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 or project management software 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.