Always Putting Out Fires at Work? Here’s a Checklist to Keep You Calm

In today’s always-on, notification-driven world, it’s all too common to feel like you’ve spent your entire work day dealing with major and minor crises out of your control—and not accomplishing anything that helps you get ahead. Too many days like this will quickly lead to feeling overwhelmed, and too many days of feeling overwhelmed is the fastest track to burnout. To protect your productivity and your sanity, try this checklist to take control of your to-do list and stay calm.

put out fires at work

Ask yourself:

1. Are you dealing with the urgent—or the important?

You might think “urgent” and “important” mean the same thing. Not exactly. An “urgent” task is a deadline-driven to-do, often from an external source. Think of the to-dos in your inbox. An “important” task, such as goal-setting or establishing project timelines, is the sort of task that’s easier to delay but will result in great benefits later. Obviously, you can’t eliminate urgent to-dos completely, but if you can tackle the important tasks, you’ll feel more in control of your destiny and be better prepared to handle future urgent responsibilities.

2. Are you blocking out time on your calendar to work?

If your entire calendar is jam-packed with meetings and you’re expecting yourself to fit in your actual job around meetings, you’ll start to feel overwhelmed. Try blocking out hours of time on your calendar to work. It’s human nature to be more likely to keep a commitment on your calendar. Plus, your colleagues will be deterred from scheduling meetings or interrupting you if they see a busy block on your calendar.

3. Are you working at your most productive time?

Sadly, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.—when the phones are ringing and the office is full—is not the easiest time to tackle major projects. You need to figure out your internal rhythm and determine when you’re the most productive. Perhaps you’ll feel more in control if you power through your to-do list for an hour each morning. Or maybe you hit your stride just when everyone else is heading home for the day. Figure out what works best for you.

4. Have you stopped multitasking?

At any given moment in the day, you’re being bombarded by your email, Slack messages, text messages, calls on your office phone, calls on your cell phone, and, oh yeah, chatty coworkers. That’s a lot to distract you from getting your job done. You’ll feel much more productive and generate better results if you work on one task at a time. Try turning off notifications, closing your email program, or working off-site when you have big projects to do. It’s easy to feel like you’re jumping from one “fire” to another when you’re constantly reacting to external demands.

5. Are you breaking big tasks into smaller chunks?

Fires at work are the result of poor planning or procrastination. Take steps to avoid the unforeseen by taking big tasks and breaking them into smaller, more manageable steps. Give yourself deadlines to achieve the steps along the way, and build some cushion in before your final deadline.

6. Are you delegating all that you can?

Ask yourself honestly: are you delegating all that you can to the rest of your team? It’s easy to fall into the trap of being a martyr at work and taking on all responsibility, but that’s not a smart strategy. No one will be impressed—and you’re setting yourself up to be frustrated with your colleagues and make mistakes. Even if it seems like it will take longer, take the time to train your direct reports on how to do their jobs. Again—it might momentarily better to do the urgent task yourself, but it’s more important to teach the right person to do it and build a good support system.

7. Have you talked to your supervisor?

If you’ve exhausted this checklist but still feel like you’re constantly putting out fires at work, talk to your supervisor about prioritizing your tasks. He or she might have insights about your situation or recognize that a colleague needs additional training. Working together, you should be able to find a solution.

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