Life in a petri dish: Bestselling author experiments with self in new book

A.J. Jacobs is the bestselling author of “The Year of Living Biblically,” for which he spent a year following all the rules in the Bible. He also wrote “The Know-It-All,” for which he read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica in his “humble quest to become the smartest person in the world.”

A senior editor at Esquire in New York, Jacobs’ most recent book is “The Guinea Pig Diaries,” which recounts his experiments with life-altering challenges. He will speak about those experiences Wednesday, Sept. 16 at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.

Q: You write about spending a month “unitasking,” as opposed to multitasking, and during that experiment you blindfold yourself while you talk on the phone and tie yourself to your desk chair. Did you try any other zany tactics for that experiment that didn’t make it into the book?

A: I would take my iPhone, put it in a shoebox, then duct tape the shoebox, so that if I wanted to check my iPhone, it would take me 10 minutes just to undo the duct tape. It sounds a little extreme, but we’re at the point where our multitasking addiction is extreme enough to take extreme measures.

Q: What was the most lasting impact of “Project: Whipped,” where you did everything your wife, Julie, said for an entire month?

A: That was really an eye-opening experience. When we wrote down all the tasks I do and what my wife does, I honestly believed the lists would be about equal. And it was really disturbing to see how unequal it was, and how much more Julie did than I did.

The big positive benefit to me was that for one month, I was not allowed to criticize. All I could say were positive, complimentary things, which was totally weird. It was almost like a vicious cycle of niceness. I’d say something positive, and Julie would respond with something positive. It made us reassess the way we talk to each other.

Q: To what ideas have you said: “No way”?

A: Someone wanted me to go to Gitmo for a year — that I don’t think I’m going to do. And then there are ideas I suggest that Julie shoots down.

Q: Like what?

A: I wanted to try an experiment where I’d only interact with people through technology — Facebook, IM, texting. She did not like that idea. She told me, ‘You’re not going to show up at our niece’s bat mitzvah via Skype. You will be there.’ She has veto power.

Q: In “The Guinea Pig Diaries,” you write that “The Year of Living Biblically” had a profound effect on you. Can you tell me more about your Jewish practice?

A: I decided to join a synagogue. It’s Reform, and we don’t really go, but we are members, so that’s something. We’re also sending our kids to Jewish day school there. One of the big questions I tried to answer through living biblically was how to raise my kids.

I don’t care if they grow up to be religious or if they’re Christopher Hitchens–like atheists. I’ll be happy as long as they’re good people. But I thought it was important to give them a little foundation in religion, a taste of Judaism, so that they could decide to accept or reject it from a place of knowledge.

I also learned that there’s a lot about Judaism I do like. I love Shabbat, I love the idea of the sanctuary in time, as Rabbi Heschel called it.

Q: What’s a typical Saturday like for you?

A: I don’t e-mail. That could be the biggest change. It may sound small, but e-mails and being connected so dominated my life that I had an illusion that being connected anywhere gave me freedom, when really, it was much more like slavery. I was a slave to my BlackBerry.

On Shabbat, I love breaking free of that. So no e-mail. No work. I don’t observe the strict Shabbat — I still turn lights on and off, and I will watch TV, although I try not to. I mostly spend time with my family.

Q: Did any Jewish wisdom you gleaned from that biblical year help you in forthcoming experiments?

A: I did an experiment where I tried to be as civil as George Washington. A lot of his rules are about not gossiping, and I was already prepared for that, thanks to my biblical year of avoiding lashon hara [evil tongue]. George was very good at that. He was not a gossiper.

I did another experiment where I tried to be the most rational person. I think that parts of Judaism are very concerned with rationality. There is a difference between our animal side and our divine side. And I had practice in trying to control my animal side with my divine side.

Q: Most of your experiments focus on self-improvement — better manners, more honesty, less procrastination. With Rosh Hashanah around the corner, do you have any ideas for self-improvement in the coming year?

A: I am in the midst of an experiment for my next book. It’s going to be about trying to become the healthiest person alive. I’ve been at it for two months. I just got bronchitis, so I still have improvements to make. But I have radically changed my lifestyle and eating, and I’m exercising.

Q: How long will this experiment last?

A: At least a year. But I think with my body I may need a few more months than that.

Q: Have you made any big changes? 

A: I’ve tried to change my diet radically. I’m also trying to arrange to move in with my in-laws or parents. Societies where people live with their extended family generally do better. So I’m trying, but my wife’s not excited about this, and I’m getting a lot of resistance from everyone else.

Q: Would you encourage other people to try any of your experiments?

A: Absolutely. You don’t have to go to the extreme like me, but experimenting a little with life is a great idea. I talked to a neuroscientist for one of my experiments, and he said trying new things makes your brain produce dopamine. Which makes you happier.

A lot can be done on a small level, like the unitasking experiment. Just trying to focus when you’re talking to your parents on the phone and not also flipping through a magazine. Sitting down, listening to what they say and responding — it’s a novel experience.

A.J. Jacobs will speak 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 16 at the Commonwealth Club, 595 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets $12-$20. Information: (415) 597-6700.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.