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"Today is a wonderful day,” you proclaim to the world as you alight from your bed after a full night’s rest. With a nice breakfast and a vigorous workout under your belt, you leave the house feeling refreshed, energized, and optimistic. Your smooth swagger and bold brow are clear evidence of today’s brimming potential.
As you travel to work, you comfortably start rehearsing your day, visualizing key opportunities you will seize to make your company even more profitable and secure the unique value you offer your industry. This crisp and calculated confidence carries you through the parking lot, past the flowered walkway, and up the steps of your office building. You throw open the office doors and then----
<sigh> You should have been ready for this. This same enemy assaults you at some point during every single work day, but somehow you are never quite ready for the ferocity or speed with which he attacks. THE CORPORATE FIRE— the business person’s ultimate foe.
It’s hard to say how long corporate fires have afflicted the human race, but it's likely the start of this ill-fated relationship goes back earlier than man’s relationship with ACTUAL fire!
As old as this problem is, it may be worse than ever in our modern time. People nowadays love the foul four-letter words of BUSY and FAST and MORE. It is a love-hate relationship, however, because we consequently find ourselves stressed, over-scheduled, sick, overworked, and burned out.
What exactly are these corporate fires that afflict us so?
They are unscheduled interruptions that were not sitting on our to-do list. They are characterized by their tendency to cause “bad things” to happen if we do not respond.
That is the definition of a corporate fire.
These fiery fiends promote urgency, panic, stress, and a reactive culture where not enough time is spent doing our MOST IMPORTANT WORK.
Here are three reasons WHY these fires continue to blaze in our professional environments.
The first reason is because organizational leaders (and organizational structures) reinforce these behaviors. It’s true: managers are often the arsonists.
Managers notice (and promote) employees who solve big problems (“Whoa! That was a close call. You really saved the day on that one.”) and “work really hard” (“You sure have been putting in long hours. Our company values people who are loyal. And I sure like the way you run around here like a chicken with its head cut off. Keep up the good work!”) much more readily than employees who consistently maintain high levels of output and prevent problems from occurring in the first place.
The reason for this is because of absence blindness.
“Absence blindness is a cognitive bias that prevents us from identifying what we can’t observe. Our perceptual faculties evolved to detect objects that are present in the environment. It’s far more difficult for people to notice or identify what’s missing.” – Josh Kaufman, Personal MBA
If you know you will only be promoted if people think you are a hero, then you will lean towards doing things to make yourself look like a hero. (Please-- put down the cape.)
Technology is a major cause of corpor-- <Ding!> My mom just sent me a text message. Sorry about that.-- corporate fires. If you don’t think you are pro-- That’s a strangely enticing-looking new game on Facebook. Ahem.-- prone to these distractions, pay attention to what you do the next time your phone chimes at y-- Finally! I have been waiting all day for that email to come through.-- you.
We love news, especially when it’s about us. Notifications are the spice of life.
Because of our attraction to novelty, we react to the stream of information that flows at us instead of diverting it so we ourselves can stay in “flow.”
If your job is to simply twist a nut on a bolt and pick up a new box of nuts once the old one runs out, you don’t need to interrupt your boss very often to inquire about what to do next. In our era of knowledge work, we deal with more abstract work responsibilities than the average employee during the industrial era. As a result, we “interrupt” more. (We hold more meetings, we collaborate more, we talk in the hall more, and we ask clarifying questions more.)
We want our work to be concrete (i.e. defined and measurable), and this takes some time, energy, and interruptions to figure out. In addition, abstraction causes uncertainty, which is a productivity killer for individuals and teams.
These are real problems that exist in the modern-day workplace, but in many instances it’s our own fault we are fighting so many fires at work. What can you do to prevent corporate forest fires? (Because only YOU can, you know.)
Here are a few suggestions:
What is the real value derived from your work, and what activities produce that value? These should be activities that really only account for 10-15 hours of your work week. They are your highest leverage point, and highest priority should be given to these activities.
“Effectiveness is doing the things that get you closer to your goals. Efficiency is performing a given task (whether important or not) in the most economical manner possible. Being efficient without regard to effectiveness is the default mode of the universe.” – Tim Ferriss
“Being busy is most often used as a guise for avoiding the few critically important but uncomfortable actions.” – Tim Ferriss
Do you value busy-ness, or do you value making a difference? Focus on being effective, not efficient.
You need to schedule in blocks of time when you will work on your most important work and not succumb to any interruptions. That means there are no meetings scheduled, no phone calls received, no notifications dinging, and no employees knocking.
For most people, the first three hours of your work day are the most productive. During this time your mind is focused and your physical energy is high. This can be a great time to block out for working on your most important work.
“Business essential and compliance work, if left unabated, will consume the organization’s competitive and strategic work.” – Paul Gustavson
The universe will not make time for you to do your most important work.
At the core of our fire-fighting dilemma is our love of drama. We want excitement, so we look for the big opportunities to demonstrate bravado. We secretly want the tragedy and triumph of good theatrics, but this is almost never good for yourself or the company. Don’t be dramatic at work.
You need to love “boring” instead because it is the only thing that will save your sanity. “Boring” does not equal “not important.” If you understand how your work adds value to your organization, then you will find ways to make sure stakeholders know your contribution without thinking you have to put out big fires to feel important.
“Our brain can become wired to react to what feels ‘urgent,’ and it actually gives us a dopamine high when we respond to and immediately act on that which seems ‘important,’ because it is ‘urgent.’ We feel busy and productive in the moment, but then realize at the end of the day we made decisions to spend time on activities that were not of high value. The latest brain science shows that we can overcome ‘urgency addiction’ by rewiring our brain to pause and consider what’s actually important." – Kory Kogon, co-author of The 5 Choices
If you want the energy and optimism that you started the day with back, focus on doing your most important work instead of responding to whatever fires flare up in front of you throughout the day.
“The more tranquil a man becomes, the greater is his success, his influence, his power for good. Calmness of mind is one of the beautiful jewels of wisdom.” – James Allen
Here’s to the calm execution of your most important work.
Are there other reasons I missed for why fighting fires at work is such a prevalent problem? How do you make time to focus on your most important work?
I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Mark is the creator of Put Out the Fires. As a dad, husband, human performance technologist, and adventure-lover, he enjoys crafting stories and systems that enhance learning and life.
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