How To Stop Putting Out Fires All Day At Work
> Be smart and selective with the types of office fires you fight
It seems to start before you’ve even had a chance to get settled in the office.
The office fires that you fought yesterday are still smoldering all around you. Some are completely extinguished while a few still have some hot glowing embers that can easily flare up again into a new fire.
You sit down. Boot up the computer. And as it’s powering up, you do likewise by taking a few quiet sips of your usual glorious morning brew.
Then, the moment comes. Time to open up email and check the inbox.
You close your eyes and hold your breath.
Eyes open and there you see it.
A ton of new, unread emails all related to about a dozen separate critical issues that you’re involved in. Multiple clumps of 10 to 20 “reply-alls” with the same subject line and urgent flags.
You knew it was going to be like this. Why would you expect otherwise?
Because we’re hopeful.
Hopeful that the tiny, little, minuscule chance that everything got taken care of actually came true and that no new issues erupted from follow-on convos.
But, as predicted, it didn’t turn out that way. It looks like it's going to be a long day.
Good thing you brought your fire fighting outfit.
Doesn’t it start to feel like you’re the only one trying to make sure that everyone is doing what they are supposed to be doing? And when things don’t go well, you’re the go-to firefighter?
You care about your coworkers, however, it feels like the more time you’re spending being a firefighter, the less time you have to actually focus on real work.
It’s so very easy to get sucked into the vortex of office crises.
Whether it’s product failures, missed launch targets, service outages, PR disasters, etc. you seem to be right in the middle of it all.
And sadly, managers and bosses don’t see the effort you’re putting in making the company run smoothly. They only see the results of your assigned work, which is being directly affected by these crisis events.
When you have a good plan in place, you’re much more likely to avoid the whirlwind of the office crisis than when you don’t.
So let’s get those fireproofing skills up and make a bulletproof plan.
Be A Smart & Selective Firefighter
Sadly, there is no way to completely isolate yourself from all the fires that happen at the office. However, you can limit yourself to only the ones that you have to be part of.
You’ve gotta learn how to filter the situations quickly and efficiently and decide to what extent you need to be involved.
Get this skill perfected and you’ll really cut down on the time you spend fighting fires.
Here’s our 3-step process to becoming a smart firefighter at work.
Step #1: Determine The Type Of Fire
First, we need to understand the type of fires that can arise at work and which ones we need to take the lead on, support or ignore.
This is where you can use some good ol’ fashioned triage. Triage lets you assign the degrees of urgency to an office crisis or fire, to help you decide the order of which to tackle them in.
This will help you determine whether they are worth your time and just exactly how much of that time they are worth.
The ones that you want to focus on are the fires directly related to your work and secondary indirectly related fires, if it doesn't take too much time away from your priorities.
So, the next time you find something comes up, take a moment to reflect upon what it is, and which of the following three categories it best falls into.
A) High Urgency: Directly Related Fires
These fires are directly part of your projects, tasks, and responsibilities. These are clearly your fires and you need to be the lead firefighter on these.
When these come up, it’s time to suit up and grab the firehose.
Here are some examples:
- Your incorrect data is causing mistakes for others
- Your vendor or supplier is shipping the wrong stuff
- Your product/service is malfunctioning
- Your process is creating errors company-wide
- Your wrong input is triggering problems for others
- Your inability to be efficient is delaying others
Once you have identified what the problem is, you can take the appropriate steps to correct it. Sometimes, this is easier said than done, but know that it CAN be done.
The fires that fall in under this category are the ones you definitely want to learn how to prevent.
B) Medium Urgency: Indirectly Related Fires
These fires are indirectly part of your projects, tasks, and responsibilities. These are usually fires involving your coworkers and possibly even management.
When these come up, you still want to put on your firefighting outfit but you don’t want to spend all your time fighting these fires. This is where you’ve gotta be smart and selective about the extent of your support in fighting the fire.
These fires typically can be put off a bit, however, you don’t want to ignore them outright, because they have the potential to turn into high urgency fires.
Here are some indirect crises that you may have experienced before:
- Personality clashes within the project you’re leading
- Urgent requests on projects where you’re a supporting contributor
- Recurring errors from internal systems impacting your results
- Management conflicts within the company affecting your progress
- Accounting is using your older calculations
- Frequent program or app crashes
Most of the time, you can still manage to continue on with your work or project, however, these indirect fires can add substantial delays to your main priorities.
C) Low Urgency: Unrelated Fires
The first thing about these crisis’ you need to know, is that they are not a crisis - to you at least.
These fires don’t have any real meaningful impact on your work or projects, which actually makes them the easiest to deal with.
Just kindly and sternly say no thanks or buzz off.
Here are some low-urgency crises that you may have experienced before:
- Problems in a separate, totally unrelated department or group
- Volunteer committee running into problems
- Running late to an optional webinar
- Coworkers asking you for relationship or career advice
- Getting pulled into the rumor mill
Since these issues aren’t your problem and they aren’t affecting your work, brush them off, ignore them and then, get back to work.
Step #2: Take Mental Breaks During & After The Battle
The worst thing about fighting fires at work is that it can be downright exhausting and stressful. And just like real firefighters out in the world, you need to take breaks during and after firefights.
To sustain your focus during long battles, you need to take a break every 30 minutes or at the very maximum, 60 minutes. Don’t go any longer than that without a break.
Your mind and body need to step away from the crisis periodically to rest, recover energy and rebuild focus.
When you go for extended durations without a break, your productive output goes right down the shitter - fast. Having mental breaks allows you to recharge the batteries and get back in the fight.
After putting out the fire, the last thing you want to do is jump directly to another fire or dive right back into work. We know you’d much rather be sipping wine in a fuzzy onesie and binge-watching Friends on Netflix. But, that ain’t happening.
So to prevent burn-out, you need to take a breather and decompress after each firefight.
Taking a short mental break is critical. It allows you to dial things back down a bit - lower your cortisol levels and get your mind out of the fight-or-flight state.
Here are a few of our most used methods to dial down the mental madness in between the office flare-ups.
A) Get Outside & Clear Your Head
It doesn’t matter what the weather is like outside. It could be raining cats-n-dogs, scorching heat, bitterly cold, windy, etc. There’s always a covered spot or area just outside your office building where you can just stand there and get some fresh air while not getting shit on by mother nature.
Getting away from the recirculated stale office air not only clears your lungs, but it also clears your head. Plus, it gets your ass unglued from your chair, your body moving and your eyes looking at something other than your computer screen.
It doesn’t have to be a long break. All you really need is about 5 minutes to decompress and reground yourself.
While you’re outside, breathe slowly and deeply and just let yourself unwind for a few minutes. Let your mind zone out and wander.
B) Stretch Your Neck & Shoulder To Release Stress Tension
Fighting fires causes stress. And stress causes us to tense up, putting strain and tension into our neck and shoulders.
And the worst part is your body doesn’t get a chance to stop this feeling either because it knows there are more fires just moments away.
Eventually, you can end up with chronic conditions like tension headaches, muscle cramps and nerve pain.
Which is why you want to make sure that a couple of times a day, you do a few simple stretches to release some of the built up tension.
Don’t worry, all of these are seated stretches. We don’t want to make you get up and do full body yoga poses in the middle of the office.
Shoulder and Neck Stretches
Here is an easy stretch routine that touches all 6 directions that our head moves, allowing for full tension relief of our neck muscles:
The key you want to remember is to never go until it hurts or pinches. Only go until it’s a nice stretch and try to hold each position for 10-15 seconds - longer if possible.
1. Pull your head down to your chest with both your hands
2. Arch your neck back slowly
3. Turn your head to the right
4. Turn your head to the left
5. Return to neutral
6. Move your right ear to your right shoulder
7. Move your left ear to your left shoulder
Keep in mind when you’re moving your ear to your shoulder, don’t lift your shoulders to meet your ear. It’s the ear that moves downward. And, they do not have to touch to accomplish a good stretch.
How about doing a quick stretch now?
Put on your earphones and let's follow along with Dr. Jay Warren in this 2 minute video below.
VIDEO: How to Stretch the Shoulder & Neck
If you find yourself having a few extra minutes and some extra energy, you can even do some wrist, hand, and finger stretches too, as those have a tendency to get overused quite easily in the office world.
You can read more about these stretches here.
And the best of the best, the finger forearm stretch. The one that manages to get every tense muscle in your upper body a bit looser and makes you feel better than you have in years.
C) Watch Some Hilarious YouTube Clips & Laugh Off The Tension
Who doesn’t love a good YouTube clip? And humor happens to be one of THE best ways to combat tension and stress.
In fact, laughter releases endorphins that not only boost mood, but also contribute to things like your energy, metabolism, and overall mental health.
Check out a couple of our office themed favorites. We bet you can’t make it through them without giggling!
VIDEO: Swear Jar [Bud Light]
> Cursing makes things just feel...more genuine
> Sometimes, beer can motivate like nothing else
> This shit fucking works - that’s $0.50 right there
And up next, for those that have had the lovely experience of having to go on a business trip with a couple of idiots, this will hit home for you.
VIDEO: CareerBuilder.com "Business Travel"
> Always keep your bags in sight after packing them yourself
> Never try to expense banana daiquiris at a gentlemen's club
> Sharing rooms with coworkers should be illegal
See? You’re smiling right now. This little bit of giddiness just erased a bunch of stress.
For even more ways to combat work stress quickly, check out our quick stress relief guide. We understand what stress is like in an office, so we’ve compiled this quick 10 tip article to help you find something that works for you.
Step # 3 Minimize & Prevent Your Own Fires
Minimizing fire risks is just as important as recognizing them. While we can never prevent other peoples fires, we can sure work on our own.
To minimize and prevent your own potential fires, you need to be able to do three things well:
1) Stay on top of your shit by focusing on your main priorities
2) Communicate often and well with your boss to keep him/her up-to-date and ready to support you
3) Block unnecessary/irrelevant work by setting boundaries and learning to say “no”
We’ll expand on each of these three things.
A) Focus On Your Main Priorities
Knowing how to spend your time on which tasks and activities will allow you to not only get things done on time, but also with less stress, and fewer fires.
Go Airplane Mode & Schedule Uninterrupted Time
Now, you may laugh at this at first, but trust us, there is such a thing as uninterrupted time.
We’re not saying you need to spend eight hours straight doing work, that’ll never happen. Hell, even four hours of uninterrupted time would be a unicorn.
Just block off 1.5 to 2 hours for yourself. Put it in your calendar at work, let your coworkers know, put your cell phone on airplane mode and bear down on your priorities.
You’ll find that in no time you will be making major progress on your projects.
The key element here is to make sure you get rid of all distractions. Sometimes, it can take up to ten minutes to get back in the flow of things after being interrupted.
That means if you’re interrupted once an hour throughout your day, you’ll lose over an hour of productivity. It’s no wonder those projects are taking so long.
Remember, get outside and do a quick reboot sesh after about 30 -45 minutes into your blocked off time. Trust us, it helps.
Do “First Things First”
Prioritizing is another way you will make the most of your time.
You’ll hear it again and again, whether it be from us, your bosses or a plethora of other online sources, such as SkillSoft on Youtube. Prioritizing is important, and here is why.
VIDEO: Prioritizing Tasks to Pinpoint Your Priorities
YOUTUBE: SkillSoft Youtube
> Not all tasks are created equally
> Organize and prioritize tasks to determine which ones to do first
> Categorize your tasks with time sensitivity and value in mind
As we mentioned in our example above, start by making a quick list first thing in the morning to see what the important tasks are for the day.
And no, everything can’t be #1 on the list. Be real with yourself, your projects and tasks.
When you take care of your main priorities and real true urgencies efficiently, there’s less likelihood that it’ll flare up into a crisis.
B) Communicate With Your Manager/Boss
It’s always a good thing to maintain clear and frequent communications with your immediate boss. And if you find yourself being trapped in multiple fires, the best thing you can do for yourself is to go and chat with your manager.
There is only so much you can do and if you’re being dragged into other office disasters, it’s taking your time, effort and focus away from your main priorities and the team’s or department’s primary goals and objectives.
It’s your immediate boss’s responsibility to protect your time and prevent other managers and/or projects from taking it away.
If you’re mired in your own self-generated fires or struggling to suppress one, your manager can be a resource to provide additional support for you to put it out and provide an outside perspective on root causes and solutions.
Here are a couple of tips when bringing up fires with your manager/boss.
- List the fires that you’re involved in - be clear and concise
- For each of your items, develop and propose a solution
- Ask for their support to deflect crises that you shouldn’t be involved in
- Ask for additional help if you’re struggling with your own fires
- Ask for escalation support if things aren’t getting done for you
- See the positive - managing crises builds your skills
When you communicate with your boss early on about how your projects and tasks seem to be falling behind due to fire fighting, then you can work together to figure out solutions to get back on track.
C) Set Boundaries & Learn To Say “No”
Your coworkers will never understand that your time is valuable if you do not treat your time as such. And neither will your friends, coworkers, managers, or boss.
You need to make it known that your time is important to you and to the company.
You need to make a point of telling your coworkers you cannot play mom or IT or therapist or firefighter anymore.
Some quick pointers on setting boundaries:
- Consider the request your coworker is asking of you
- Be clear and concise in your availability
- Help your coworker understand your workload
- Schedule yourself into your own calendar for uninterrupted time
- Disconnect from work during your breaks and at the end of the day
Some quick pointers on learning to say no:
- Be clear and concise when saying no
- Do not use “maybe” or “I’ll try”
- Be polite when you turn your co-workers request down
- Keep your cool and do not let your emotions get the better of you
- Say sorry, but don’t grovel for forgiveness
- End the conversation with a firm “Thanks for understanding”
Setting boundaries and learning how to say “no” are skills that will help you succeed at your job. Not only will these skills allow for you to get your work done, but they also show great management material for the future.
D) Build Buffers Into Project/Task Timelines
Building buffer time into each of your projects reduces stress and allows you to have time for those unexpected problems and issues.
It’ll also give you a bit of extra time to double-check your work and allow you to hand in the best version of your project.
There’s nothing wrong with having a little wiggle room in your projects. In fact, some bosses and managers would prefer to have it this way.
When you are handed a project, have a quick chat with your boss about the time frame and how you would like to add a few hours, or if you’re lucky enough, an extra day, of “just in case” time.
This is a great time to point out any potential fires you see arising that are definitely going to affect you and that may not have been addressed yet.
Less Firefighting & More Success Building
You can build the ability to be one step ahead of the game.
With these sure-fire -no pun intended- ways to lessen your role as the main office firefighter, you can truly shine through and excel at your own projects.
No matter what ashes you see smoldering upon your entry at work, you can rest assured that your time will be well spent exactly where it should be.
Choosing which fires you need to put out and which ones you can put off or ignore will go a long way in balancing your efforts and preserving your sanity at work.
Your personal growth and development will shine through, and you’ll finally have a chance to be recognized for the hard worker you truly are.
And who knows, with all this energy put in, your managers may just see some potential in you that the smoke was hiding before.
Can you say management material?
The world is your fire-retardant oyster and you’re ready to take it on.