Compass, Engine, and Tools — How I Learned to Think in “Flight Mode”
Yes you have — we are practically always acting as either the Pilot, Plane, or Engineer, whether consciously or not. I find this mental model an extremely useful approach to everyday life — let’s dive in:
As far as I know, this concept (you can skip to 3:48 of the video) was coined by medical doctor M.D. and YouTuber Ali Abdaal as a mental model for productivity.
On a side note, I love Ali’s approach to lifelong learning and productivity — he acts as a guide, not a guru, sharing his lessons along the way. Whereas gurus quickly tire us out, we are happy to follow a guide that’s just a couple of steps ahead of us on the journey — whatever we wish to pursue. I love how Ali reminds us to not underestimate the fun factor (2:14) as an essential part of being productive.
Let’s look a bit closer at the three modes:
Compass: The Pilot, 10 %
If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.”
~ Lucius Annaeus Seneca
We are acting in pilot mode when we set out the course for our days and lives — e.g. choosing which goals to pursue. It’s probably beneficial to spend 10 % of our time in pilot mode. Mornings are a natural time for me to set out the course for the day, making sure the day is aligned with my goals. A way to further boost pilot mode is taking a couple of minutes each night to set the intention for tomorrow. This way, we increase clarity, making it easy for our morning pilot to immediately get the plane moving.
Engine: The Plane 85 %
Once the pilot has set the course, the plane’s job is to fly with sufficient speed to the destination. We spend the bulk of our time in plane mode — about 85 % is probably optimal. In plane mode, we focus on the execution of the practical, specific tasks that propel us to the destination, e.g. the goal we want to achieve. For me, writing the content of this blog post is an example of plane mode.
Even though most of us probably struggle to consistently sit down and actually do the work, performing well in plane mode gives us a sense of achievement. This is crucial to motivation, we typically find it immensely satisfying to move towards accomplishing our goals. An extremely good measure of how well our plane is flying, is how much of the time we spend in flow, the deeply rewarding mental state that I describe further here.
Tools: The Engineer 5 %
When cutting down a tree, make sure to first sharpen the saw. Your job in engineer mode is making sure the engine is well oiled and running as smoothly and efficiently as possible. This is paramount to supporting the pilot and the plane — it’s probably useful to strive to be in engineer mode about 5 % of the time. Example: Learning a new skill or digital tool like Notion, Descript, or Loom.
I find that the more intentional and conscious I am about thinking in “flight mode”, whether as a Pilot, Plane or Engineer, the more mental clarity and targeted effort I can bring to the table. Furthermore, as human beings — not machines — we all need to intentionally remind ourselves to take pauses to rest and rebuild strength. This ties into the secret sauce — keeping up the fun factor by working hard on meaningful things:
This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.
~ Alan Watts
P.S. I hope you found this helpful. We’re almost done here — I just have to share this with you: I’ve recently discovered something I’ve never heard of before — a Life Operating System built in Notion by August Bradley. Based on systems thinking, one of its most impressive features is how the system (the engineer) directly connects your goals (the pilot) with your daily tasks (the plane). It maintains this through extensive feedback applied with minimum friction.
I’m still in the implementation process, but already I can sense the power of a system that takes care of continuously aligning goals and daily tasks — dealing with the ever-recurring challenge of staying our chosen path in life.
Bonus stuff: If you want to know more, I share my experiences with the Life OS system in my weekly newsletter IDEAS, sent out every Sunday exclusively for subscribers. IDEAS features tips and tools to help you go from idea overwhelm to idea mastery.