Firefighting – do you really want to stop?

Do you find yourself complaining that you spend much of your time ‘firefighting’? It’s seems to be one of the diseases of the busy times we live in.

But what do we mean by ‘firefighting’ – and if it’s such a problem, why don’t we just stop doing it?

Firefighting is ‘the practice of dealing with problems as they arise rather than planning strategically to avoid them.’ This is unavoidable from time to time, but, unchecked, firefighting can take up more and more of your working life until you feel dominated by it and there’s no time to do anything else.

So, how do you stop firefighting? It’s a good thing to start by looking at the causes:

  • You love getting stuck in to issues and feeling the satisfying ‘tick: done-it’ feeling of putting out another fire.
  • You haven’t got anyone else you trust to do it as well as you can.
  • You need the adrenalin rush of waiting until situations blow up in your face and require emergency solutions.
  • You find planning and long-term management boring.
  • You don’t know how to manage your time any differently – your day just seems like an undifferentiated flow of situations that need handling.

If you really want have a less nerve-shredding working life, think carefully about what is driving you. We see burnt out leaders who complain about this issue while well trained and motivated team members are sitting right there waiting to help, and their own peers, with very similar workloads, sail (relatively) serenely through their working lives. The problem will be one of either your attitude or your skills.

Attitude is the trickier issue to resolve. If you think about it, do you secretly get satisfaction from being the hero who saves the hour? Do you love the adrenalin of working late and pushing things right to the deadline? Or are you a perfectionist, unable to believe that anyone could do the job as well as you? If so, and you are truly honest about it, there’s nothing wrong with continuing to be a one-person problem-solving powerhouse – you carry on!

But there are downsides, as you’re probably beginning to realise. Your nerves and blood pressure suffer. Your work-life balance is hard to maintain when you never know what might come up. Your staff become demotivated and simply wait for you to do everything. And your business won’t be able to grow beyond a certain size.

So having challenged your own attitude, what skills will help resolve this issue?

  1. Distinguish clearly between urgency and importance. In Western society, urgency always trumps importance, leaving us feeling that everything has to be done at once. It doesn’t – but it takes discipline and planning not to fall into the trap.
  2. Tasks are always a combination of the two, and fall into the following categories:
    1. High urgency, high importance: just do these straight away.
    2. High importance, low urgency: train yourself to book in time to do these in small bites, and make sure you make some progress with these tasks every week.
    3. High urgency, low importance: don’t react immediately. Use this category as a holding area and do a bit of checking. Then make a decision on the task’s level of importance and urgency and deal with it as in a, b or c.
    4. Low urgency, low importance: don’t do these, or at least wait a bit. They’ll probably go away.
  3. Some of your most important (but not urgent) tasks are to put in measures to avert future firefighting. Diarise time to work on these. Some suggestions:
    1. Stop from time to time to analyse the crises that come up. See if there are patterns, and if there are, spend some time putting in a permanent fix – get new software installed, buy new equipment, train up somebody to handle the issue instead of you.
    2. Get your team together for a brainstorming and problem solving session. You are not always the best person to resolve the issue and if you are the business’s leader, you have more important things to do, like long term strategy, business planning, and spending time growing and developing your people.
    3. Spend some time every day managing your time. This is counter-intuitive, but essential. Use the abcd system of categorising tasks above and block in time during each day to assess and re-asses the urgency or importance of everything you are called upon to do. Train others around you to use this system too, so you end up with a language for discussing what does and doesn’t have to be done, and a set of skills for organising your work more effectively.

In all of this, don’t expect to go from all firefighting to no firefighting overnight, or even ever. Aim at a proportion of 20:80 firefighting to planned and diarised activity and you won’t go far wrong. In today’s world there will always be the unexpected emergency or high-level client situation that needs handling. Just make sure, as the business leader, that you become involved in firefighting when only you can genuinely do the job.

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