Combatting the Chaos of Fire Drills at Work

Dec 09, 2021 5 Min Read
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A 3 - Step Process To Maintain Your Sanity, Energy, and Focus At Work

Imagine a station full of firefighters. They’re taking care of the post chili-lunch cleanup and starting paperwork when suddenly, the alarm bell rings! In practiced, balletic unison, they leap for their uniforms, prep the truck, and jump aboard. Sirens squealing, they’re off to fight the good fight they prepare for every day.

Now imagine our firefighters are missing one critical piece of information–the correct address. Driving frantically from street to street, they hope they’ll find the right place to jump into action, whether it’s a car crash or a burning house. That’s a pretty inefficient way to fight fires, isn’t it?

Now imagine yourself working away at your “station”—it might be your desk or a conference room with a group of colleagues—when suddenly an alarm bell rings out. It comes in the form of an urgent call from the big boss, “Mr. Wants-Alot.” You stop what you’re doing, grab your laptop, phone, and maybe a few folders, and dive in.

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, if you go too fast when the adrenaline of urgency throws you into a task, you might forget to lay the groundwork for excellent work at the right scope. You might skip over important elements, wildly overdo others, or do it all just right while being unbelievably stressed in the process. 

There’s a better methodology for dealing with fire drills. It’s a three-step process: Get Present; Get Prepared; Get Productive.

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Get Present

It’s a human trait to mirror the emotions and pace of those around us. When someone says in a panic, “We need the stats ASAP,” we tend to take on their frenzy and make it our own, chiming in with a hearty, “I’ll have it done by 3:00!” But frenzy is the enemy of quality. 

Instead, insert a wedge of thoughtful time between the stimulus (the urgent request) and your response (an instant start). A few seconds or a minute for a calming pause will allow the adrenaline to vacate your system—along with any peevishness or panic—so you can be fully present for the challenge ahead.

A tiny pause also provides a moment for a quick reality check. Is the urgent issue truly urgent or is it based on assumptions or a need that might have some flexibility? Depending on the context, you might clarify the situation in the moment or revisit it in the future if fire drills are the norm and not the exception in your world.

Get Prepared

When a fire drill hits, it’s not arriving in a vacuum. It’s landing right on top of the pile of important things you were already planning to do. You have to reshuffle and re-prioritize your day in order to mindfully handle both the what-I-was-going-to-do work and the now-I’m-going-to-do work. Let something go to give yourself more room. Ask for help if you need it. Clarify priorities with your boss and team. Delegate items that might run amok in your absence. 

Now reflect on the new task. Get the target clearly in your sights. Think about it. Are you 100 percent clear about the precise objective in terms of the need, the scope, and the deliverable? 
If not, go back to the assigner with critical clarifying questions such as:

  • When exactly do you need this completed?
  • Is there anyone else I should include?
  • How much detail is necessary?
  • What else should I know?

It can be a little tough to ask the questions, but they are the first step in meeting the exact desired goal. Explain to “Mr. Wants-Alot” that you’re asking only to be more accurate and efficient.

Get Productive: 

With your full presence and preparation in place, give the project your best, remembering to steer clear of perfectionistic overkill. 

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This simple 3-step process--Get Present; Get Prepared; Get Productive--can be a lifesaver to maintain your sanity, energy, and focus. Use these steps the next time the fire bell rings.

This article is also available in Chinese.

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Juliet Funt is the founder and CEO at JFG (Juliet Funt Group), which is a consulting and training firm built upon the popular teaching of CEO Juliet Funt, author of A Minute to Think.

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