How to Stop Fire Drills From Screwing Up Your Entire Day

It’s a beautiful summer Friday morning, and you’re positioned for an early getaway from the office. Then you check your inbox and cringe. Maybe swear. There it is—the message title in red, the exclamation point marking it urgent. Your dream of a sunny Friday happy hour at the beach melts away as you read the request that’s needed by 4 PM today.

We’ve all been there. The dreaded fire drill—office jargon for the unplanned, unexpected, high-energy intrusion into your peaceful Friday. Because let’s face it, fire drills never happen at a good time, right?

These urgent situations don’t just eat into your plans to leave early on a Friday afternoon—they also often rip the rest of your to-do list to shreds. All of a sudden, you’ve spent the entire day on one fire drill, while the rest of your responsibilities fell by the wayside. How do you keep it together and stay on track when these bombs drop on your productivity?

No matter where you work, these emergencies are undoubtedly going to be a part of work life. Use these tips to approach them with a new perspective, so you can move through them more efficiently and recover more quickly—and ideally, avoid them in the future.

Clarify the Assignment

There’s nothing worse than tearing through a fire drill assignment and then being told, “That’s not exactly what I wanted.”

When you’re moving quickly, you often forget to ask the questions that will provide a clear intention for what you’re supposed to deliver. And, when your manager is in a panic, he or she may also not be 100% clear. Asking good questions—like the following—can save you both a lot of time:

  • What’s the problem we’re trying to solve? This will help you clarify what the eventual outcome should be. Before you dive in, you want to be sure that your work is going to address the issue at hand.
  • What is the exact deliverable we need to provide? Are you expected to produce slides, a spreadsheet, a narrative, or something else?
  • What’s driving the need to complete it by 4 PM? Your boss may want to see it by 4 PM—even though it’s not due until middle of next week—so that he or she has time to mull it over. If that’s the case, it may open a window to renegotiate the timeline.
  • What other options do we have? Maybe work has already been done that can be repurposed and updated, instead of creating something from scratch.
  • What additional information do we need to get this done?Once you get the heads up about an urgent assignment, think about who else you’ll need to pull in, then get them on standby. Call Megan in accounting with a heads up that you’ll need numbers, or call Dorinda in customer service to let her know that she needs to grab the latest survey data.
  • What’s the opportunity cost of shifting everyone to this fire drill? Let someone know what will fall off your plate today because of this development. This will help you determine if the fire drill should really be your priority, or if another one of your projects should keep your attention.

Renegotiate the Timeline

I once worked for a manager who was determined to over-deliver to executives. If she had three days to turn something in, she’d demand we drop everything and do it in a few hours. While that quick turnaround is simply meant to impress higher-ups, it unfortunately means fire drills for everyone else.

If you sense this may be happening, have a conversation with your boss. See if you can re-negotiate the timeline so that it’s not a complete productivity meltdown, but still done in a way that makes him or her look like a rock star. If you can buy yourself even just an extra 24 hours, it makes the drill more bearable, while still giving you time to attend to your originally planned work.

Don’t Shoot for Perfection if “First Pass” Will Do

In my early career, fire drills were a killer because I obsessed over the work to ensure it was absolutely perfect. Then—after I spent a few rounds redoing it—I realized that fire drills often only necessitate a “first pass,” or a rough initial draft.

Before you start working on a fire drill, check to see where the work is going to end up when you’re done with it. If it’s not for an executive or client (yet), don’t obsess over it trying to make it perfect. Fire drills often allow a first pass at something that can be revised and perfected at a later time.

Recover Quickly

Fire drills can throw you off course from what you were working on, even after you’re done dealing with the emergency. To get you back on track quickly, always keep a visible and real-time to-do list on hand. Depending on how you work best and what kind of tablet or smartphone you use, check out apps like todoist, Google Keep, Any.do, Wunderlist, or HabitRPG to keep track of your outstanding tasks.

As you deal with fire drills, move items up or down your list depending on what you still have time to accomplish. This will help you feel productive in spite of losing some time.

It’s also helpful to have a couple tried-and-true productivity hacks in your back pocket to help you get your momentum back quickly. For example, maybe you use the Pomodoro method to set a timer for 25 minutes, and then batch all your (essential) email-related tasks. Then do the same for phone calls, then the same for preparing for the meetings you have next week. By collecting and plowing through similar tasks, you’ll regain your sense of getting things done in spite of the fire drills.

Conduct an After-Action Review

After the figurative smoke has cleared, while everyone’s memory is fresh, chat with your team about what happened and why. Does the team have a blind spot? Was it poor planning that turned into everyone’s emergency? Was it something that could have been avoided?

To avoid fire drills in the future, your team has to get real about what happened and figure out what you can do to prevent it from happening in the future.

Have a Conversation With Your Boss

If there is a consistent pattern of fire drills in your office, it’s time for a conversation of a different sort. Consider encouraging your boss to examine the pattern and see what he or she can do to lower the frequency.

Be factual and direct: “Carmen, in the last three weeks we’ve had seven fire drills that pulled the team off key priorities. As a result, our deliverables on the ABC project have slipped, and that doesn’t look good for us or for you. What can we do to reduce this dependency on emergency turn-arounds and build some of this work into our regular plan?”

By pointing out the frequency and cost of these drills, you may be able to create a new level of awareness. And by having a go-to recovery strategy, you won’t feel like you spent the whole day stressing about what you weren’t getting done.

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