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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

4 Reasons You’re Always Putting Out Fires at Work (and How to Stop the Madness for Good)

people stressed in a meeting
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I’d really rather not count the number of times in my career when I’ve been in a state of panic, getting caught up in one “crisis” after another.

The page numbers in this presentation are wrong and it’s due today! We are doomed, absolutely doomed!

Um, no, I can’t proofread that document for you. I’m already doing a million other things and you only gave me 12 seconds to do them all!

Ah! The printer is jammed and I need to print 200 pages in the next three minutes!

But when I look back on these moments, I can see that these weren’t really crises at all. The truth is that the main problem wasn’t my workload. And it wasn’t my co-workers dropping the ball or doing shoddy work, though that definitely was an issue from time to time. Nope—the problem was me.

You see, the majority of “fires” I was putting out could’ve been prevented with a few changes to the way I did things.

If you feel like you’re constantly flying by the seat of your pants, perhaps one (or more) of the following habits is the cause. If these sound familiar, don’t worry—I have some suggestions for how you can get back on track and breathe a little easier.

(If you’re a manager, of course, these might not apply to you, as a lot of fires you’re putting out may be related to your team or direct reports—if that’s the case, you should read this article on managing needy employees.)

1. You’re Waiting Until the Last Minute to Do Things (for No Reason)

In grad school, I planned a campus-wide health fair with 30 different vendors. On the day of the event, I ran around frantically, gathering everything I needed right up until the doors opened.

There’s no reason I couldn’t have prepared all of this stuff the day—or even the week—before. I had merely been procrastinating for the sake of procrastinating.

Imagine if I hadn’t waited until the last minute. I would’ve been less stressed. I could’ve warmly and calmly greeted the vendors and guests. And my poor, poor co-workers probably wouldn’t have hidden in the staff room to avoid my wrath.

What to Do Instead

The key to avoiding this kind of panic is to be intentional with your time. Put blocks on your calendar solely to prepare—10 minutes, two hours, whatever it takes to make sure you’ve checked off every box and brainstormed every possible mishap. Then, set your own deadline before the real one so if anything comes up at the last minute you have time to rework your final product or plan.

2. You’re Not Paying Attention When People Give You Important Information

Sure, you’re present in meetings—but only in a physical sense. You have a hard time giving people your full attention, and as a result you usually end up missing vital information that could’ve saved you a lot of anxiety.

Maybe you didn’t know the client just asked for the report three days earlier than originally planned and you’re not even close to finished—and you would have known about this change in deadline had you listened during your team’s weekly stand-up. Or, maybe you had absolutely no idea that the keynote speaker for this weekend’s event cancelled, and you don’t have a back-up scheduled because you were scrolling through Facebook while your co-worker delivered updates.

What to Do Instead

It’s really simple: Close your laptop. Silence your phone. Push aside any other possible distractions. Get a fidget toy if you need help staying focused.

Then, take notes and ask questions when you’re confused or miss something. Use the time with your colleagues wisely so that when you’re on your own you have everything you need to get things done without panicking.

3. You’ve Taken on Too Much

Often, when we say, “I just don’t have time,” it’s not really true. We do have the time, we’re just not using it wisely.

But sometimes it is true—and typically it’s because we’ve put way too much on our plates.

No matter what you do, there should be time to brainstorm, chat with a co-worker, and, gee whiz, go to the bathroom. Sure, once in a while you’ll have a jam-packed day. That’s OK. But if every day looks like that? It might be time for a change.

What to Do Instead

Prioritize your tasks and learn to say no to things that aren’t important or aligned with your goals. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, ask your boss if there’s anything you can take off your plate—either forever or just for now—and be honest with them if you’re feeling overworked.

4. You’re Rushing Into Your Day

Every morning, you roll out of bed, throw on clothes, gurgle some mouthwash—no time for actually brushing!—and stumble out the door. You’re still getting to the office on time, so what’s the big deal?

Well, rushing to get to the office every day is just setting you up for a stressful time. Sure, you may like getting ready in 10 minutes, but consider whether it’s contributing to that never-ending feeling of running around like a chicken with its head cut off.

What to Do Instead

Hard truth: If this sounds like the reason you’re constantly in a state of anxiety, you need to wake up earlier. And to do that, you need to make sure you’re going to bed at a time that’ll allow you the prescribed seven to nine hours of sleep.

Start by rising just 15 minutes earlier—you’d be shocked how freeing even that little extra bit of time can be. If you can increase that to 30 or 45 minutes over time, that’s even better. When your morning’s cool, calm, and collected, the rest of your day is more likely to follow suit.

Need some more tips? Read this article about becoming a morning person, or invest in one of these fool-proof alarms.

There are some roles that’ll almost always require high stress and the ability to work at an extremely fast pace (like being a doctor or a literal firefighter). But most don’t.

Being in crisis mode all the time isn’t the norm—it’s not good for you, and you won’t produce your best work. If you’ve already addressed any of these bad habits and it still seems like there’s no relief in sight, consider whether it’s the job itself that’s constantly full of fires you can’t seem to put out. That could be a sign that it’s time to find something else.

But before you blame the job, take a step back. See if one of the above four things is what’s making your work life this way. And if it is, try to fix it.