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Put an End to Constant Firefighting

When employees are forced to place all of their time and attention on fixing what has just blown up or gone off the rails, that’s called firefighting.  While there are some people who get a boost from the adrenaline rush these “fires” can create, extended periods of firefighting with one urgent situation after another (and sometimes simultaneously) are unproductive, draining, and downright unhealthy.

Have you ever found yourself in a period of constant firefighting where nothing went according to plans and your level of stress and anxiety skyrocketed? Have you ever stopped to dissect and identify what factors were at play during those periods that caused such chaos and unhappiness? This article will focus on a major cause of these fires, lack of attention to the matter at hand often caused by multitasking.

It’s been documented that multitasking is a myth.  Your brain can only focus on one thing at a time and the time and effort it takes to switch back and forth from one thing to another clouds our ability to be effective with either task. Read more here: The Myth of Multitasking Article. So if you are occupied with one email and another one comes in and you quickly respond, you might not be giving the best response, you might not even be addressing the question at hand. What can happen then by working on many things at one time is that key details get missed, incorrect information gets conveyed, and days, weeks, or even months later fires start to smolder and can erupt into full-blown ten alarm fires.

Multitasking on conference calls is a huge culprit of such fires.  People make decisions based on information given by people who were really only partially listening to the conversation or a task owner misses whole portions of the meeting delivering completed tasks that don’t meet the need. If these errors are caught up front they might only result in delays; however,  if they are not then a new fire is ignited, smoldering until it is discovered. Missed deadlines, unmet goals, and unhappy, stressed out workers cost companies big in terms of time, money, human resources, and credibility.

So what can you do to minimize the number of these urgent problems that crop up in your life and reduce the level of stress caused by them? Below is a list of things I’ve incorporated in my life, both at work and at home, to tackle this issue.

  1. Subscribe to the belief that emergencies are not normal. If we believe they are normal, then we don’t believe anything we do can eliminate them. Changing our results comes from changing our beliefs.
  2. Know the limits of your brain and honor them. The ability to focus on more than one thing at a time, to multitask, does not exist. Don’t be tempted to save time by doing it.
  3. Be here fully, now, for each task you undertake. Give each item the attention it deserves.
  4. Know that others might believe that a continuous stream of urgent problems is normal and that multitasking is effective. Then, get their attention by asking them questions to ensure they are on the same page as you. Confirm understanding by getting them to tell you what the goal is, what action they are taking away from the meeting, and for what purpose.
  5. When one of these fires does arise, center yourself first before deciding what your next action should be. You can do this by taking three deep breaths or, if you have more time, by stepping away and centering, focusing on your breath, longer. Centering yourself creates space and provides perspective around the situation.  From there you can think more clearly, choose the best path forward, and handle the situation more effectively.
  6. Deal with the situation. Do not avoid it, hoping it will go away. It won’t and avoiding the situation usually makes it worse down the line.

If your work or home environments are rife with urgent, pervasive issues, follow these steps and you will be on the path to relief.  This process has helped me honor my value of having simplicity in my life.  While I do have to deal with fires, on occasion, the problems crossing my desk are typically less severe and easier to resolve.

Photo Credit: Andrew Branch

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