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10 Ways to Recognize a Single-Tasker

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

10 Ways to Recognize a Single-Tasker

Stephen H. Provost

Society loves the multitasker, that talented individual who can juggle a dozen projects at once without letting a single one of them touch the ground. It’s impressive and entertaining to watch.

But what about that person’s polar opposite, the single-tasker?

The single-tasker isn’t nearly as much fun to watch. She might cloister herself away in her room, working for hours, days or months on a novel or musical composition. He might spend the entire party talking to a single person he finds fascinating, tuning everyone else out as white noise. How boring is that? Especially when the multitasker is over there regaling half the room with tales of a dozen different adventures or demonstrating how to walk, chew gum and rub his belly simultaneously.

We don’t celebrate the single-taskers as much because we don’t see them in action – and they like it that way. They don’t want to be seen “performing” their tasks, because they aren’t performers. They want to be judged by the end result – and, for the most part, left alone so they can produce it. Once they’re satisfied and ready to unveil it, you’ll be impressed, they suspect. And far more often than not, they’re right.

Single-taskers are those focused individuals who may not be flashy, but they get things done … as long as you give them the space to create and to engage. Many of them are introverts. Some are writers, painters, sculptors, musicians. How do you recognize a single-tasker? Here are some clues to look for.

  1. They hate being interrupted. Single-taskers aren’t intrinsically smarter (or less intelligent) than anyone else; they rely on their focus to get things done. Interrupt them, and you’ve neutralized their secret weapon. If the phone’s always ringing or the dog needs to be let out or the boss has called another impromptu meeting, it can stifle the single-tasker’s productivity.
  2. They need to get in “the zone” to work their magic. This is why interruptions are so frustrating. Each time one occurs, it breaks the spell, and getting back there might not be easy – especially if they’re continually worrying about when the next interruption might occur.
  3. They both love and hate the details. Single-taskers thrive on investigating the minutiae when they’re involved in a project, because they know that attention to detail will make it come alive. On the other hand, they hate dealing with paperwork and other bureaucratic intrusions because these are just another form of (you guessed it) interruption that takes them away from what fascinates them.
  4. They prefer one-on-one interactions. They don’t like conference calls or mingling. Chances are, if they’re persuaded to show up for a party, they’ll seek out the person they find most interesting and spend the next three hours in conversation with him or her. The rest of the room might as well not exist. They might appear snobbish or unapproachable if you’re not the “chosen one,” but once you capture their attention, they’ll be riveted by you.
  5. They don’t like demands. They might look like prima donnas, because if you start trying to tell them what to do, they’re likely to withdraw. But a demand is, to the single-tasker, a red flag – a warning signal. Demands travel in packs, and the demanding person is their leader.  When one rears its head, others are likely to follow. Think of the boss who hands out one assignment, then changes course midstream and demands something else instead. Or, worse, drops a second task in the single-tasker’s lap before the first one can be completed. This may not be the single-tasker’s worst nightmare, but it’s right up there. If you want to engage a single-tasker, pique his interest. Ask, don’t demand. Invite, don’t compel. Then you’ll get his attention.
  6. They prefer to prioritize. One thing at a time, please. The most important (or, to the creative single-tasker, the most inspiring) task should always come first. If it doesn’t, the single-tasker might become discouraged and not get much done at all.
  7. They don’t have patience for haggling, bargaining or endless brainstorming. They see such activities as wasting energy on details when they’d much rather be getting to the substance of the matter. If they’re buying a car, they don’t want to spend hours sparring with a salesman who’s adept at mind games and manipulation. They want to get behind the wheel and start driving. If they’re considering a project, they don’t want to spend a whole afternoon in some meeting that’s filled with dead ends and tangents, they want to get down to work. They're open to compromise, they just don't want to waste time spinning their wheels.
  8. They look like loners, and they might appear standoffish, but that’s not really accurate. They love to be alone, but alone with … their thoughts, their project, that one special person. It’s not that they don’t want to engage. Precisely the opposite. They just don’t feel comfortable engaging with more than one thing or person at the same time, so if you aren’t that one thing or person, they’re likely to appear cold or distant.
  9. They hate being bombarded with choices. Having the freedom to choose is a good thing, and single-taskers value that, to be sure. But they’re far more comfortable with A-or-B choices than they are with considering a slew of varied options, each with its own potential upsides and pitfalls. It’s not that they’re simple minded. Actually, it’s the opposite: They like to analyze things so thoroughly that being confronted with several options at once can send them into overload.
  10. They care more about results than appearances. If they appear rude or aloof to “the in crowd” at a party, it’s a price worth paying to engage with someone they find interesting. If they seem stubborn or inflexible, it’s probably because they just don’t want to get into an endless back-and-forth over issues they believe could be resolved with a quick exchange.  If their space is cluttered and messy but they’re making progress on a project they value, that’s life. The results will be worth it, they tell themselves. And, often, they are.