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Task management tools from airline pilots.

You pick up your phone to check your calendar. The screen unlocks, and you see a red notification bubble on the FaceBook icon. What happens next?

Well, if you are like most of us, you become distracted from the ‘important’ task, and 10 minutes later you find yourself watching a YouTube video of a kitten being rescued from a flooded river by a golden retriever.

This very pervasive tendency to become distracted is a huge problem everywhere, but one with deadly consequences in aviation. (You will be pleased to know that it’s not YouTube videos distracting pilots!) Because the consequences of distraction are so severe, we have come up with some effective ways to mitigate it.


The ’stimulus’ in our example above is the red notification bubble, and the results of being distracted by this are probably benign. In aviation, the outcome of reacting to non-essential stimuli can be deadly. Here’s a common example:

I’ve just taken off from Hong Kong's Chep Lap Kok airport, and have started accelerating to retract the flaps. Air traffic call and tell us we are ‘cleared high speed’.

As pilots, we have a strong tendency to react to this new stimulus and start to delete speed constraints from the flight management computers. But, there are many risks with doing this. We may both go ‘heads down’ and look at the computers instead of monitoring the aircraft, terrain and weather. We may accelerate and break the company speed limits. We may become preoccupied with the acceleration and forget to complete the after-takeoff checklist.

The bottom line: there is no need to interrupt our current task of safely getting away from the ground, and if we do so, we risk an unsafe situation developing.

So…I must consciously ‘reject the stimulus’.


In getting a modern airliner from A to B, there are many complex tasks to complete. We simplify this by breaking up the workload into discrete tasks. Each task needs to be completed 100% correctly.

To help deal with managing interruptions and the host of distractions competing for our attention, we have a saying: ‘start a job, finish a job’. This means we must be very diligent to intentionally complete a discrete task before moving onto the next one, and only interrupt a task if there is a very good reason to do so. (For example, a warning light illuminates on a critical system.)

We can use this to stop that pesky feeling of being overwhelmed in our ‘earth-based’ workplaces too! If you are feeling distracted and confused about what to do next, practice compartmentalising your tasks. Say them out loud. Write them down. ‘Start a job, finish a job’.

If you frequently find yourself buried in obscure social media pages instead of performing other important jobs, ‘reject the stimulus’. Just by acknowledging this is a problem, we help to mitigate it.

'Start a job, finish a job.'

'Reject the stimulus.'

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