruled Cyberspace (click here to buy it).