Fighting Fires vs. Good Forestry in the Office

We’ve all seen a lot of “fighting fires” as opposed to practicing “good forestry”.

What do I mean?

I’m saying we tend to react rather than pro-act in our work and our lives. I may be ranting here, but why do people delay a 5 minute task, even though putting it off means it will take an hour later? Or the delay may cause 5 people to run around (later) for 20 minutes each? Or it may cause pain and embarrassment? For example, if I am scheduling a meeting with you, and I send an email with “these are the days I have available, what works for you?”. When you see that email it may take you a few minutes to check your calendar and get back to me. But if you take a week to get back to me, then the days I had available probably are no longer (available that is). The time spent so far was wasted and we have to start again. And if there were other people waiting for me to confirm…well there’s that ripple effect, isn’t there?

So what just happened? Well, usually the slow or forgotten response in the above scenario is because people are run off their feet. And of course this little scenario can be applied of lots of different situations, but I believe the root cause is the same: we’re too busy to “get’er’done” and that busy-ness spills over to keep us too busy in the future as well. Being too busy today is causing us to be even busier tomorrow.

This is what I mean by fighting fires versus practicing good forestry. That’s dig into that analogy.

When a forest is burning, there’s no choice but to dive right in and work as long and as hard as it takes to get it under control. Take the risk, drop everything, grab a shovel and a hose, and get in there and fight that fire!

However, couldn’t the fire have been prevented?

Not always, of course, but what if during the months before we went through that forest and (making this up for the sake of the analogy) cleaned out dead branches, trained campers how to prevent fires, and had a fire prevention officer check frequently for risks. Well, first of all it’s important to note that everything I’ve just described takes time and money. But also consider what I’ve listed can be done in a more relaxed manner than all out “fire fighting”, with lower cost resources and equipment. (As soon as it’s a crisis, costs go up and mistakes happen.)

So what if all your resources (people, money) are busy fighting fires in the neighboring forest? You don’t have the time to pay attention to the prevention. You have no time, money, or energy to be proactive. So it starts to spill over to one forest to the other. Because you’re busy fighting the fire in forest A, you don’t have the ability to prevent a possible fire in forest B. So just when you get the forest A fire under control, forest B bursts into flames and requires your immediate and urgent attention. And you don’t have time to take a proactive stance in forest C. It’s a cycle.

Enough of the analogy. Let’s look back at my real world example.

Take the story above of “too busy to confirm a meeting date”. Maybe my email was buried in your inbox because you haven’t had the time to go through and “deal with” the 50 messages you get every day? So they keep building up. So we’re busy dealing with the current crisis because we didn’t deal with “that little thing last week”. Because you didn’t find 5 minutes to respond to my email, now (for example) we can’t meet in a timely manner, you don’t have the information you need, and you have to spend more time to scramble to organize the meeting or get the details together…thereby ignoring the other emails with the information you need or the requests for another meeting (from someone else)! ((breathe here)) (Side note: I once read that procrastinate has many of the same letters as “castrate”. I’m not sure about the relevance of this observation, but I am sure they both cause pain.)


So how do we break the cycle? How do we get ahead of it so we’re practicing good forestry rather than just waiting for the fires to erupt and then pouncing on them? I think the first step is to recognize what’s happening. Being too busy today is causing us to be busy tomorrow. What we put off now, comes back bigger later. The trick is to carve out time for little bit of planning; a little bit of getting ahead of yourself; and a little bit more organization, and that will gradually free time for more planning and organization.

Let’s look at the macro view for a second. I have taken courses and several read books on systemizing your business. Fascinating stuff, and one of my favorite topics. First and foundationally, we have to recognize the “tornado of day-to-day work”. Your staff have jobs to do, which takes all their time. How do you deal with the fact that everybody’s busy, all day every day, working on the job? With no resources available to implement time-saving and error-reducing systems, you are destined to keep operating the same way you have always operated…or are you?

What I always recommend is to select the most difficult, most complicated, or most painful business process, and implement that one first. Somehow get it done: work the weekend; hire a temp; delay another project… Whatever you need to do, get that first system in place. If you’ve chosen well, now you and your staff have fewer crises to deal with and more time freed up. Now with that new extra time and a whole lot of discipline, you can go ahead and implement additional systems that then save more time and reduce the number crises, and so on…

I believe the same approach can apply to our personal productivity. Force yourself, ask for help, whatever you need to do to break the cycle of “busy because you are too busy to get ahead of it”. Think about how much more relaxed you will be knowing, you are on top of things. (Okay, USUALLY!) And think about how much happier I will be when I email you for a meeting and you immediately reply with a meeting invitation, confirming one of the dates I’ve requested? Done and dusted, as they say! Now your brain (and mine) can move on to more important things…like when did I last test my smoke alarms?