Marie Herman explains her strategy to fight fire with FIRE and gain control of your day
Many administrative professionals spend more time putting out fires in their daily workload than accomplishing the tasks they had intended to perform that day. It’s an ongoing struggle to get ahead in any area when we are constantly battling the urgent, albeit not necessarily important, tasks that rear their ugly heads each and every day. But we can’t just ignore those fires that pop up even though they ruin our plans for a productive day. So how do we balance putting out fires with making progress on our to do list? I would suggest that you fight fire with FIRE.
F: Fireproof Your Day
Studies have shown that most people are poor project planners. What is interesting about some of the studies done is that they have found that even if people had done a similar type of project in the past and had that project run over in time, people rarely applied that past experience to future projects. So essentially, they were doomed to repeat their results over and over again. In some cases, people simply assumed that the project they worked on previously was too different from their current project. They also tended to assume that the factors that had delayed earlier projects were a one-time type of incident and not likely to be repeated. Therefore, they didn’t build time into the schedule for similar types of incidents.
Time studies can be especially useful in identifying how you spend your time, how long things take, how often things happen, what kind of interruptions you experience, and other helpful details. Consider creating a worksheet to track your time for a few days. Do it in 15- or 30-minute increments for at least a week and preferably a few weeks. Columns might include Start Time/End Time/Length, Task, Planned or Interruption, For Who, Your Level of Focus, and Notes. Then evaluate how are you really spending your time. How focused are you? How easily distracted are you?
Because we often underestimate how long tasks will take, we may overload our to do list in the first place. If we put an excessive number of tasks on our to do lists, and then fail to complete those tasks, we may find ourselves getting demoralized and feeling beaten.
Learning to Prioritize
Too many tasks can also obscure the priorities of those tasks, leading high-level priority tasks to be buried in the middle of tasks with lower levels of importance. Setting up a to do list with priorities and calendar dates may help in juggling all those balls we have in the air and allow us to see important deadlines as they approach.
Asking yourself the key question each morning of “What is the most important thing I need to complete today?” may help you to keep your focus and prevent distractors from getting a foothold. If you don’t focus on priorities, the urgent will always take over your day, whether it is important or not.
Manage Your Energy
Taking your energy into account when planning out your day will also help in getting things done. Everyone has natural ebbs and flows of their energy levels. Scheduling high priority times during your high energy times will make it far more likely that you will work efficiently. Trying to force yourself to complete complex tasks during your low energy times is a recipe for disaster and errors.
Plan some time into your day to relax and refresh too. When we push ourselves to the limit for the entire day, working through lunch, not even pausing for bathroom breaks, we end up getting burnt out and ineffective. As Stephen Covey demonstrated in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, we must take time to sharpen our saw if we are to work at peak efficiency. That includes our physical and mental resources.
On the other hand, we all know that many of the distractors that keep us from completing our to do lists come in the form of coworkers who have not planned ahead with their own projects and expect us to wave a magic wand and make it all work out. As frustrating as this may be, it is a part of our job to help fix their issues. It can be incredibly challenging to plan their emergencies into our day but there are steps we can take.
I: Identify the Root Causes
To make progress on fighting fires, we need to have some idea of the root cause of the fires that come up repeatedly. Any day has the potential of being interrupted by an unusual situation, but very often, it’s the same type of issue arising continually. See if you can identify what the underlying cause is and then you can start to take steps to prevent the issue from coming up again or at least reduce its frequency.
Some of the questions you might ask yourself include:
Is it clients that call in with requests?
Perhaps the issue is the volume of work for the number of hours you are working. If there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to complete all the tasks you have assigned to you, you may need to have a conversation about hiring on some additional staff. If that is not in the budget at this time, then adjustments may need to be made in other ways to distribute the workload.
Is it one specific person who can’t seem to plan ahead?
Perhaps you have noticed that one person has different excuses every time, but SOMETHING always seems to come up that prevented them from finishing tasks they needed to do, and that created a ripple effect on your workload.
Once you have identified the root causes of the fires that arise in your workday, you can begin to address the situation. Naturally, the potential solutions will vary depending on what the actual cause is.
As an example, if you have a colleague who repeatedly doesn’t get their work done on time (such as not turning in reports that you are compiling for management), you might try these various solutions:
The first question to ask yourself is always, is it within your direct control to address that issue?
If you don’t have management authority, you’ll need to rely on other methods of persuasion to convince them to complete the work unless you are willing to escalate.
Have a frank conversation with the employee, explaining the domino effect of their actions (or inaction) and how it impacts the workload of others.
Ask the employee directly what is impacting their ability to complete the work on time. Are they waiting for information from other people? Are they overwhelmed with what they are responsible for? Do they need training in order to complete the task?
If the issue is purely time management, discuss with the employee potential solutions, such as adding reminders on their alarm system or blocking out time on their calendar to ensure they have sufficient time to complete the work. They might also appreciate you sitting with them for a few minutes once a week to review the upcoming deadlines and workload together.
You might consider a bit of subterfuge, by giving the employee a date 48 hours earlier than it is actually due, so that when they turn the information in “late” it is actually on time. (But don’t ever tell them!)
Perhaps you need to escalate the situation to management to see if you can get some teeth behind the conversation or recognition that you have tried as much as you reasonably can.
Identify what consequences (if any) can be imposed upon the offending colleague.
Perhaps you just need to let it go, submit the work without the information, noting the efforts made to get the information and let the chips fall where they may.
You may find when you pause to consider the situation and brainstorm ideas that there are some simple solutions you can implement that will help.
Create Rules for Electronic Interruptions
In the case of situations like email that repeatedly interrupt us, you may need to set some limits on how often you check it, create some rules to automatically process certain types of emails to clear your inbox out, unsubscribe from as many email lists as you reasonably can, etc. Taking focused steps to reduce the specific interruptions we face can accumulate many minutes saved.
If you continue to struggle, consider asking others for guidance on how they have handled similar situations. You could post the question on the Executive Secretary Magazine Facebook or LinkedIn groups for example. If nothing else, they will be able to commiserate with you and provide moral support and understanding.
R: Recognize Smoldering Ashes About to Ignite
Sometimes when we are too overwhelmed ourselves with our own workload, we simply can’t take the time to watch the horizon for pending disasters. So smoldering ashes that we might have easily smothered become raging infernos instead.
One of the greatest challenges that occurs when you are trying to put out fires all day is that they consume your immediate attention. You spend all your time surviving instead of figuring out a plan to thrive.
Urgent vs Important
Something that will help us in eliminating issues is to recognize the difference between the urgent and the important. There is a tendency to grease the squeaky wheel, to pay attention to the item that is calling for our attention most loudly, but that noise is not necessarily what is most important to address. Reviewing what can be delayed and what must be addressed immediately is a skill we can hone with experience. It takes maturity and an ability to see the larger picture to be able to step back and say THIS is the most important thing that I need to address right now. It also helps if we can look ahead to see what small things now will become big things later.
As a simple example, there are some tasks that will take the same amount of time regardless of how often you do them. In general, vacuuming a room would be a good example of that. Whether you do the task once a day or once a week, vacuuming takes a similar amount of time to complete. On the other hand, dirty dishes increase in direct proportion to time, as each meal passes. Washing dishes once a week takes far more time than doing dishes each day as they accumulate. In some cases, waiting to do small tasks can result in much more expensive outcomes, such as having to pay expedited shipping costs because we procrastinated on sending something out.
E: Extinguish the Blaze for Good
It is critical to step back from the immediate action and knee jerk reactions that we take and identify how we can stop these fires from recurring.
Communication is probably one of the most useful tools in our arsenal. Meeting with our executives or colleagues on a regular basis, reviewing upcoming projects, discussing timeslots on the calendar that need to be blocked out to allow work to be completed, and generally helping others to start developing their skills in planning ahead are steps that will pay dividends over and over in your day. Sometimes we need to invest the time in gently training others in how to plan. It’s not a skill that comes naturally to everyone.
We might need to recognize that sometimes we take on problems that are NOT our problems.
As administrative professionals, we tend to shoulder the responsibility for ensuring all our colleagues that we support are getting their work done. But the truth is, it is ultimately THEIR responsibility to get their work done. Perhaps it is not such a bad idea to NOT bail out others constantly when they haven’t planned. Perhaps if they had to live with the consequences of their actions, they might be more inclined to get things done when they should. On the other hand, if you truly are the one who has to live with the consequences, then you need to continue to practice your assertiveness skills and speak up to encourage people to get things done.
Ultimately you need to be your own best advocate if you are going to change things at your workplace. No one else will speak up for you as eloquently as you will.
If you start to fight fire with FIRE, I think you will find that you are reducing some of the unplanned tasks that kill your productivity. You’ll be able to stay better focused and complete more of what you intended because you will be proactively addressing the interruptions that come up.
You will never be able to eliminate all the interruptions of your workday, but there’s no reason why you can’t start to reduce some of them so your and your executive’s day begin to flow more like a well oiled machine with only occasional moments of complete chaos (instead of daily occurrences).
It’s worth exploring the options facing you to see what is within your control and what isn’t. Sometimes just recognizing the areas that are beyond our influence will help us to better deal with the frustration we feel when our days feel like raging forest fires.
Taking time to stop and identify the issues and take concrete action to address them instead of letting them continue repeating can greatly reduce the number of fires you are forced to put out every day.