Time Management in Space? Productivity for Astronauts?

I recently met a former astronaut, Rick Searfoss, who told me he brings on the lessons of teamwork, leadership, innovation and peak performance lessons of human spaceflight down to earth for all to enjoy (www.astronautspeaker.com).  I bit and asked him what he learned about time management by being an astronaut and if there was such a thing as productivity in space.  His quotes on how the principles of productivity apply in space fascinated me, and I hope you gain some insights from his experiences as well:

“There’s nothing so bad that you can’t make it worse.”  He spent hundreds of hours in a simulator, training on what to do in an emergency, and working on procedures he may never have to use.  From a technical perspective, the rookie pilot the left has the most intense job, such that it’s called “the snake pit.”  They are actually over-preparing, spending extra time being ready for “what if” scenarios.  When in a crisis situation, you can now deal with it on autopilot, and you will be grateful for the extra time spent. 

“Take a second to wind the clock.”  Old aviation clocks had to be wound, which gave the brain a few minutes to look around.  It’s important to step back and recognize your human limitations.  You can’t work non-stop without a break to refuel, or your machine will die on you.

“Keep your mind ahead of the airplane.”  This speaks to being proactive—no matter how fast you’re flying along—you must make sure you think ahead.  He said he thinks Larry Bird great player because he was able to anticipate where the ball was going and so was always one or two steps ahead of everyone else. 

“You don’t want to be all airspeed and no direction.”  You must first figure out your direction, and then apply the energy and the airspeed.  Once your goal is programmed, you kick in the afterburner and go for it.  When you’re flying at 600 mph, low, under the radar, you can get lost fast.

“Preparation puts you on autopilot.”  In space, you must have great situational awareness: understanding everything that’s going on around you.  You are tracking your wingmen while thinking about the mission to accomplish.  The more prepared you are, the more you’re able to function productively in a non-stressed way, even though the environment could be more stressful. 

“Too bad.”  When he was the shuttle commander, he had five rookies on board.  With one year of planning to execute his mission, dozens of experiments to do on board, emergency procedures to be learned, and training schedules to be met, his rookie crew planned too much.  They wanted to do countless extra science experiments for others and had overloaded themselves.  As the leader, he instructed his crew to let go of the lower priority items.  He used the phrase “too bad” when someone has for permission to add another task to the already overloaded schedule.  As a supervisor, if your folks have too many priorities competing for their time, you must cut things out at the bottom and look to optimize, not maximize, what you get out of your people.

“Know what to timeline.”  There are certain activities when blasting off into space that must be timed literally down to the second, such as the precise time to ignite the engines.  But not all activities are timed, such as housekeeping activities, eating, restrooms, etc.  They struck a balance between having structure and having flexibility.  They planned for the important things and allowing some movement on the lower priority tasks.  Just make sure you block out time to get the important things done.

“You have to slow down to speed up.”  With no gravity, the faster you try to move physically from one place to the other, the more bumps and bruises you will get.  The rookies soon discovered that with weightlessness, speed only serves to make you run into walls and bang your head.  After a couple days of watching the veterans, they made every motion and activity purposeful and learned to slow down.  Where are you wasting motion and effort?  Just because you’re rushing around, are you accomplishing anything?  Are your movements purposeful?



  1. […] from time in low gravity is that the faster you go, the harder you bump. Astronauts soon learn to move slowly and with purpose, something anyone on the ground can […]