is everything a crisis?

Do you feel like you rush from urgent task to urgent task at work, constantly putting out fires and never having the chance to step back to focus on the big picture?

If this sounds like you, you probably feel like you have no choice but to operate this way because, after all, when fires crop up, they need to be put out.

But if you spend all your time fighting fires, you won’t have the time to focus on your biggest priorities, which are often things that can drive your work forward more powerfully than spending your days responding to the crisis of the moment. It also means that you won’t have time to reflect and spot important items that might not get your attention simply because they’re not on fire right now.

But you can regain control over your schedule. Here’s how.

1. Get crystal clear on your most important goals. At the start of the week, make a list of the most important items that you need to accomplish in order for the week to be a success. Do the same thing each morning, but for the day. Then, stick to your list. First thing in the morning, tackle the most crucial things that you need achieve that day. That way, if you do get called away later to deal with a crisis, you’ll have finished your most important work early.

From there, work on other items only if you finish your must-do’s for today, and only deviate from your list if a real emergency occurs.

2. Set aside “work blocks,” blocks of time that you schedule on your calendar just like any other appointment, but for you to work on your highest priorities. Treat these like any other important appointment; don’t let yourself schedule over them or bump them back, just like you wouldn’t schedule over a meeting with an important client.

Within these work blocks, be ruthless about warding off interruptions. If you’re focused on a key priority, consider closing your email program and letting phone calls go to voicemail. And if you do get interrupted, unless it’s a true emergency, it’s fine to say, “I’m in a work block right now, so can we talk later?”

3. Train your staff to handle emergencies themselves wherever possible. If your team is bringing you things that you’d rather they field themselves, you might be able to devise a set of guidelines or principles that you can give to your staff to to help them resolve crises on their own.

4. Study the “fires” to figure out if there are patterns in the crises that are popping up and determine their root causes. When you’re having regular crises pop up, it’s a sign that there’s a structural issue to address. For example, you might need better project planning that builds in wider buffers, or bring a stakeholder in a process earlier on, or you might need to give your staff clearer guidance on how to handle specific situations, or you might need to delegate more autonomy to people. If you’re having trouble identifying these root causes, enlist your team for help. They’ll often have excellent insight into what’s behind a pattern of regular fires.

{ 52 comments… read them below }

  1. Mike C.*

    Holy cow, firefighting versus long-term process improvement is pretty much my work life. The biggest challenges I see is getting people to take a long term view and understanding that being formal and rigorous means not having to solve the same problem again and again, even if it’s initially faster to deliver a quick fix.

    It’s nothing more than the scientific method applied to business. It’s worked for hundreds of years.

    1. Another Ellie*

      Lack of process is my huge battle, too. A few people have “flexibility” as their mantra…which is great, until 50% of everything they do doesn’t follow any kind of procedure, and they can’t figure out how to charge for the work, and aren’t quite sure who to bill, and aren’t even sure whether they’ve actually billed the last flexible job, come to think of it.

      When I discuss process with them, they tell me that it has to be implemented in “baby steps,” not all at once, and that they can’t adopt the process right now because they have all of these ad hoc projects going. What they don’t seem to realize is that they will *always* have ad hoc projects going and only by adopting the (already existing) processes will they stop having them.

    2. Erik*

      Fire fighting was pretty much my last job. I was desperately trying to prevent problems through process improvement, which did help in many areas. However, senior management saw planning as a four letter word.

    3. Mockingjay*

      We have processes. We write them all the time.

      No one adheres to them.

      The processes are for dog and pony shows: “Look at what Project X can do! We have processes so we must be efficient! We have a schedule and will spend your money wisely.”

      The reality is “just-in-time engineering and delivery.” Schedule milestones are “ASAP.”

      I’ve been a lot happier since I figured out that’s how the project operates and the Powers that Be are okay with it. I used to struggle because I work by the book and no one else wanted to read it, let alone follow it. Now I read AAM while waiting for the next URGENT task.

  2. ThursdaysGeek*

    For many businesses, however, a fire-fighter is a hero, and someone who has successfully avoided needing to fight fires is just another drone. So it seems like there should be something in there about the politics of looking good when you’re not fighting fires.

    1. AnotherHRPro*

      Very true. The problem with this is it becomes a vicious cycle. When you reward firefighters you have to be careful that you are not encouraging people to actually start the fires!

      1. nona*

        I remember someone here saying, in better words than I’ll use I’m sure, that a manager who rewards firefighters creates arsonists.

        1. ThursdaysGeek*

          I was thinking of that comment too! But there needs to be a way to reward the people who cut down the burnable weeds before they catch on fire, which is a less heroic and visible job.

    2. another IT manager*

      I send out weekly emails to my various people describing the preventative work I’m doing, and the various fires I’m preventing thereby. (Also the fires that spring up, and why, and what’s being done to prevent them.) I try to break it down so that people not in my department can understand what we’re doing and why. It seems to do the trick in my limited circle.

  3. cuppa*

    I love the part about studying the patterns to put protections up in place. Sometimes we focus so much about putting out the fires that we miss that we could prevent them from happening in the first place.

    1. AMG*

      So true. If you are dealing with fire-prone areas, look at what others need to head them off and proactively drive that.

    2. ism*

      And if your junior staff or direct reports ask questions about the big picture, which distract you from putting out the fire, don’t get fed up with them! Take some time to listen to their concerns. They might have some good ideas on fire prevention that nobody else thought of because they felt there wasn’t enough time. A workplace with plenty of functioning fire extinguishers but no fire exits and evacuation plan and safety officer is going to go up in flames and take you all down with it. OK bad metaphor extension, but you get it…

    3. Not So NewReader*

      omg, yes!

      I try to target the recurring problems initially. Why do we keep having trouble with X? Break it down, where in the down hill slide can we step in and stop the process? It might take a couple passes at the problem before we find the starting point to nip it entirely.

      Then other times we can have a major win because of going over the situation we reduce the number of steps, shorten the time it takes and prevent fires. That is a reeeal good day.

  4. ism*

    Great post. I was pleased with myself to see that your suggestions are things we already do. My boss’s entire day was spent putting out fires, and since they’ve created this new role and hired me, now it’s my responsibility to put them out, or figure out who can, if she’s not available. The only thing I don’t do is “work blocks” because people aren’t yet in the habit of coming to me with a fire to put out as often as they come to my boss and the plant & production managers, who I also report to.

    I’m happy that she is starting to rely on me more to just know what is going on any given week or day, because I’m calendaring and organizing and monitoring and reporting all of it for her. We tele-manage orders and shipping for several third party manufacturers and do the same at our local plant, but in person. With customer orders coming in and shipments going out every single day, there is ALWAYS something going wrong or a time-sensitive decision needed that we didn’t think to address ahead of time.

  5. allisonallisonallisonetc*

    My last lead could only work on things that were emergencies… because he had a never ended stream of emergencies… because he would put off other important issue that could be solved easily until they themselves turned into emergencies. Repeat ad infinitum. And neither my lead or my manager saw this as a problem that needed fixing.

    The constant firefighting also adds stress to any people who work under you. There are so many projects I could have finished well ahead of time but I could never get my leads attention for a critical item until days before a project was due since it didn’t become a crisis item until then. So then I had to run around and work late trying to get things done in time when I had been pleading for help well in advance. Plus then when a REAL crisis happened on a project, we caused a work stoppage because there was no time left to handle the hiccup. Still trying to permantly get out of that group.

    1. Unwilling Firefighter*

      Stop. Talking. About. My Life.

      I’m a hardcore planner (learning to be more flexible) working under a manager and lead who seem ADDICTED to emergency. Everything is urgent all the time, even when later it’s come to light that maybe… not so much. When I suggest that maybe we need wider buffers so things don’t fall through the cracks they have basically told me it’s not that bad and could be worse… yay?

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I’m convinced some people are addicted to emergency. They love the sense of urgency confusing it with feeling important or whatever. There are other people that get energy out of the rush of an emergency. If they did to have a five alarm fire, they’d fall asleep. This is something way out beyond a motivation issue.

        I have had to talk to people and say “Life does not have to be like this. We don’t have to go from one fire to another, then go home every night falling down exhausted. We don’t have to do this.”

        1. Mockingjay*

          One of my earliest managers was a former journalist. He headed the proposal writing team. He spent his life writing and re-writing down to the wire.

          We could never convince him that the corporate setting allowed sufficient time to plan the proposal content, write the content, check the content, and proof the final package within normal business hours.

  6. Gene*

    Set aside “work blocks,” blocks of time that you schedule on your calendar just like any other appointment, but for you to work on your highest priorities.

    If only I could get my boss to respect those times…

    1. Jennifer*

      Yeah, this whole article kind of made me laugh and think it would never work for anyone who can’t just lock themselves away in an office and put up a note claiming to be at a meeting.

      Then again, my #1 job is to put out fires and respond to them immediately and drop everything for them, so….

  7. SanguineAspect*

    I so needed this today. There are some things (like work blocks and checklists) that I already do, but I’m not very good at sticking to them rigorously when fires occur.

  8. hnl123*

    What if your Boss operates this way? Seriously — I feel like a fire fighter in my job. I basically NEVER get to work on the long-term projects because everyday there are massively urgent (but usually menial tasks) things to take care of. The list of things that “pop up” everyday is enough to fill the whole 8 hours and then some.

    When I ask him what is priority, he says everything. Even when we sometimes prioritize, at some point during the day, a fire will erupt, and everything is derailed. This is how he operates and I don’t know what to do/say? I just hate it when he gets upset that the longer-term, less “priority” projects aren’t getting done.

    1. ism*

      I’ve started doing what I call “overmining” my boss. She’s just like yours and I feel your pain!

      It’s the opposite of undermining her. I quietly and discreetly put things in place, prepare things, do research, whatever it takes to be as prepared as possible for the kinds of fires we’re always putting out. My boss NEVER has time to talk with me about why these fires keep happening and how we can prevent them because there are SO MANY. She has a neverending stream of email emergencies, phone calls, and visitors to her office. She definitely does not do “work blocks.” So I do what I can to prevent the fires and when there’s information other people can use, I make sure they have it. Something as simple as editing a mistake on a template the whole company uses for a certain report. I don’t really toot my own horn about it but if it’s work other departments are going to see, then yeah I email the relevant people to tell them I have prepared something for them for a future order or shipment. I do things like check inventory numbers or run the same report multiple times a day to see if orders changed BEFORE they ship, which can happen, for example. She hasn’t asked me to do this kind of proactive work, and I don’t know if she appreciates it or thinks it’s silly. Shrug.

        1. ism*

          Thanks. I think when it comes down to it, this kind of action is a big reason they created a position to assist my boss with her fires, and chose me for it. Even if it’s not an explicit part of the job description, I’ve learned and observed enough to know the “fires” that are more likely to happen, and how to prevent or at least prepare for them. The description of what I’m doing is something I’m going to flesh out more when raise-asking time rolls round.

    2. Anon Accountant*


      What happens when you boss is the one starting or adding the fuel to the fires and the employees are the firefighters? You can plan your day and tasks but there will be immediate things to be taken care of that easily could have been prevented. Examples: today he scheduled a meeting at 11:00 and told the client he would be in. He wasn’t in and was actually at another client 40 miles away and said one of us had to take the meeting. Things like this are a regular occurrence. This is how he operates although he also gets upset when “lower priority” projects aren’t getting completed.

      1. hnl123*

        I feel ya – this is the situation I’m in.
        Thanks for the tips ism – I am still trying to figure out WHERE I can overmine my boss (love the term).
        Adding to the ‘fire’ if you will, is that I myself am often away from my desk at meetings, meetings, meetings. So not only is everything a fire and a priority, often I am not even physically able to complete them. Le sigh….
        Plus, even when I do things to his liking, and explicit approval, two weeks later he’s like “WHY did you do it like this?”….. oh man. He is actually a very good person. I just can’t figure out his brain.

        I’ll continue looking for ways to systematize, and notice patterns.

        1. ism*

          It’s possible that he’s so engulfed in flames that his mind just doesn’t operate quite normally anymore. By that I mean, if you’re constantly dealing with urgent stuff and under stress, your brain won’t learn or remember as well. He’s probably just forgetting the things he approved of in on situation because his mind is on a different situation now. I would suggest a little proactive reminding if it’s appropriate. “Well, boss, I did it this way because it’s more efficient/better documented/whatever and you approved, even though we knew it was different from how we previously handled this.” If reminding isn’t appropriate on its own, maybe just ask this question but couch your reminder in there. “OK. Is there another way you’d like me to handle this in the future? Or would you like me to keep doing what you liked last time?”

  9. Suzanne*

    Most of this only works if your job allows you some autonomy. If you are working closely under a chronic workplace arsonist, you WILL spend your day fighting fires. If you have a boss for whom everything is super top priority and gives you a new super top priority task multiple times per day, resign yourself to putting on your helmet & grabbing your fire hose because you won’t have much other choice.

    1. Layla*

      My boss doesn’t say the new item is top priority but gets antsy when her emails aren’t answered and starts doing the work herself.

      I’m trying not to jump when she jumps but I gather she is not as happy with me


  10. Ann Furthermore*

    I’m struggling with this now on my current project and it’s so frustrating because there is nothing I can do about it. I’m working on an ERP implementation and the users are constantly in a fire-fighting mode and never do anything until the last minute.

    My latest example of this is a spreadsheet template that I sent them over 2 weeks ago, and I told them it absolutely HAD to be complete by yesterday (Wednesday). On Tuesday night, I was working in the evening and the person responsible for it started pinging me via IM with all kinds of questions about it. This made it pretty obvious that no one had looked at it until then, so I was pretty ticked off. Then today in a meeting they said there was no way they could have it done by Monday, because of other things they’re working on. So now our user acceptance testing event is at risk.

    I started harping on how critical it was to have this done when I was onsite working with them in mid-January. I was late getting them the template, because they were late getting me some information I needed to complete it. But even so, there was plenty of time to start pulling information together to have it ready. And then — with fewer than 90 days to go before go-live, and huge deadlines looming all over the place — the key person on the project took 2 weeks off. And it was pre-planned, not any kind of emergency.

  11. Student*

    My job is like this, but I’m not seeing much I can do to change it. I really, really want to, though. I feel like a lot of important work gets missed because we’re always dealing with fires.

    #3 is out, as I have no staff that I can delegate to.
    #4 – root cause is being understaffed most of the time. I don’t have hiring authority. Training people is something I make time for, but it never pays off – they go do something else instead of the thing I trained them on. The whole department doesn’t have time to address things in advance because everyone is busy trying to keep up with things that are due or overdue. I’ve argued for hiring more people. I’m also scared of hiring too many at once, though, since that just puts us even further back to track and train them.
    #2 I don’t have the authority to set work blocks and have the major offenders (bosses) respect them. Lots of the emergencies are actually real emergencies that need to be dealt with immediately.
    #1 I have no idea what my most important goals are, organization-wise. I’ve tried asking, and I get told something useless (and different) each time. I go by the things I feel are important instead. Someone important is always angry or disappointed I couldn’t get around to their fire-du-joir.

  12. Snarkus Aurelius*

    I loathe the term firefighter or tiger team and other corporate speak. I equally loathe the consultants that came up with them!!

    That’s all. :(

    1. YWD*

      +1 on the hatred for tiger team. After several years of disuse it unfortunately has started cropping up again at my company.

  13. Mackenzie*

    What if you have zero control over being assigned constant fires?

    For several years now, I’ve been asking “please let me just rewrite this code so it meets our current requirements” and being told “there’s no time for that, just fix this little thing.” My new manager understands that this is a problem, but he can’t convince the people above him to allocate the time for me to fix things for good, rather than keep fixing them for now.

    1. ali*

      Oh, I know exactly what you’re talking about here. If the manager would understand that rewriting the code would decrease the number of fires dramatically, they’d let you do it. But they never ever understand that, it seems.

      I’m constantly slapping band-aids on things to get them to work rather than actually fixing the problem (which would require entire code rewrites). But because I have to bill my customers for the amount of time I work on their thing, I can never do more than just the quickest fix because no one is willing to pay for the time it would take to do the rewrites. I can’t convince them that it would be more cost-efficient in the long term to do it.

    2. EG*

      At some point there won’t be time to put out the fire, and the inferno will get their attention. Unfortunately, that’s just how it is sometimes. While you can see the advantage of saving time and sanity with a fix now, others just don’t.

  14. einahpets*

    I need to definitely try out this ‘work block’ strategy. A few weeks ago I had turned off email notifications while hosting an online training on my computer and forgot to turn it back on for a few days. I got so much done! I was a little later in responding to some emails, but nothing anybody said was a problem.

    It is amazing how quickly constant emails can suck up time in the day.

  15. Not So NewReader*

    I also look around for time sucks. There are usually things that take way longer than need be for what the task is. I find ways to shorten the process.

    The subtlety here is that the task might not be a fire, but it has to be done on a routine basis. Why not make it so that it takes a little less time, leaving more time for these things that pop up.
    I have no shame- if I can find a way to reduce a 6 minute task down to 3 minutes, I will jump at that time savings. Not that I have done anything major in this small accomplishment, but rather that it’s my habit to look for ways to streamline things. The effect is cumulative over time, but it takes time to begin to see the effect.

    1. ism*

      Around here, the managers’ task time gets eaten into significantly by fires. Particularly my boss. If she does sit down quietly to work on something that should take 10 minutes, she finishes it. But it takes all day because she’s the head firefighter here and she has a “door open” policy. So everyone comes to her for help putting out their department’s fires if they don’t know what to do themselves. Often, it’s really just a matter of getting her approval to do what they know they need to do. But anyway, she is constantly interrupted and the task work just doesn’t get done. (And there’s where I come in and start offering to do it for her or telling her I’m happy to do those things, because we’re in the off season and I need more work to do.)

  16. Burnt to a Crisp*

    What do you do when you work for the arsonist? I’m a relatively new employee for a small nonprofit, and I am constantly getting dumped on with emergencies of my ED’s making. Here’s an example: a huge annual grant application that’s due the same time every year gets dumped on me 48 hours before it’s due, by my ED who must have (or should have) known full well the deadline was coming up, but did nothing about it and gave it to me with such tight turnaround time it was almost impossible. This happens all the time here, and it’s shocking to me. I don’t know how a place can operate this way. I like my job, or I think I would like it if I had time to do it, but I’m already burnt out.

  17. Case of the Mondays*

    I have ADHD and will admit, I am a workplace arsonist. I try to get work done ahead of time but I can’t focus and it loos rather disjointed. Give me a short deadline, however, and I fly through it and it sounds/looks great. I’ve since learned that stress is a stimulant much like adderall or ritalin which is why those with ADHD often procrastinate and then do their best work. I totally recognize it sucks for everyone that works for me and I admit my faults here.

  18. ChrisH*

    …I’m sorry, I’m too busy to manage you effectively, or set reasonable goals or priorities, or communicate effectively, or plan and schedule my department’s activities. In fact, I’m not sure how I got this job. But since I look like I’m getting things done, I’m hoping my boss doesn’t pay attention, which he probably won’t. Fortunately, one of our big vendors is taking us out for a fancy dinner, so I’ll be able to ask a lot of quiet questions to see if he’s on to us. If not, status quo!

    The world is full of absolutely horrible managers. Not kidding. Some ridiculous percentage (50%+) shouldn’t be allowed to administer a team let alone lead or manage one.

    Companies stopped training management in the 1970’s.
    Most companies barely make any worthwhile people development investments these days.
    MBA’s don’t get this training, nor bachelor business degree students.
    Technical SMEs typically make horrible managers. Not suited for the personality type.

    People who DO make good managers (eventually).
    Fully-developed Project Managers
    Senior Business Analysts and Strategists
    Management Consultants
    Professional Consultants

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