Putting out the fires in your work

By Scot Herrick | Job Performance

Jul 23

In every position I’ve been in, I’ve learned about the position from the wrong side of the fire hose. Usually there are fires happening in your world every day. If all you do is put out fires, you lose control to the reactive pressures on you.

One of the activities that I have always said you need to do in a position is “do something proactive every day.” It’s great advice. But it doesn’t capture what needs to be done in order to do something proactive every day.

This past Friday, I attended David Allen Company’s GTD Mastering Workflow seminar. GTD, for those not familiar with the term, stands for Getting Things Done and is a methodology for “stress-free productivity.”

The seminar provided great insight on what needs to be done to be proactive every day.

The great challenge of knowledge work is being able to define the work to be done. In the industrial age – or in my summer job in college working in a paper factory putting out 750 cases of diapers a shift – one cranked out whatever widget you worked on.

My job in the diaper factory was to take the box of 12 diapers, glue the sides shut through the machine and put the box into the shipping case.  The work was well defined.

Yet, in today’s information age, what work needs to be done is more difficult to determine. That e-mail might have something for you to do – in the fifth paragraph. The meeting you are attending might be giving you work to do simply via an assumption that you will do it.

And you end up putting out fires because someone else is defining your work.

The key to doing something proactive every day is to ensure that your work is defined by you.

Does that mean you ignore your manager’s request for the emergency? No.

What it does mean is that the emergency work needs to be defined with your manager so that you are clear on what needs to happen. And what work won’t get done because of it.

If someone else is always defining your work, you’ll always be fighting fires and never getting a sense of accomplishment.

How do you get out of fighting fires?

  • I’m not sure I can say I “get out of fighting fires” but I avoid them as much as possible by doing exactly what you said: defining my work. I know my job well enough that I know where the flammable parts are and I take caution to prevent those from blowing up. I think prevention and timeliness could prevent a lot of fires.

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