Adept Multi-tasker, or Serial Processor: Which One are You?

This is the Seventh in a series of posts that will provide, throughout the year, an improvement strategy that will cover the entire family of 9 Automation Airmanship® principles.

Sixty-Nine Million. That’s the number of results that the search engine on my computer generated when I typed in the term “monitoring accidents” just a few minutes ago. I’m thinking that interrogating the world wide web with the same query a year from now will provide several million more, and in the decade to come, tens of millions more on top of those.

In the distraction-laden environment that our civilization has created in the early 21st century, there’s almost no concept that is more necessary for our survival and at the same time less understood than monitoring. When we published Automation Airmanship in 2013 we knew that if one of the 9 Principles we professed as essential would outlive all others, it would be the 5th Principle, Monitoring. It’s also the one principle that maps over almost without translation to virtually every high-risk, high-reliability industry outside of aviation. If you were to ask us, “I only have time to read one chapter before I go flying—which one should I read first?” we’d reply, without pause, “Read Chapter Eight, and let the rest wait!”

We are convinced that we have brought out of our industry’s research community (and some other industries’ as well) the best and most accessible knowledge on monitoring—and two concepts simple enough to promote virtually universal adoption across all of aviation, including in the cockpit, cabin, hangar and other areas of flight operations. These two simple concepts—the “Spotlight” and the “Conveyor Belt” are inherently practical and can be put into use immediately by aviators and crew members of all experience levels. In this post, we want to focus on the first concept—the “Spotlight.”

During some of our talks, presentations, or workshops within the industry, we’ve employed the wisdom of one of the most convincing performance artists of our time when it comes to tricks of the mind and of the hand; if you have a few minutes, navigate your browser to the home site of Apollo Robbins*, who describes himself as, “A pioneer in the application of deception to real-world environments.” Robbins’ practical manipulation of the science of attention management also uses the “spotlight” concept to manage his own attention while taking advantage of his unsuspecting victims through his performance-pickpocket routine. His TED talk is one of the most watched, and he’s been featured widely across a variety of media platforms.

Whether or not you have the time to let someone like Apollo Robbins convince you that most of us maintain, at best, an “illusion of attention,” the best science suggests that our very consciousness is comprised of what we have in our “spotlight” at any given moment in time. And at best, we can only keep one thing in our spotlight at a time. Which means that “multi-tasking” is an illusion masked by the fact that our human brain in the early decades of the 21st Century is exceptionally adept at switching rapidly between different stimuli, as opposed to focusing competing objects of interest at the time. Mistaking this ability for “multitasking” is one of the underlying causes of many of those millions of accidents attributable to “poor monitoring,” and something our culture is stubborn about admitting and even worse about enforcing (think: phone use while driving).

Instead of a smooth tracking of many things simultaneously, the underlying mechanism of our ability to monitor is one of Disengage-Move-Engage, Disengage-Move-Engage: carried out countless times a day. Controlling and Mastering this simple and elegant concept will help you manage the many things you must monitor during any phase of flight—from critical aircraft flight path information while executing an instrument approach to a busy international airport, to long-range communications over a remote region or ocean. You can, in fact, practice this during your next drive to work or home, resulting in a high level of personal proficiency of this essential principle of modern airmanship (our advice is to practice your monitoring scan without testing your ability to text while driving):

 Disengage Move Engage Diagram

 Think about it.

Until our next post, fly safe, and always, fly first.

*You can find Apollo Robbins’ website at:

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