Walking the dog while listening to podcasts is about as close to singletasking as I get these days, so I particularly enjoyed a recent talk by Gil Fronsdal of Audio Dharma entitled Doing One Thing at a Time.

There’s no more Buddhist-specific discussion than you’d expect on a random episode of Back to Work, so don’t worry if the intricacies of the Dharma aren’t your thing. Focus and distraction are universal human challenges – especially in the age of the Internet – and Gil’s talk had some excellent points on that topic.

There’s a nuanced discussion near the end where they discuss how one task can have multiple simultaneous facets; the example Gil uses is cooking. A chef may be juggling the stove, oven, and cutting board, but she’s still fully engaged in the act of making food. Gil’s description reminded me of the concentrated, engaged attention required to land on an aircraft carrier.

During the last part of an approach, a pilot’s focus narrows to three things:

  • angle of attack (also known as AOA or alpha)
  • glideslope
  • lineup

AOA is roughly proportional to airspeed and is displayed via indexer lights or the e-bracket on the HUD. After a while, you get to know the feel of your aircraft, and you can tell an off-speed condtion by the seat of your pants. Glideslope information comes from the lens, and lineup information comes from the centerline markings painted on the carrier’s landing area.

Landing Scan Points on an F-14B (Upgrade) Heads Up Display

Landing Scan Points on an F-14B (Upgrade) Heads Up Display

As a pilot, you constantly scan these three items, while simultaneously moving the stick, throttle, and (depending on the aircraft) rudder pedals to get them to change in helpful rather than unhelpful directions. The whole scan and correction process is continuous and takes about two seconds to complete for an experienced pilot. On most approaches that means a pilot cycles through it about eight times.

Landing on a carrier (especially at night) is one of the most focus inducing experiences I’ve had. On final approach you’re so concentrated that all your scanning and control movements are part of a single act. It’s as close as I’ve ever come to the “flow” state David Allen alludes to in his book Getting Things Done.

Distraction occasionally strikes all pilots, and the most insidious kind masquerades as attention. Occasionally your scan will “break down” and instead of constantly moving you’ll fixate on one item (say, centerline) to the exclusion of the others. This kind of fixation can result in a bad grade at best and a mishap at worst.

Landings like the one above (that’s me screaming “POWER!” by the way) are why we’ve got Landing Signal Officers watching, assisting, and critiquing each and every landing at sea.

If you are interested in a good Dharma talk feed, check out Audio Dharma. Their talks are helpful, interesting, high-quality, and down to earth.