How to Overcome Task Saturation 
for Flawless Execution

By Jim Murphy

It 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.

For 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.

Not 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.”

I 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: Today, 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.

Thankfully, 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.

It 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: The 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.

Have 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.

We know 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.

2. Compartmentalize: Compartmentalizers 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.

The 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.

3. Channelize: Others 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.

Here’s 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 has.

So, 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.

Channelizers 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?: Task 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.

Next, 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 right!

Same 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.

Execution 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.

When you 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 for you.

Read other articles and learn more about Jim “Murph” Murphy.

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