How Can You Be Pro-Active in a Reactive Job?

Fire alarm push botton equipment in old factory

Fire alarm push botton

A client recently asked:

If you spend all day putting out so-called fires at your job – in a very reactive environment – how can you possibly plan or address your career pro-actively?

Preliminaries:

First, let’s define some terms:

  1. Pro-active: creating a situation or causing something to happen
  2. Reactive: responding to a situation (rather than creating or controlling it)
  3. Fire alarm: a colloquial way to describe a frantic and urgent situation or deadline in a corporate environment, often one that is a “false alarm” created by lack of planning rather than a true emergency

As Randy Pauch said, in the last few months of his life, “time is the only commodity that matters.” We need to manage our time just as we manage our money, and in fact the time management piece is even more important. In addition, as you may realize already, most leadership roles are only achieved by individuals who have learned to address matters pro-actively, yet most environments today are full of fire alarms that require us to react rather than plan our time.

Answer:

Here are some ways to manage your time, even in a pro-active environment:

  1. Stop the bleeding, then take care of the patient. Sometimes an emergency has pieces that need to be addressed immediately and other parts that can wait. Can you schedule your day so that you can still get the important things done while addressing what is urgent? Are there portions you can delegate?
  2. Block your calendar, and then block it again. In order to plan, you need to block out uninterrupted time on your calendar. If an emergency (real or otherwise) creeps up on you, the first thing to do is to move the blocked time on your calendar a few days out, so it stays scheduled and is not forgotten.
  3. Break things into small steps. While you may not be able to plan the next few months and what you would like to achieve, you can start to plan individual pieces of it. If you only have 10 minutes, you can empower yourself to do one thing that really matters.
  4. “Do the right things, rather than ‘doing things right.'” I owe this quote to Randy Pausch and the lecture I link above. As he said, “You don’t need to clean the underside of the bannister.” In other words, put your efforts where they pack a punch. For more about that generally, see my posts on the 80/20 rule and high profile/high need tasks.
  5. Know and remember the goal(s). Ask why. Start by asking yourself, and then (if appropriate) politely and directly ask the person who created the task. What are the intended benefits of the work you are doing? Don’t just do something because you are told to do it; think about what results you are individually and collectively trying to achieve. This will save you time if you can find more efficient ways to get to a solution – and avoid unnecessary iterations – rather than just following steps assigned (which may not have been well thought out in the first place). It will also keep you focused on the point in #4 above.
  6. Stop wasting time during your day. Be more organized and match your workload to meet your peak energy levels. Also, eliminate distractions. I’ll talk about all of this more in a future post.

Anne Marie Segal is a career and leadership coach, author and resume writer for attorneys, executives and entrepreneurs. Her first book, Master the Interview, is available on Amazon.com

Image above from Adobe Images.