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Task Saturation: How Much Is Too Much?

June 17, 2013

Listen to a NBAA Flight Plan podcast for information on combating task saturation.

In a world where we are encouraged to do more with less, and are increasingly distracted by everything around us, “task saturation” has been named by the NBAA Safety Committee to its list of the top 10 threats to business aviation safety.

Three Symptoms of Task Saturation

“Task saturation is having too much to do without enough time, tools or resources to do it,” said Eric Barfield, director of operations at Hope Aviation Insurance and chairman of the NBAA Safety Committee. “That can lead to an inability to focus on what really matters.”

As task saturation increases, a pilot, cabin crewmember, flight line employee or maintenance technician might start shutting down, unable to continue performing. Another symptom is constantly shuffling and reorganizing while accomplishing nothing. A third symptom is a marked increase in errors, Barfield said.

Instances of task saturation in business aviation are on the rise, he noted, possibly as a lingering effect of the recent recession.

“We were told to do more with less,” explained Barfield. “If we needed 10 people, we got five people. We ended up with tremendously bright people who are highly cross-functional, but it comes at a cost.” That cost, he said, is degradation of our ability to focus on specific tasks as we try to accomplish all tasks in a list of things-to-do that becomes too big to manage.

Barfield also suggested the proliferation of technology has led to an increase in task saturation. Ironically, the very advances that were meant to make work easier have, in many cases, had the opposite effect.

“The rapid development and implementation of technology, as well as information overload, ...leaves us with yet another system to train on, another system to master, more data to sift through,” said Barfield.

Another contributing factor in task saturation is what Barfield called “the tyranny of the urgent.”

“Everything is due right now. You can’t plan ahead. You’re always on defense,” he said.

Three Ways to Ease Task Saturation

Communication: The NBAA Safety Committee put task saturation on its top 10 list to raise awareness of the issue, Barfield said. “Until you recognize the risk, you can’t effectively address it,” he explained.

Self-Assessment: Barfield suggests “an honest self-assessment to gauge your ability to properly compartmentalize and focus on the critical task at hand.”

Collaboration: Offloading tasks to a co-pilot, crewmember or colleague is another way to relieve task saturation, Barfield said.

“I’m an advocate of efficiency,” he continued. “Business aviation exists for reasons of efficiency. We’re just trying to say, maybe it’s gone too far. Maybe instead of having five guys do that job, you really should have 10.”