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How to Manage Emergencies and Still Stay on Track

Dear David,

What is the best way to manage true emergencies? My weekly review doesn’t account for those times people come bursting into my office with a fire that only I can seem to put out. When I spend time on these seemingly legitimate emergencies, it can derail my week and put me behind on the tasks I had planned to accomplish. What is the best way to manage this part of life that likely won’t ever change—despite my best efforts to plan?

Pin Ball

Dear Pin Ball,

I certainly empathize with the frustrations that can emerge when your best-laid plans get thrown off the rails, especially when you have invested time, energy, and thought into those plans. However, banking on a world void of surprises is obviously a futile exercise. This is especially true today when the rate of change is accelerating in virtually every professional environment. Thirty years ago, conventional wisdom suggested that at least 40% of your workday would be consumed by unexpected tasks, request, and obligations. Likely, this ratio can only have increased.

So, what’s the cure?

Let me start with what may seem like some hard news. There are no interruptions—only mismanaged inputs. Whatever you are allowing into your universe is either something you are accountable for, or it’s not. If it ought to be dealt with by another role or individual, you need to reroute it appropriately. If something has escalated up or over to you that you really aren’t responsible for, then you have an organizational issue that may need to be solved with a crucial conversation.

If, on the other hand, the input actually is something your job commitments require you to deal with (your “legitimate emergencies”), so be it. It could be that it’s simply a reality you need to accept. If the situation seems unacceptable, your options would be to change your role or work to reconfigure it. The latter case should happen if dealing with the “emergencies” is preventing you from fulfilling the primary responsibilities of your role.

If you really don’t think those changes to your role are workable solutions, take a lesson from none other than the fire department. Why not? Their job is to put out fires. What you might not know is the vast majority of fire alarms are false ones. Talk about a reason to feel frustrated! However, I doubt you’ll see fire fighters throw up their hands and complain the next time an alarm sounds because there’s a high probability it’s a false one. Instead, the fire department is structured to deal with surprise. When they’re not fighting a fire, fire fighters are cleaning up, organizing, and getting themselves ready for whatever real or perceived emergency might come next.

So, just like the fire department, we also need to be prepared for surprises. How do we do that?

Well, when I’m not doing anything else, I’m cleaning up my backlog—emails, notes, new inputs. I’m getting all my in-baskets to empty and current with all my commitments. Why? The smaller my backlog of un-captured, un-clarified, unorganized stuff, the more comfortable I am receiving anything new. Also, because I regularly ensure I have a complete inventory of my projects and actions (through emptying my “ins” and doing Weekly Reviews), I am able to assess the relative importance of the new thing in my world much more intelligently.

If you are not doing those best practices to keep things clear, the volume of lurking “unknowns” in your psyche will continue to grow. When this happens, any new input feels more like a distraction than an opportunity. You will have this gnawing sense that there’s something more you could, or should, be handling. And while you’re not exactly sure what, you’re certain it’s more important than the emergency. This uncertainty creates the sense of breaking agreements with yourself—one of the greatest sources of stress.

We all have important priorities and responsibilities we need to attend to. And, we should keep our focus on the most meaningful of those. This means we need to stay focused on our desired outcomes while navigating the bumps (and surprises!) in the road.

David Allen

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9 thoughts on “How to Manage Emergencies and Still Stay on Track”

  1. George Wilhelmsen

    This was an interesting article, and well thought out.

    There may be another way to help this firefighter, that could be considered.

    Perhaps a solution would be to help develop the people bringing the problem, rather than solving the problem for them, by asking the person “What do you think we should do?”

    Then wait for their answer. Resist the urge to provide the solution. Let them think through it. If they are stuck, think of what you would say, and instead of saying it, stay in the role of a leader and ask them questions to help solve the problem themselves.

    This will take some more time unfortunately. With that said, it can provide great benefits. People will start to understand that they can and should develop their own solutions. They will understand when they find an obstacle, to develop that solution before they come asking for one, since the leader will ask them anyway.

    Over time, this will change the leader’s relationship with the workers to be more facilitative, while helping to build the leader’s replacement by having them develop the necessary skills to step into that role.

    Thanks for continuing this insightful discussion.

    1. Leslie

      I am reminded of a classic HBR article from the (?) 70’s: “Who’s Got the Monkey?”

  2. Jeff Grigg

    Yes. And sometimes we need to realize that we are the firemen: For a surprising number of us, rushing in to fight the fires *is* our job. This is often the case for customer support teams, for example.

    Sure the fire chief could be giving the cadets grief over, “Why did you let the cooking lapse and food get cold?” And “Why haven’t you kept up with exactly all the plans and your personal committments for cleaning around the firehouse?” And ignoring responses like, “You know, … we were out fighting actual real fires at the time.” And believe me; around Los Angeles for the past few months, there have been *the biggest fires in history* “distracting” us. ;->

  3. Laura

    I find a useful way to deal with unanticipated emergencies is to schedule for them. No, that’s not a typo. I deliberately block out parts of my days so that if needed, I can meet with people who need to see me on urgent matters. That relieves the stress of interruptions because it isn’t pushing my other commitments off track. If I don’t need the time for emergencies? I can always find something useful to do. Good luck!

  4. Larry Reeder

    I liked the article and response although my first thoughts were “define an emergency” A item that has come up that required attention now, whether or not your responsibility, in my mind is not an emergency. I recall a situation while on a project personnel were talking about the “pressure” being added due to unscheduled item delaying the schedule. My response was that this is only money. Although important to pay attention to was not an emergency. I explained to them that in a previous life my job was as a respiratory therapist. To me having 3 patients crash and attempt to die on night shift and only 2 technicians to cover was more of what I thought of as an emergency or pressure. This helps me a lot when situation arise that need immediate attention. You need to keep things in perspective.

    1. Susan Schumacher

      I agree Larry. Like you, in my previous life my job was a respiratory therapist. After practicing respiratory therapy for over 16 years I know what emergencies are.
      In my current job working as an admin, everyone thinks they have emergencies…but no one is going to die, it is just issues that require immediate attention,

  5. Frank G. Hrabe


    With all the downsizing, rightsizing or whatever you want to call it, most of us now carry a workload that we are never caught up. We are just closer to seeing “caught up” before the next wave hits.

    Your idea is great for those who actually have the opportunity to do such, but for most of us that is a dream. Where there were several folks doing the job, now there is only me. Of course the workload didn’t decrease.

    I still love my job, but there is no longer any hope of being caught up to handle the cleanup and do the preparation to be ready when the unexpected happens.

    While my role is important to the organization, we are not direct revenue producing, so there is no way staff will be added. I have learned to accept the situation, do the best I can, and not take it home with me.

    Frank G.

  6. Maria Onufrow

    Another long-term solution to address the “emergency” interruptions is to do a root cause analysis and see if any patterns emerge. For instance, if several of the reported problems turn out to be that people didn’t know what they were doing, more training (or a different type of training) can be rolled out to prevent these errors from happening in the future. Or if a certain part of the software keeps breaking, address that as a separate initiative. Over time it can be managed so that at least you’re not getting the same emergencies over and over. And it’s always a good idea to leave some room in your schedule for interruptions because they’re going to happen.

  7. Ruth Finkelstein

    Wow, this brought back memories. I used to have an employee who was a fire fighter. When I first started managing the unit and an emergency arose, the staff would chant, “wait for xxxx to get here, she’ll fix it in no time.” I observed this for several days and then had a serious talk with my hero employee. It turned out that she was not a fire fighter but an arsonist. It was because of little things that she had set up or rather not followed up on to closure that the emergency occurred. So I became very astute to examine emergencies and determine what I might have done/not done that resulted in the emergency.

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