How to deal with ‘fires’ at work

How to deal with ‘fires’ at work [PMP #258]

Isn’t it frustrating when you’ve planned your time have a clear agenda for what you’re going to work on, only to receive an email or to have a colleague derail your day by coming to you with an issue that requires urgent attention? These ‘fires’ often require us to stop what we’re doing and put everything else on hold so we can deal with this seemingly important and urgent issue.

As someone who values productivity, dealing with “fires” is something I really try to avoid. Not that I ignore them. But I do my best to make them less disruptive and frequent as possible. We generally do our best work when we can work uninterrupted on high-value tasks and projects. Stopping what you’re doing to put out a fire takes you from this proactive state of mind into a more reactive state where you’re now having to prioritise something urgent over the thing you really want to be doing.

So, what’s the best way to deal with these fires? How do you make them less disruptive and get back to what you’re doing with as little downtime as possible? Let’s explore…

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“Is this a serious fire?”

When a major issue comes up, the first thing I ask myself is whether this is a serious fire. Especially if someone else is emailing or approaching you with this issue, you should gather all the necessary information so you can determine if it’s a serious issue or whether the other person is over reacting.

You basically want to determine the impact of the fire and how important the issue is. What someone else considers to be a 10/10 fire, may only be a 6/10 from your perspective. Now just because it’s not as high a priority for you, doesn’t mean you can ignore it. Being a considerate person, you should consider the impact and importance for the other person within the context of your own work and current priorities.

“Is this important and urgent, or can it wait?”

Once you’ve analysed the severity and importance of the fire, you can ask yourself whether this is something you need to stop what you’re doing to work on now, or whether you can come back to it later.

  • If the issue is urgent but not important, it may be possible to at least finish what you’re doing before you come back to the fire in an hour or two.
  • If it’s important but not urgent, then you really should be able to finish what you're doing and can possibly leave this to the end of the day or even later this week.
  • Really, you should only be stopping what you’re doing and dealing with the fire immediately if the issue is both important and urgent.

An example of a serious fire would be that my website has gone down. So customers can’t access their downloads or courses. And clients can’t pay for my services. The impact of something like this is very high, making it important and something I should deal with urgently.

“Am I the best person to put out the fire?”

When the fire alarm goes off (metaphorically speaking) you should also ask yourself whether you’re the best person to be fighting the fire.

For example, if a client contacts me with an issue related to Zapier I will almost certainly divert an issue like this to my colleague who handles all our client Zapier work. I know that he is going to be able to deal with the fire much more effectively and efficiently than I can and so he’s the best person for the job.

Now before you do this, be aware that you’re passing the fire along to someone else so you really need to be confident that you are doing the right thing by asking this person to stop what they’re doing so they can deal with the fire. And when you do, you’re also going to want to check that they’re not already working on something urgent and that they have the time to fight the fire for you.

Remember, what you consider to be important and urgent, may not be the case for the other person. And how you approach them with the fire will depend on the relationship. If you are their superior and are able to set their workload, you will approach them differently compared to a client or contractor that you’re working with who has their own work they’re dealing with. The key takeaway here; be respectful of the relationship.

“What am I going to do with my current workload?”

If you’ve decided that you’re going to stop what you’re doing to put out the fire, take a second to park your existing work. If needed, leave yourself a note detailing what you’re working on and the next steps. This will make it a lot easier to pickup again where you left off when you start the work again later.

If needed, tell anyone you’re working with that you’ve been pulled into a fire and won’t be able to finish your existing workload until later. Keeping everyone in the loop minimises the overall impact the fire has on everyone you’re working with.

If the fire is going to require your attention for the rest of the day, or if you have meetings later in the day, you may not be able to return to your work straight away. Therefore, when parking your work, schedule time to show when you’re going to come back to whatever you were working on. As a diligent time blocker, I use my calendar to plan when I’m going to work on tasks. So when a fire comes up, I’ll move my blocks of work around and push things to an available slot later in the week so I don’t forget to finish what I was working on.

“How do I make sure this doesn’t happen again?”

Finally, once you’ve dealt with the fire, ask yourself how you can prevent the fire from starting up again later. If needed, take some time to investigate how the fire started so you can put steps in place to lower the chances of it happening again.

This is something I’ve talked about before. You should always be finding ways to avoid repetitive tasks, especially problems and fires that come up again and again.

What tips do you have for dealing with urgent issues and fighting fires? Leave me a comment below!

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