The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment — A Review

by Katy on December 31, 2009 · 7 comments

The end of the calendar year invariably brings out that side of us that wants to look back and make sense of life. How was this year different from others? Was there anything I should have done differently? And most importantly, (at least to the marketing gurus at Weight Watchers and Soloflex) how can I be better in the coming year?

How can I be a better person?

I just finished reading A.J. Jacobs’ newest book “The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment” which took over an entire evening and most of this morning. In this book, Jacobs throws himself into a number of experiences that run the gamut from outsourcing all the details of life to a company in India, to practicing “Radical Honesty.” (Which saw him explain in all honesty to a female business colleague that he was trying for a sneak peek of her cleavage.)

I had read both of Jacob’s other books, and had become giddy with excitement when I found this new book at the bookstore. I immediately put it on hold at the library and had been waiting with bated breath ever since.

Although Jacobs writes with self-depreciating humor, he’s not above making real and meaningful change as a result of his stunts, (And yes, they are stunts.) In the chapter when Jacobs, a father of three small boys writes about putting an end to multitasking, (he actually wears a sleep mask while on phone calls in order to cut down on possible distractions) he writes about how his focus on unitasking affected his interactions with his children:

His mission is to pour out all the coins and then put them back. Then repeat. His brothers are working on an equally important task: taking DVD’s out of a drawer and putting them back.

Zane invites me to collaborate with him on this project.

“Help. Daddy!”

I clink a nickel into the slot.

“I’m here with my sons, putting nickels into a watermelon bank.”

I say this sentence out loud, per the Bill Murry Method. I have three sons. They are healthy. They get pleasure from putting coins in a slot. I am overwhelmed with gratitude. Maybe it’s the lingering effects of cold medication, but I start to choke up. A real “Cat’s in the Cradle” moment.

Just outside my brain, three thousand things bark for my attention. My book deadline. Worries about the death of journalism. The invoice to the German magazine I forgot to send. But I’ve put up a soundproof wall. I’m going to put nickels in this watermelon with my son — and that’s all I’m going to do.

It is the perfect undistracted ten minutes.

Yes, he’s taking on these tasks for a book contract, but they leave their stamp on him nonetheless.

This genre of participatory journalism seems to be gaining steam. And I can’t be the only one who snaps them up like fat free donuts at a dietetic police convention. Not Buying It, No Impact Man and Helping Me Help Myself quickly come to mind, and I’m sure I’m just skimming the surface.

So did I take any of Jacobs’ lessons to heart?

It’s hard to say, as I dedicated today to napping and laziness, (nonstop house guests from Christmas Eve until yesterday threw me for a loop!) but I do have to say that when my kids crawled into my nap-tastic bed this afternoon, I gave them my full and focused attention. No multitasking whatsoever. Which I believe does make me a better person.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristen@TheFrugalGirl December 31, 2009 at 4:00 am

That sounds like a really interesting book. Maybe my library has it too!


Kris-ND December 31, 2009 at 7:59 am

I sometimes think my Epilepsy is a blessing vs a curse. I cannot multi-task. My brain rebels at it 😉

I see people doing 10 things at once, and I find myself amazed, and tired at the same time.

If I am on the phone, and the tv is on, and somebody tries to ask me a question, my brain just goes “nope”. I can either watch tv, talk on the phone, or talk to the person asking me a question, not all three.

Thanks for recommending another book. I have tried to find many of the books you have talked about. I don’t agree with all of them, but there is always a nugget to chew on. Thanks 🙂


Lindsay December 31, 2009 at 8:53 am

Happy new year, Katy. Thanks for the book rec. I even got a little misty eyed reading the excerpt… this part: “I have three sons. They are healthy. They get pleasure from putting coins in a slot. I am overwhelmed with gratitude.” I’ll definitely check it out.


Beth Terry, aka Fake Plastic Fish December 31, 2009 at 10:21 am

Wow. I actually got a little choked up just reading that excerpt. I reminds me of a quote that I have on my desk and really ought to read and digest more often. It’s from Thich Nhat Han’s book, *The Miracle of Mindfulness*:

“There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.”

I’m watching my cats right now. They are so still, looking out the window with rapt attention. They will get distracted and move on to something else. But each task gets their full attention, until the next task comes along. They have very important work to do.


Lisa December 31, 2009 at 10:52 am

Whenever life starts feeling overwhelming, I know that it’s time for me to slow down. Dropping everything except for one task that’s at hand has a marvelously calming effect on me. And I’ve noticed that whenever I can focus fully on one thing at a time, more actually gets done in a shorter amount of time. It seems counter intuitive but is a fact.


magdalena January 1, 2010 at 5:44 am

I was a champion multi-tasker a few years ago. I took business calls on my cell phone while feeding sheep, running, and, of course, driving. I wrote sermons in the back seat of someone else’s car while on the way to meetings. I translated a liturgy for an upcoming bilingual worship service while at a clergy retreat. (OK, it’s not much of a retreat when you bring complicated work with you.) Then I started seeing the man who is now my husband, and he was offended by all this. “You don’t have time for me,” he said. “Your work is more interesting.” And he was important enough to me to change my ways. Now I love being a unitasker. I focus on the cooking (which got better), my husband, who now needs more of my love and attention since his stroke, and whatever is in front of me. I can give the two-year-old in the household real time rather than distracted attention. I think it is a gift from God, to focus on the beauty of the moment.


Tracy Balazy January 1, 2010 at 8:52 am

I didn’t know he had a new book out! Thanks for the tip! I received The Year of Living Biblically for my birthday last year, and I LOVED it!!!!


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