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PRODUCTIVITY

Why Entrepreneurs Need to be Pilots, Not Engineers
 

Everyone "zones out" sometimes. Make sure you do it when it doesn't matter.

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We all zone out. We even do it during the workday. We just don’t do it--hopefully--when we’re supposed to be driving a passenger train around a sharp curve into Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx.

Wednesday, the engineer of the Metro-North Railroad train that derailed over the holiday weekend said he had become “dazed” just before the accident. When the engineer came to, he attempted an emergency braking maneuver, but it was too late.

In this instance, the consequences of zoning out were fatal: four people killed, and more than 70 injured.

It’s unreasonable to think that you’ll never zone out on the job, ever. Even gung-ho entrepreneurs crash sometimes. But it’s worth putting some thought into the rhythm of your work. Often, it’s easy to predict when you’re most likely to be spaced out a bit, and when you’ll be at your best. The trick is in designing your work so that those inevitable moments of inattention don’t cripple your business.

Before you say that's impossible, consider this: When lives are at stake, the pacing of work is something we manage to control. An airplane pilot, for instance, faces some of the same challenges as a Metro-North engineer: long periods of time during which there isn’t much to do, punctuated by take-offs, landings, and turbulence that require the pilot’s full attention. What the pilot has--and the engineer doesn’t--is autopilot. When the plane’s cruising at 30,000 feet, the pilot can relax entirely until he or she actually needs to fly the plane. That makes it easier for the pilot to be alert when it’s truly necessary.

Autopilot represents the very healthy admission that we can’t be at 100 percent all the time. So we’d better plan to be at our best when it’s absolutely crucial.

Literal autopilot is probably not feasible for most entrepreneurs. That doesn’t mean there’s no other way to compensate. There were systems available to Metro-North to make sure the engineer was alert when he needed to be, even though they appear not to have been installed on this train. Some trains have an alert system: If the system detects inactivity, it sounds an alarm. If the alarm isn’t shut off within 15 seconds, the train automatically brakes.

That sounds great, and may well have helped in this instance. But it points up another problem: Such systems don't allow any downtime. The alarm is supposed to make sure the engineer is always alert, always. That may prevent an engineer, or anyone, from falling asleep, but it's not going to do much to get peak performance out of anyone.

So how can you make sure you’re on top of your game when you’re heading into a curve? You’ll have to set up your own systems, and work in cooperation with your body’s natural rhythm. Many of us are at our best, alert and chipper, at the beginning of the workday, after a good breakfast. We tend to crash (zone out) around two or three in the afternoon, depending on what time we usually go to bed. Your mileage may vary, but you get the idea.

That means that for most of us, important meetings should happen in the morning, after a good breakfast. That’s when we have the most willpower and the capacity to make the best decisions.

You absolutely should not waste those wide-awake hours tackling a big pile of boring paperwork. Ideally, you’d delegate that, but if you can’t, try playing some music or even locating to a coffee shop or some other location with a bit of hustle and bustle. That’ll help keep part of your brain amused while the other part deals with the mundane.

Maybe there’s no alarm you can set on your calendar that will say, “Hey, things are getting interesting here. Look alive!” But you can certainly schedule smartly, focus where it counts, and cut yourself some slack when boredom or repetition rear their ugly heads. Think of yourself as a pilot, not an engineer.

IMAGE: AP
Last updated: Dec 5, 2013

KIMBERLY WEISUL is editor-at-large at Inc. and co-founder of One Thing New, the digital media startup that is rebooting women's content. She was previously a senior editor at BusinessWeek.
@weisul




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