How to Overcome Task Saturation
By Jim Murphy
is the very nature of business today that people have too much to do
and not enough time to get it done. I say that from experience. I run
a company that has grown from a simple idea into a complex
organization now spanning the globe. Like everyone else, I’m profit
oriented and so I’m trying to get more and more out of fewer and
fewer people. I push hard – I push myself hard --and very likely, I
push people into overload and when I do they become task saturated.
most companies, that can be deadly. Task saturated people rarely know
the damage they’re doing until it’s too late.
Fortunately, I have an organization that knows task saturation
and how to beat this silent killer: every speaker at Afterburner, Inc.
is a current or former fighter pilot.
long ago, I was explaining this to an audience of more than 350 sales
reps for a well-known Fortune 500 company.
“There’s one thing that always gets in the way of Flawless
Execution,” I said. “We
call it the silent killer -- task saturation. Task saturation is that
moment when you have way too much to do and no where near the time,
tools, or resources to get it all done, and you crack. You know what
I’m talking about. You have five customers in line, two phones on
hold, your kid’s teacher just called to say Tommy’s sick and your
manager is waiting for a report that’s an hour late. Slowly,
insidiously, it takes over. You
start to shut down, or you start to panic -- you’re task saturated.
So what do you do? If you’re like most of us, you cope by
channelizing. You focus on just one thing. The heck with the report.
Forget Tommy. Just check these people in. Well, you know what? Task
saturated people are dangerous. I’ve got two very good friends who
flew perfectly good jets into the ground while they were channelizing
on one small problem. In the Air Force we call that dying relaxed.
You’re so channelized you have no idea you’re about to turn a
taxpayer’s jet into a smoking hole in the ground.”
pause for a moment knowing exactly what they need to hear next because
I know they’ve been there. “But relax,” I continue, “We’re
here to teach you how to deal with task saturation so that doesn’t
happen to you.”
task saturation is one of the most persistent problems facing
corporate America. In an era where every company is
trying to get more out of fewer people, task saturation has become the
#1 obstacle to flawless execution. Fortunately – or unfortunately
– most people wear it like a badge-of-honor, so it’s relatively
easy to recognize. You know the symptoms. A business traveler lugs a
bag towards the check-in counter and says to a friend,
“I’ve been on the road for five days, made nine
presentations, wrote up specifications for a new bid in the hotel
room, missed lunch, went into the office Saturday, got caught up on my
paperwork, and now I’m heading to New York.” Or a co-worker may
say, “We’ve been in the office for three days straight. Some of us
are sleeping on the floor. Another guy is walking around like a zombie
with his hand tied to a coffee pot.” The surprising thing is that
most people are proud that they’re overworked. Perhaps it makes them
feel wanted or valuable. Maybe it gives them a sense of self esteem or
assures their place in the organization. In truth, they’re about to
blow it all. Task saturation leads to irreparable mistakes that can
turn your company into a smoking hole in the ground. One task
saturated nurse, one task saturated billing department, one task
saturated CEO making the wrong call. Well, you get my point.
we know a lot about task saturation; it’s been a part of a fighter
pilots life from day one. Up in the air at 600 miles per hour there
are about 350 instruments we have to scan to keep the jet flying.
Plus, we have to listen to the radio calls coming in over our headset,
watch our fuel state, keep our wingman in formation, keep on eye on
the weather, avoid the terrain, watch the engine, manage the fuel,
select weapons, make course adjustments and worry when and where the
enemy is going to pop up.
gets kind of busy, but even so, we rarely have a pilot that succumbs
to task saturation. Instead, we train our pilots to recognize it and
deal with it. We tell
them, that measured over time, individual coping mechanisms tend to be
the same. People either quit, compartmentalize, or channelize. In any
of these “states” your performance degrades, you tend to introduce
error into the system, and trouble brews. So how can you recognize
these coping mechanisms? Let’s look at them in detail.
1. Shutting Down:
first coping mechanism is to shut down. You know the scene – you
quit. You stop performing. Some people absolutely go blank. They may
look at the papers on their desk and decide it’s too much so they
spin in their chair and start staring out the window. They’re gone.
you ever just said, “I’ve had it?
Its’ too much. I give up!” I know I have. There’s just
too much to do, too much going on and despite the superhuman effort
you’re putting into the job, it’s not getting better. “I’ve
had it,” is a common response to task saturation. You go get a cup
of coffee. You take a short walk. You clear your head, and that’s
good. In moderation, these behaviors are fine. In the extreme, they
bring things to a halt. Quitters don’t say much, don’t do much,
and often leave the office. “Happy” quitters are always at the
water cooler, in the bathroom checking their tie, or stopping by your
office for a pointless chat.
that shutting down is the most harmless of the coping mechanisms. When
you leave your desk or amble around the office people know you’re
not executing your mission; you’re not on task. You may get a bad
reputation for leaving early or not pulling your weight, but at least
you’re not masking your mental collapse. At least you’re not
injecting an unexpected problem into the system.
on the other hand, are risky people because they act busy but do
little, and that not only hurts their performance, but it hurts yours
too. Have you ever wanted to put everything into a nice, neat, linear
format and arrange things just so? Compartmentalizers start making
lists and organizing their projects and shuffling things around as if
these tasks are akin to doing the work. Then they go top-to-bottom,
ticking off one item on the list, then another, then another. They
become obsessively linear, first-things-first, one project at a time
sort of people —all while things are backing up and the pressures is
rising. Worse, they’re not good at prioritizing. A task is a task;
they have no sense of urgency.
compartmentalizer is dangerous. Think
about a hospital emergency room. Patients are arriving, others are
waiting; some patients are getting restless and irritable; others are
stalking the nurses’ station. Then yet another ambulance arrives
with two more critical care patients. Everyone in the ER has a
specific role to play so the gears are meshing in the face of chaos;
that’s how ER people are trained. But if someone on the team reaches
task saturation and compartmentalizes, the environment starts to get
dangerous. Why? Because compartmentalizers look busy. You can’t tell
they’re not getting anything done until the errors they introduce
into the system start to destroy the very system meant to handle
chaos. In such cases, no one knows a problem is building, no one knows
a weak link has entered the chain -- until the chain breaks.
cope with task saturation by channelizing. Channelized attention is
when you focus intensely on just one thing and ignore the rest. Some
people call this target fixation. Target fixation happens to fighter
pilots when they’re on a run in towards a ground target. A
target-fixated pilot is focused – too focused – and may forget to
fly the jet. With his eyes on the target and his heart pumping, he
flies the jet into the ground. We call that dying relaxed.
how it happens to you. Let’s say you arrive at the office with more
to do than anyone could possibly do in a day and then unplanned events
kick in. For example, you get a call: “Honey, the kid is sick at
school. Can you pick him up?” Then your biggest client calls: “You
need to deliver a document to me by one o’clock today.”
Have you ever been there before? Of course you have; everyone
you’re sweating this overload of priorities and you start to
channelize. What’s the most important thing to accomplish? Get that
report out by one o’clock. What do you do? Turn off your phone,
close your door, and dig into the deadline. You dig and dig and dig
and put everything into that report, but guess what? No one picked up
your sick child, a client called with an urgent question but your
phone was off – and you are now in a deep hole. What was bad has
gone to worse and in a worst case scenario, you might be out the door.
are easy to spot. They shun eye contact when they take a bathroom
break. They wave people off with a flip of the wrist. “Can’t you
see I’m busy!” is a common answer when you interrupt a channelizer.
And their body language says: “Don’t ask.” But channelizers are
almost as dangerous as compartmentalizers. They can get so absorbed in
one thing that everything else falls apart.
How Can You Combat Task Saturation?:
saturation is brought about by not having the time, tools, or
resources to get your mission accomplished. Thankfully, we have simple
mechanisms you can use to avoid task saturation. First, hold meetings
to tell people about the danger of task saturation and describe the
symptoms—shutting down, compartmentalizing, and channelizing. Make
the picture as vivid as possible, use illustrations from your own
life. Then have everyone list the three things they do to cope when
they are overloaded.
use the procedures we use in the air to keep task saturation at bay:
checklists, crosschecks, and mutual support. Check lists, crosschecks
and mutual support, you say? That’s right. In a complex, chaotic
environment you must use simple, understandable tools. We want that
task saturated person to get back on track. We want to give them a
coping mechanism that buys time, lets them get back on track and
accomplish their mission even if they’re totally stressed out.
Let’s say we have a crew assigned to open a restaurant and that crew
is running late. At some point they realize that only with luck will
they be ready for the lunch hour traffic. So they double their
efforts, cut corners, start to panic inside. You can imagine the
mistakes they’ll make. However, if there’s a checklist in the
system – oven temperature set at 400 degrees; five pans laid out on
prep table; wash hands before opening doors – you prevent those task
saturated people from introducing their error-prone behavior into the
system; you allow them to accomplish their mission even if their
brains are totally scrambled. Follow that check list and all will be
thing for cross-checks. Hospitals understand that things can get
chaotic in the ER so they block the introduction of task saturation by
using what we call an affirmative crosscheck. Before a physician opens
a patient he or she will read from a check list and must hear an
affirmative response from the surgical nurse. “Patient name Jim
Murphy,” he says. The
chief surgical nurse responds, “Affirmative, patient name Jim
Murphy.” He will then read which knee is going to be operated on,
left or right, what the procedure will be, and affirmatively declare
where the incision should be made. The surgical nurse must respond in
the affirmative. Then, if the procedure runs long, there’s a second
physician on call, which of course, is mutual support – people
trained to back you up if you get maxed out.
without Task Saturation: What
fighter pilots know about task saturation should worry every CEO. As
task saturation increases, performance decreases and execution errors
increase. Task saturation is a silent killer, and in these days of
asking people to do more with less, task saturation is a major threat
to corporate America. Rather than wear it like a badge of honor,
businesses need to deal with it now. 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.
understand the warning signs of task saturation, and the three ways
people cope with it, you help the company, and the employee,
flawlessly execute their mission. It works in the air; it will work
Read other articles and learn more about
Jim “Murph” Murphy.
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