Develop Your Cross Check
As a fighter pilot, I perform an enormous number of tasks seemingly simultaneously while I’m flying. Most observers would probably describe this as multitasking. Contrary to what you might think, when I’m flying an airplane upside down, pulling 9Gs, reacting to an adversary aircraft, and talking on the radio, I’m not multitasking.
The reason is because there’s no such thing as multitasking.
The human brain can’t do two things at once. In fact, when presented with two tasks at the same time it switches back and forth between the tasks in a process called, obviously enough, task switching. In combat, a fighter pilot isn’t multitasking, he’s task switching. A highly experienced one might be doing it at a mind-boggling rate that makes it look like he’s multitasking, but in reality, he’s taking care of business one task at a time.
We train fighter pilots to speed up their task switching ability by developing their cross check, the essence of which is knowing what to look at, when to look at it, and how much time to spend looking at it. Because no one can do multiple things at one time, a fighter pilot must cross check tasks sequentially in order to “keep all of the plates spinning.” Mis-prioritizing one plate to the exclusion of the others can cause one or more to crash to the ground.
When flying a combat sortie at low altitude, for instance, proximity to the ground is the highest threat—a bad guy shooting at you might miss, but if you hit the earth (or anything attached to it), the earth will win 100% of the time.
Therefore, avoiding an impact with the ground is far and away a fighter pilot’s most important task. However, if his cross check only includes avoiding the ground, he’ll be a sitting duck for the enemy MiG-29 pilot rolling in on him from above. He must spend some amount of time scanning for each.
Trying to multitask by simultaneously looking out for mountains in his path and enemy fighters at his 6 o’clock high means that he’s not going to do either well. Even though he wants to believe he’s doing two tasks simultaneously, his brain is actually task switching between the two. The worst part is that every time it switches, it takes processing power to figure out where it left off with the last task and where it is now with the new one. If he’s not controlling the switching process via a well-thought-out cross check, he could be significantly adding to his cognitive workload in addition to being crappy at both tasks.
You probably don’t have to worry about being shot down by a heat seeking missile or running into a mountain at 600mph in your business, but a good fighter pilot-inspired cross check will make you more efficient and effective.
Step 1: Know what you need to accomplish the next day before you leave your desk tonight. Those are the items in your cross check—your mountains and your MiGs. Your mountains consist of producing content, prospecting for clients or stamping out widgets--whatever the tasks are that ultimately produce your income. Your MiGs are the tasks that are important but are unlikely to shoot you down in the near term--picking up your dry cleaning or sifting through e-mail, for instance.
Step 2: Rank order your tasks so that you work on the most important one first. Don’t run into a mountain because you were looking over your shoulder for a MiG that might not even be there. If all you do today is avoid hitting the mountains, you can still be successful. It’s clearly your number one task. Similarly, prioritize your time to give it to the thing that produces your income. If you don’t have time at the end of the day to sift through your in-box because you were producing content and prospecting for clients all day, you can still be successful.
Step 3: Consciously control your task switching. Even though it feels efficient, don’t multitask. You’ll actually lose efficiency because of your brain switching between tasks without your conscious knowledge. It will make both tasks take longer than they would had you done them sequentially in accordance with your cross check. Plus, you won’t produce your best quality work—think how frustrating it is to be on a call with someone who’s “multitasking” by checking e-mail while they’re talking to you. The easiest way to do this is to make a schedule and stick with it. For instance, give yourself one hour from 11am to noon to answer e-mail and don't even think about it outside of that time period.
First and foremost, avoid hitting a mountain, but don’t forget to cross check for MiGs.