Turn Your Multitasking Struggle Into a Single-Tasking Juggle

By Jacob Wilder • June 5, 2017

Jacob Wilder, CAE
Jacob Wilder, CAE, BOMA Georgia

“You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.”

That quote from renowned British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is a great illustration of today’s busy association professional, as they tackle the multitude of projects, problems and people that demand attention and priority.

Association professionals deal with members, committee meetings, annual meetings, special assignments, volunteers and staff. Given the nature of their work, most probably regard themselves as professional multitaskers, but that is where they would be wrong, according to expert Dr. Daniel Levitin.

Dr. Levitin was interviewed in an episode of the popular podcast “Note to Self” with host Manoush Zomorodi. The show’s tagline is “The tech show about being human.”

Let’s face it, while technology has made us better at our jobs, it has also made us more prone to distraction.

In the interview, Dr. Levitin goes on to explain that we are not multitaskers. Instead, we switch rapidly between tasks, causing the brain to deplete valuable nutrients that we need to do our tasks with excellence.

Later in the episode, Zomorodi interviews University of California Irvine professor Gloria Mark, who shares some astonishing results from her research. Each interruption a worker experiences in their current task will, on average, cause a 23 minute and 15 second delay as the person tries to become refocused.

This is inefficient. So, what are busy association professionals to do?

With the guidance of the experts she interviewed, Zomorodi suggests something simple, yet radical. Do your tasks one at a time. Stop checking Facebook, glancing at email or bouncing between tasks throughout the day.

Problem solved! Now just circulate this information across the association universe, and all association professionals will have the secret to being productive and effective at their jobs. Go ye therefore and conquer! Okay, not quite.

Kevin Moran with the American Line Builders points out, “I find my biggest challenge with this style is when your task relies on others. You make a phone call but are waiting on a return call with specific information, or you’re awaiting an email with specific data. In single-tasking, getting your email or phone call complete is one task, but then you go and move onto another task. In this scenario, you would begin working through this new task, when all of a sudden your return call comes in. Now you are forced to almost multitask as you switch back.”

This sentiment is shared by other association professionals.

Lowell Aplebaum, CAE, with Next Connextion points out, “Not everything can be single task. We have interruptions, colleagues who suddenly need us, back-to-back meetings, the member or volunteer pop-in or call. I think what is important here is to look at what is on the plate, and recognize and prioritize those key work areas where you will get to a better end product if you were single-tasking.”

So, what are association professionals to do if single-tasking isn’t always possible? A few association professionals have shared their thoughts.

Andrew Bronson, CAE, with Svinicki Association Management Inc., says, “I’ve found if I have a weekly to-do list and then break those tasks down by day and priority, it works well. I still love to use pen and paper for my to-do lists, but I track some in my Google Calendar. I also utilize the flex-hours our company offers to come in later in the morning and work a little later at night. Not only does it help with the stress of traffic during my commute, but it leaves me with much more uninterrupted time at the end of the day to single task.”

Matt Hessler with association management company SmithBucklin offered this suggestion: “I’ve started blocking off my calendar the day or two before with time chunks that represent deliverables I have to complete and allocations of time to do them,” Hessler says. “There are some days when I’ve learned to say ‘I can’t do that today, but tomorrow I can.’”

Hessler notes that saying “no” is something a lot of young professionals have trouble with.

“Sometimes you can’t move the world in a day when you have five or six meetings that happen to converge on a Thursday afternoon,” Hessler says. “Sometimes you just need to block off Friday morning, turn off your email, turn on your music, and go task by task.”

Aplebaum says it is about planning and prioritization.

“Whether it means blocking your calendar, reserving a conference room with several white boards just for you, or even leaving the office and working from home, a coffee shop or other ideal environment, I think single-tasking means planning with intent how you will be able to focus best, what you are trying to accomplish with that focus, and what circumstances you need to create to have that white space,” Aplebaum says.

There is a recurring theme to these solutions; they require planning. To remain focused and efficient, you must plan your day. This requires identifying tasks, projects and priorities that will require focus and then assigning them an order.

Here are some other solutions that association professionals have shared that may be used to remain focused and efficient:

  • Turn off all visual and audio notifications. Instead, plan to periodically allow time to check your inbox or messages. This goes back to Dr. Levitin’s explanation of depleting nutrients when switching tasks. If you are constantly checking and addressing your notifications, you will quickly lose your focus and effectiveness.
  • Develop a system for responding to email. The two-minute rule is a popular one. If you can answer it in two minutes or less, do it immediately. Otherwise, schedule times to craft your responses for emails that require a longer answer.
  • Always complete your train of thought when working on a task. If interrupted during the middle of a task, politely ask for time to finish. Once finished, give that person your complete attention so they feel respected by your switch in focus to their needs or questions.
  • Take notes. Consider going handwritten. It has been shown to help with retention. Also, see Bronson’s advice above about making a weekly task list and prioritizing daily tasks.
  • Consider work methods such as Pomodoro. Allow yourself 25 minutes to focus on one task, then a five-minute break. This is followed by another 25-minute session on the same or a different task. This method gives you permission to single-task your work.
  • Request permission to delay low priority work with upcoming deadlines. Know your priorities and be able to communicate your time constraints to coworkers and managers.
  • Don’t strive for inbox zero. Instead, learn better techniques to sort, search and save important emails.
  • Notify your volunteers, staff and colleagues when you are being singularly focused. Advise them with an auto-reply that you have shut off email and will check it again at a prescheduled time.

While single-tasking won’t always be an option, it is an effective tool that can be part of a well-planned week to keep you efficient and focused.

About The Author

Jacob Wilder, CAE, is the director of communications and technology with BOMA Georgia. Learn more at www.jacobwilder.co. This article began as a discussion thread in the ASAE Young Professionals community on Collaborate. All ASAE member young professionals and those interested in young professional issues are welcome and invited to engage in our discussions.