The Impact of Serial Tasking on Donor Engagement

Our pressurized, over-scheduled lives seem to demand efficiency in completing multiple items on our to-do list simultaneously.  Whether it is sending an email, checking a website, and talking on the phone, it isn’t unusual to find that we are doing all of these tasks (and more) simultaneously.  Most of us have convinced ourselves that multi-tasking makes us more effective, more productive, and better able to do more in the limited time we have.

Here’s the problem:  It seems some very smart researchers are now suggesting that multi-tasking doesn’t work.  In fact they suggest multi-tasking is actually a myth – our brains can’t multi-task.  Instead, what most of us call multi-tasking is really “serial tasking,” or shifting from one task to another in very quick fashion.  So, when you are listening to music, sending emails, and watching tv all at once, you really aren’t doing these tasks “all at once.”  Instead you are stopping your brain on one task and starting your brain on another task over and over again in short order.

That makes sense to me.  And many of us do far too much of it.  We start our brains on this, move to that, focus on that for a bit, and then jump to the other thing for a few minutes.  We do this day-in, day-out, in all areas of life.  It becomes a habit – a way of life.

But is this good for us?  Is it good for our work as development professionals?  I’m not so sure.

Starting and stopping our minds may make us feel productive.  But I would suggest that it actually makes us less productive with the part of our work that matters most – building relationships and engaging others.  Engaging others takes sustained and personalized focus.  We have to be present with someone – usually for periods of time lasting longer than 5-10 minutes.

And when we allow ourselves to get into serial tasking habits, I’m convinced that we condition our minds to be less capable of  slowing down and living in the moment with the people around us.

So, if we think we are (or know) habitual serial taskers, how can we do it less (and thus engage more with the relationships that matter)?  I would suggest the following:

  1. Turn off your continuous stream of email – check it only a few times each day.  If you regularly answer emails as they hit your in-box, you are most likely a serial-tasker.
  2. Go someplace without your smartphone so you can focus fully on the people and activities around you.  Next week, go two places.
  3. Ban smartphones from meetings in your shop so members of your team can concentrate on each other and on being creative together.
  4. Practice active listening.  Pay attention to how the person is sitting?  How are they using their hands when they talk?  What is their overall demeanor?  And what does all this tell you about what they are saying?  This kind of listening is the anti-thesis of serial tasking – it is focused, takes time and practice, and is exceedingly helpful for development professionals.
  5. Move your largest and most important projects to the top of your to-do list each day.  Many serial taskers will focus on many smaller tasks to gain a feeling of being productive.  But many of these smaller tasks aren’t the most important.  Getting in the habit of setting aside chunks of time to focus on bigger, more important projects helps condition your mind to focus for longer periods of time.
The real problem with “serial tasking,” I think, lies in the fact that it isn’t a tactic that helps development professionals do the work better.  The most important part of our work is not to complete “tasks,” it is to engage others.
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