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How High Performers Handle Task Overload

Applying lessons from fighter pilots to deal with today’s fast-paced work environment

Key Takeaways:

  • Task saturation can lead to decreased performance and an increase in execution errors.
  • Three techniques to handle task saturation are using checklists, conducting cross-checks, and offering mutual support.
  • Leveraging these techniques can help manage stress and workload, ensuring optimal performance.

In the high-stakes world of air force fighter pilots, dealing with task saturation – having too much to do with too little time, tools, or resources – is a critical skill. Fighter pilots employ specific strategies to manage task saturation, which can be applied to the modern workplace, where professionals often struggle with the same issue.

Understanding Task Saturation

Task saturation can manifest in three ways: shutting down, compartmentalizing, and channelizing.

  • Shutting down is when a person stops performing due to overwhelming tasks.
  • Compartmentalizing and channelizing occur when an individual appears busy, but they are merely organizing and reorganizing lists or tackling tasks sequentially, without generating effective results.

Whether the overload is real or imagined, the feeling of being overloaded can significantly reduce performance and increase errors.

Solutions to Task Saturation

To combat task saturation, high performers can use the same strategies that fighter pilots employ:

  1. Checklists: Use checklists to navigate through tasks efficiently, reduce stress, and avoid common mistakes. Checklists act as a memory jogger and a quick guide, based on standard operating procedures, training, and experience. They can help build momentum and guide through choke points.
  2. Cross-checks: In a fighter pilot’s cockpit, there are hundreds of instruments. However, only a few are vital for flight control. Similarly, high performers can identify their vital few “gauges” or indicators that tell them how they are performing. Regular data inputs from these “instruments” and disciplined cross-checking help maintain focus on what truly matters.
  3. Mutual Support: Fighter pilots never operate alone; they always have a wingman. Likewise, high performers can use their support network to back them up, catch what they miss, and offer help when needed. This strategy promotes teamwork and shared responsibility, essential elements in mitigating task saturation.


Like fighter pilots, high performers can combat task saturation with checklists, cross-checks, and mutual support. By adopting these strategies, professionals can manage their workload more effectively, improve their performance, and reduce execution errors. It is a testament to the fact that complex problems often have simple solutions—if only we look in the right places.

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