Suppress “Urgent,” Focus on “Important!”

One of the major causes of cockpit chaos, and ultimately accidents, is simply a failure of time management. We often create our own problems as pilots by attempting too much – to the point of system failure. The essence of pilot-in-command is the process of continuously defining and accomplishing the most important tasks – e.g. aircraft control and immediate flight path – while shutting out other “urgent” requests of all kinds that interfere with this mission. (“Mere Urgency Effect“) The essence of command authority is “psychological triage,” filtering, defining, and accomplishing what is critical and saying “no” to the rest. Learning this skill in aviation starts in VFR, but is even more critical in the less flexible IFR environment. Savvy time management makes smooth, safer pilots and allows the mind to function in the reflective rather than reactive mode.

The urge to accomplish everything and do it well gets some energy from the pilot ego; “I can hack it!” Managing workload is what we do. Unfortunately, we often bite off too much and fail to set limits. It is hard to recognize and admit to our incrementally degraded margin of safety as we load up our plate. Another pressure on the pilot is the negative connotation of “saying no” or slowing down because saving time is the essence of “aviation magic.” It is critical to remember that time pressure is usually the “grim reaper” present at every accident wreck.

To put a more positive spin on “psychological triage” consider the positive time-management philosophy which is “essentialism.” This viewpoint argues that high-quality professionalism comes from very intentional filtering and focus to prevent confusion and chaos.

The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.” Greg McKeown “Essentialism

If a request from ATC, your dispatch, or an important potentate in the back interferes with the primary mission of aircraft safety and control, the correct (but psychologically difficult) answer from the pilot must be “no” or “stand-by.” Shedding load or negotiating more time (physically and psychologically) creates focus and eliminates chaos. Too often the person in charge of the mission, the PIC, is hijacked by workload and driven to distraction by too many tasks and requests. Remember, it really is impossible to “multitask,” we only “timeshare” important tasks (and usually do them badly). So the first essential task is deciding what is truly important, triaging the rest and accomplishing the essential in the proper order; eliminate the chaos. The word “triage” (to sort) came from war-time medical emergencies. Trying to save *every* life led to a greater total loss of life. On the battlefield, some cases just have to be written off as “not going to happen” for the greater good of all. Similarly, in flight, saying “no” to urgent but unnecessary tasks keeps the plane on track and at the proper altitude (and the pilot calmer).

Triage in various forms is obviously good advice in life too. The primary difference in flying is the airplane continuously in motion and the clock does not stop. Additionally, aviation is primarily sold as a “time saver” so there is pressure on every pilot to get there faster and more efficiently. The critical switch to throw is mental though: say “too much” and start to ‘load shed” just like a good computer program. Too many processes trying to run at once will cause even the best machine to fail.

So slow down the process using your command authority to prioritize and triage tasks. If necessary, ask for a reroute to create more time. Ignore and offload the “urgent” and accomplish what is truly “important;” aircraft control and direction. The sage advice, often repeated, comes to the rescue here; aviate first – fly the plane accurately, legally, and safely. Get on the correct course at the proper altitude (navigate) and then take care of the requests from ATC (communicate). It is so easy to lose touch with this time-honored order of priorities. Read this month’s NASA Callback and you will see how even the most experienced pilots fall prey to “the urgent” and lose touch with the truly “important;” fly the plane and be SAFE out there!

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About the author

David St. George

David St. George is an FAA DPE (Sport to Multi ATP) and a Part 135 charter pilot flying the Pilatus PC-12 in the NYC area. He recently renewed his Master Instructor for the tenth time and is a Charter member of SAFE. Formerly a 141 Chief Instructor for over 25 years, with a Gold Seal CFI. David started flying at 16 and has logged over 15,000 hours. He owns a 1946 7AC Aeronca Champ and wrote the SAFE Toolkit app.

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