“Habit Stacking” For Aviation Efficiency and Safety

We all like to imagine that we run our lives as bold free agents, consciously determining every action and impulse. But if we are aware and honest, we realize that our daily activities are largely run instead by habits and powerful non-conscious influences – and I know this can be a bit depressing for a “PIC” to admit. But if we curate and control our habit-formation we will lead a more effective and efficient life (and safer flying!) A recent short book Atomic Habits, by James Clear, can be very helpful in this quest.

Carefully-replicated psychological studies reveal that non-conscious influences actually determine between 50-90% of our daily behavior. Our habits and culture are who we are!  What we can determine on a smaller scale, is our personal environment (where we hang out and our friends) and some of the habits we inhabit. If we seize conscious control of these drivers of behavior and apply thoughtful, methodical discipline, we can change our lives and outcomes through new habit formation.

Clearly, there is not a lot of awareness or focus on habit formation in our larger culture. Maintaining good habits and applying discipline almost seem to be evil words. But in high-performance activities like business productivity and aviation, discipline, habits and culture charge have become very hot topics. Books like Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit and Atomic Habits by James Clear have all become rapid bestsellers.

You may not have thought of aviation in exactly this manner, but flight training and safe flying are largely learning and adhering to a series of context-dependent safe habits. The formation and execution of our checklists, standard operating procedures (SOPs) and repeated techniques mold behavior through habits, giving us a script to follow. Learned skills and techniques execute these actions on predetermined cues with smoothness, determining exact force and adjusts to precise conditions. Situational awareness, the critical 3 levels of perception and insight, determines which script or habit to execute in a given context; e.g. “this is a short field with a crosswind.” And once you are beyond your initial training, YOU are the curator of your personal improvement and pursuit of excellence. Carefully determined and operating habits free mental space to enjoy the beauty and other pleasures of flight.

Habit stacking” is a conscious way of creating new adaptive behaviors that improve your flying (and life). This involves inserting new scripts into already existing (well-established) habit patterns. For instance, we know every flight will involve a take-off, cruise and arrival/landing (on a good day). Within that predictable existing structure are endless sub-texts we can improve with reflection and discipline. If we want to improve our flying, we need to analyze and consciously improve our “habit stack.” For example, “when I line up on the runway, I will also verify the heading indicator and runway, start the clock, etc” (most pilots have some form of “line-up check” but is it really working for your?) If we overload this system with too many details it will fail. Or if we disregard it entirely or do not value this discipline (culture) we also will also fail. For safety, a pilot must carefully curate and modify their personal “habit stack” to work for their personal situation and demands of the mission. This process takes constant discipline, reflection, and refinement.

A wonderful new book that will improve your flying (and your life) is “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. “Atomic” here does not mean radioactive but rather many tiny habits reassembled into a consciously-determined adaptive whole. This author has devoted his life to organizing his habits and conveys the mechanics of this process beautifully. Fly safely out there (and often!)


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Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

2 thoughts on ““Habit Stacking” For Aviation Efficiency and Safety”

  1. Great article- thanks for taking the time to curate these titles (now added to my reading list). For those interested, there is a great book called Talent is Overrated that gets into great detail on this topic.

    1. Thanks. I have that book (same pint made by Malcolm Gladwell in “Outliers”) You will like Atomic Habits.

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