How High Performers Handle Task Overload



How do you avoid task saturation in today’s world of too much to do and too little time?

How do high performers handle task saturation?

You can take a page out of the playbook of air force fighter pilots.

In Flawless Execution: Use the Techniques and Systems of America’s Fighter Pilots to Perform at Your Peak and Win the Battles of the Business World, James D. Murphy writes about how fighter pilots deal with task saturation and how you can leverage the technique.

This is the most precise distillation of task saturation I’ve ever seen (3 symptoms and 3 solutions.)

Key Takeaways

Here are my key takeaways:

  • 3 signs of task saturation are shutting down, compartmentalizing, and channelizing. Shutting down is when you simply stop performing.  Compartmentalizing and channelizing is when you act busy, but all your doing is organizing and reorganizing lists and doing things sequentially, but not actually producing effective results.
  • 3 ways to avoid task saturation are checklists, cross-checks and mutual support.  These techniques help you stay on track and correct course as needed.
  • Use checklists to reduce stress.  Checklists can help you reduce stress as well as avoid common mistakes.  You can use them to capture and find tune your routines.  If it’s good enough for the Air Force, it’s good enough for me.  Actually, I’ve used checklists to significantly improve software quality, improve personal effectiveness, and improve project management, so I’m a fan.
  • Cross-check your gauges.  Although the instrument panel has many gauges, the fighter pilot can quickly cross-check their vital few gauges and know how their doing.  Have a vital few gauges that quickly tell you how you’re doing.

Why Worry About Task Saturation

When we’re overloaded, we make more mistakes and we perform poorly.   Worse, it doesn’t matter whether we are really overloaded or not.  All we have to do is *feel* overloaded, and there goes our performance.

Via Flawless Execution:

“Task Saturation is too much to do with not enough time, not enough tools, and not enough resources. It can be real or imagined, but in the end it can do the same thing. It can kill you. What fighter pilots know about task saturation should worry every CEO. As task saturation increases, performance decreases; as task saturation increases, executional errors increase. … The correct action to take is to acknowledge that it exists, acknowledge that it creates problems, identify the symptoms and then work to eliminate it.”

Solution #1: Checklists

You can use checklists to stay out of the danger zone or help you out of a downward spiral.  They work by helping you take quick and simple actions to rebuild momentum without wasting a bunch of brain cycles.

The key here is the checklists are vital to reducing overload and helping remind you of key actions.

Via Flawless Execution:

“The first tool fighter pilots have to eliminate task saturation is their checklist. … For them, a checklist is a condensed portion of the flight manual — the standard operating procedures. It’s a memory jogger. It’s based on training, people’s experience, and the standard operating procedures of our company. It’s designed to get pilots pointed in the right direction very quickly by taking an action that pulls them through task saturation. … Find your choke points and build in a stress reducing checklist that the everyday employee can revert to.”

Solution #2: Cross-Checks

The key here is that cross-checks help you keep perspective on what really matters.

Via Flawless Execution:

“The pilot’s second tool is cross-checks. … Cross-checks are so important that pilots call them their ‘Cross-checks to Success.’ Among those 350 instruments in the cockpit are four or five instruments that they really pay attention to. … Have you defined your instrument panel, do you get data inputs from your instruments with regularity, and then, do you have a smooth disciplined cross-check, just like fighter pilots do in the cockpit?”

Solution #3: Mutual Support

The key here is that you need to leverage your support network.

Via Flawless Execution:

“The last tool that we use to eliminate task saturation is called mutual support. We never go anywhere — anywhere — without a wingman. We fly as a team, usually in two-ship or four-ship formations. …Operating as a team allows for latitude in negotiations and role playing in the meeting, and gives you someone who’s backing you up and hearing what you miss.”

So there you have it:  Use checklists, cross-checks, and mutual support to beat task saturation and bring out your best.

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