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 to pay.…

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:

Unpredictable unforeseen 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.

 

Predictable unforeseen 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."

 

Predictable unforeseen 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" Events?
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 to ourselves.

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 Emergencies
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 Emergencies
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)


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