Confessions of a Firefighter
who Prefers to Remain Nameless
I usually get up a little late. Leaving in a hurry seems
to be the best way to get my adrenaline moving. No, I don't
get my things ready ahead of time. Why would I do that? Why
miss out on the morning frenzy of trying to find that lost
file I need right this minute?
My day is packed, so I leap right into the fray... Do I make
a list of priorities? Do I block off time in my datebook?
Think before I act? Follow through on everything I do? Of
course not! I'm much too busy to take the time to plan ahead.
Things need to get rolling – and fast!
My company pays me to get things done, not sit around thinking.
Besides, just between you and me, do you really think it's efficient to plan
things that you know you won't have time to do? Who's supposed
to take care of all those last-minute unforeseen events, put
out all those fires, take care of all those emergencies? What
are you going to tell the boss who always calls meetings at
the very last minute, your colleagues who dump all their problems
on you, and your customers who always need their orders "yesterday"?
Do you really think I'm going to sit there and tell them in an unflappable
tone, "No, I can't take care of that right now, I'm busy
concentrating on a job I planned weeks ago"? I don't
have the nerve – after all, I have a family to feed and bills
What's your definition of unforeseen events and emergencies? Unforeseen,
adj., not known beforehand; unexpected.
Emergency, n., a sudden need for immediate action
(Gage Canadian Dictionary).
Unforeseen events that prevent us from completing planned activities can
be divided into three categories:
events, otherwise known as Acts of God. This includes
floods, accidents or airplanes that have to make an
unscheduled detour. They're part of daily life, and
we have absolutely no control over them. So you might
as well be philosophical and accept these events with
all the serenity you can muster. Besides, this category
represents only 1% of the unforeseen events you'll probably
have to deal with in your lifetime.
events that come from other people (chronophagia). This
category includes tasks delegated at the very last minute,
projects gathering dust on someone's desk until the
person in charge realizes that they should have been
finished yesterday, interpersonal conflicts between
colleagues that require intervention for the umpteenth
time, and so on. This category covers 90% of situations
generally described as "someone else's fault."
events that are my own problem. I don't plan my day.
I get things done when someone asks for them. I jump
from one activity to the next without actually finishing
anything (chronic lifophilia). I wait for the last minute
to start a complex project. To speed things up, I never
take the time to clarify projects I'm given or projects
I delegate to someone else. I let my stack of emergencies
pile up. I let other people disturb me all the time
– that's what I call giving good service. I don't dare
say no, even if I know I won't have time to do what
they're asking me to do (chronic yesitis).
Very few people will admit that they themselves are the primary cause of
a substantial proportion of the unforeseen events and emergencies
they complain about all the time. After all, feeling responsible
for these situations means taking the blame!
What Really Causes "Unforeseen"
Is it even possible to figure out what causes unforeseen events? How can
we predict the future when it doesn't even exist yet? Well, unforeseen events
are part of life. They're beyond our understanding and beyond our control.
We might as well just accept the fact that they exist.
What is the primary cause of predictable unforeseen events (which account
for 90% of the unforeseen events we have to cope with every
day)? Negligence, according to the philosopher Seneca. Negligence,
or disrespect of others to us, and our own negligent attitudes
If I've already experienced this "unforeseen" event, then it's
no longer unpredictable – it's part of my experience (the
past). So why don't I plan for it as part of my daily life
(the present) or plan ahead for it (the future)?
Here are a few examples. My boss often calls meetings at the very last meeting.
A supplier routinely misses deadlines. A customer always waits
till he's running out of parts before placing an order. Why
am I so surprised when these scenarios happen over and over
again? What steps am I prepared to take to stop them (prevention)?
Doesn't failing to take these predictable unforeseen events
into account amount to negligence?
Reacting to Unforeseen Events and
Keep your cool if you can. That's the hardest part. Make the other person
understand that this is not a good time. Do what you can to keep the unforeseen
event or disruption as brief as possible (without being impolite, of course).
Listen to the other person and state your time limit right up front. Suggest
calling back later or plan a meeting at a better time. Then stand up...
If the situation really is urgent, concentrate on settling the problem rather
than downplaying it. But don't forget to do a post mortem
so it won't happen again. Everything is always "urgent."
As Epictetus, the Greek Stoic philosopher, would say, "No
thing great is created suddenly."
Don't let conflicts fester. Intervene as soon as you can. Seneca had something
to say about that, too. "It's too late to save the situation
when you get to the bottom; what lasts to the end is the smallest
part, but the worst." (Letters to Lucilius)
Preventing Unforeseen Events and
The first step in refusing to put up with others' negligence is wanting
to gain respect. And others will respect you if you respect yourself. Prevention
means taking care of yourself. Emergencies come from others, but refusal to
put up with them comes from inside yourself. State clearly what you want –
or what you don't want. But say it so that you'll get what you want! Suggest
new ways of doing things or preventive measures to take. Don't wait for others
to come up with suggestions. Make it your priority!
Don't wait for emergencies to come to you – go to them! An ounce of prevention
is worth a pound of cure. Why should it be up to you to ask
your boss whether she intends to call a meeting, or to call
your client to see whether he's running low on parts? Because
you don't want to have to deal with their negligence. Because
you want to control the flow of work landing on your desk,
and you want to know where you're going, so that you enjoy
your work more and avoid frustrating situations.
Of course, no matter how much advance planning you do, some situations will
remain unpredictable. Well, that just adds a little spice
to your daily life.
Here's a tip: Get to know people who respect you – those who take your needs
and your planning into consideration. And don't feel guilty
about staying away from the others. Do you think you have
to put up with them, that you haven't any choice? Perhaps
not in the short term. But it's never too late to change things.
And that's the price of freedom.
Is it worth the effort? Are you important enough in your own eyes to respect
yourself so you'll be respected by others?
One last thought (Seneca again, from his Letters to Lucilius): "Few
are those who intentionally put themselves and their things
in order; others, rather like objects floating on the waters,
do not go forward but let themselves be carried. We must decide
what we want and persevere until we have met that goal."
About François Gamonnet
François Gamonnet, who graduated from the Lyon Graduate School
of Business (France) and has a master's degree in marketing
from Sherbrooke University (Canada), is one of the leading
time management specialists today. Over the past 15 years,
he has trained more than 8000 people to optimize their time.
Mr. Gamonnet is also the author of Savoir mieux gérer son temps (Manage
your time more effectively), published in Paris in 1982, and of numerous articles
on time management. His mission is to promote the optimal use of time, a better
balance between job and home, and telecommuting.
1. Greig Clark, "Time Bandit,"
Canadian Productivity (Nov. 94)