We all have that boss or team mate who has no idea how to manage their work. Their approach to dealing with their day is to run from fire to fire, using those complaining the most or the loudest as the method of deciding where to allocate their time and energy. Let’s call them “Firefighters.”
Firefighters often have a reputation for working hard, handling stressful situations, and being heroes who handle disasters. They might even be a wealth of technical or experiential knowledge, making them uniquely qualified to solve problems.
But what kind of hero creates fires just to put them out?
Lack of proactive task and time management means they ignore fires that can be prevented until they burst into flames. The real heroes spend time managing their time and competing concerns to put out smoldering problems.
Beyond contributing to fires, they act like it’s everyone else’s job to be their human to-do lists, constantly reminding them of things that need to be done, but only ever responding to the reminder when it has escalated to fire status. This is exhausting for your teams. It lowers morale and makes them resent you, especially if you are the one in charge.
You are working for/with a Firefighter if you:
- Have to repeatedly follow up on things you’ve already requested
- Feel like you have to make every problem sound like a disaster to get it any kind of attention
- Are forced to watch small problems escalate into huge ordeals because of neglect
You are the Firefighter if you:
- Regularly find yourself telling people that they should have reminded you about things
- Feel like most days are dealing with one huge problem after another
- Don’t have a method for planning and prioritizing how you spend your time
Now, this is not to say that people should never forget things or that team members should never have to help one another, this is about a pattern of behavior that is the norm, not an understandable exception.
How to Correct the Course
Firefighters need to stop telling themselves “I have no time to do anything other than handle these emergencies” because many of those emergencies only exist because the underlying problems were not dealt with sooner.
Problems are much easier to fix and less expensive when they are dealt with earlier on. This is one of the key underlying concepts in Toyota’s Lean Manufacturing approach and its application in the IT world, known as DevOps. The sooner Firefighters embrace this reality, the sooner they will have fewer fires to put out.
Develop Time Management Habits
Proactive time management is one of the most common skills gaps I run into when coaching leaders. Being busy doing things does not mean you are busy doing the most important things.
Set aside time at the beginning of each week to look at your calendar and top priorities. Decide what the order of importance is for your tasks so that you can allocate your time accordingly. Don’t forget to balance time between handling the pressing issues of today with handling emerging problems before they become a disaster.
Task and Time Management Tools
Human memory sucks. If you are relying on your memory to get you through, you are setting yourself up for failure. Any.do and Outlook Tasks/OneNote are the most common task management tools out there. Any tool that allows you to create a task title, set a start and end date, document details, and prioritize it against other tasks will work just fine. Pick one and get started using it.
When you first begin, it will feel cumbersome. You will feel like it’s impeding your ability to get things done. When you feel this way, remember that getting things done does not mean you are getting the most important things done, so get over it and commit to adopting a task management tool.
In one of my coaching sessions, a Chiropractor who owns her own Health and Wellness Center was able to increase collections by $48,000 the quarter following our 90 day transformation program. Before her coaching, she was a very hard worker, her employees loved her passion and friendliness, and she was going pretty well despite her skills gap in time management.
After the coaching she began adopting the time management philosophy, system, and tools. Her daily stand up meetings began starting on time, had a clear goal, she was able to strategically assign her employees to urgent matters, and was therefore able to reduce time spent putting out fires, freeing her up to put time into improving collections.
Real heroes don’t create the fires they put out. Proactively managing your time will improve your effectiveness and improve the morale of your team, leading to higher levels of engagement and productivity.