Performance Hack: Prioritise like a fighter pilot

If you are frequently overwhelmed and seem to be running around in circles without achieving much, then a great way to regain a bit of focus and calm is to prioritise.

Sounds easy, but the reality is we don’t naturally do this unless one of the tasks is threatening our existence. (Here, our amygdala will ‘auto-prioritise’ for us; bear appears, we automatically climb the nearest tree.)

When flying a fighter, one of the ‘bread and butter’ roles is performing intercepts against enemy fighters. There is an immense amount to do and all of it seems critically important. We need to fly formation, use the radar, talk on the radio, employ weapons, assess rules of engagement, monitor our fuel and weapons state, etc etc. All while flying at the speed of a bullet towards an enemy who is hell-bent on shooting us.

So how do we handle this workload and remain effective?

Prioritising. Only do those things which are critically important, and rank them in order of priority.

Right from the start of flying training, pilots are taught what they have to focus on and when. In fact at an intellectual level, you could argue that this is what much of pilot training consists of.

When I first began training to fly intercepts in the F/A-18, my instructors repeated the priorities over and over again:

  1. Formation

  2. Communications

  3. Radar

First of all, we must fly good formation. If we fly bad formation, we make the lead’s job harder, and worst case, we ‘go blind’, which is fighter-pilot speak for losing sight of our lead. This is a disaster…lead can’t commit us towards the threat if we can’t see each other. (Modern data exchange systems have changed this somewhat, but the philosophy is still the same; you need to be in a position allowing mutual support to commit towards the threat)

Only after we have satisfied formation do we communicate. At various times through the intercept (generally at certain ranges from the threat), we have a responsibility to communicate. If we don’t, our lead won’t have the situational awareness he needs to make appropriate tactical decisions. (The most important of which is ‘are we winning or losing’. This sounds simple, but in reality it's an ongoing assessment and will determine if we continue towards the threat or need to ‘bug out’ early to survive.)

Then, if we are flying good formation and have communicated when we need to, we can 'work the radar'. This is often a complex task in itself. We must ensure we are using the appropriate range and mode, and have to quickly perform '1 in 60' calculations to accurately determine enemy formation. In reality, without working the radar we can't be effective, but the priorities remind us that we must first satisfy the more important tasks of formation and communications.

Another powerful example is "Aviate, navigate, communicate, administrate". This phrase is ubiquitous in aviation and is used as a guide for operating any aircraft.

First we must 'aviate'; fly the plane safely.

Secondly, we navigate. Work out where we are and where we are going.

Then, we communicate. We don't start talking to air traffic control unless we are flying safely AND we know where we are.

Finally, we administrate; performance checklists, fill out fuel logs etc.

This list of priorities is used in many different ways, but probably the most powerful is when we are feeling task saturated. There have been many times where I have been flying and have felt my capacity was running low; by returning to "Aviate, navigate, communicate, administrate", I provide a focus for my mental resources. I have returned safely to the ground on thousands of occasions because I have applied these priorities.

If you are routinely getting overwhelmed, write down the things which are REALLY important, and prioritise them. This will give you focus and ensure you are operationally effective, whether your are shooting a MiG-29, managing an IT project, or trying to find time to pick the kids up from school.

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