Putting reactive work on the back-burner

Customer service reps, tech supporters, air traffic controllers, police officers and firemen are expected to tackle urgent issues as they arise. Their work is largely unplanned.

While you might have a better handle on planning your work, you can still find yourself putting out fires and attending to other people’s priorities on any given day.

It’s hard to focus on important, high-value, creative work when you’re busy handling reactive work.

Your boss stops in your office with a problem that is urgent to him, but seems trivial to you. But you’re expected to solve it right away and drop what you’re doing.

Your business partner sends you an email with a major concern that she wants handled now. You feel compelled to get on that immediately, even though you were on a roll with another project.

Your client calls to complain about an issue that is really beyond your control. You stay on the phone to try and relieve her stress, when she would be better off talking with a friend or therapist.

Reactive work is a trap. It never ends. In this age of constant connectivity and instant communication, it’s easier to act on impulse than on purpose.

Meeting last-minute requests, replying to emails, and answering telephone calls as they flow in can give you a false sense of productivity and professionalism. Attending to seemingly urgent things can leave you terribly behind on your most important tasks.

Some reactive work is necessary and beneficial. You just can’t let it eat up your time to the point where you neglect important work, which requires creativity, commitment, persistence and follow-through.

If you want to put reactive work on the back-burner to focus on real work, here are a few tips:

Accept that you will ruffle feathers.  If you stop responding to every demand that comes your way, you will be met with complaints from those who want you to attend to their priorities, not yours.

But you can’t do great work if you’re constantly jumping from one urgent matter to another. People who scream the loudest don’t always deserve the most attention. Resist the temptation to please everyone

Take a hands-off approach.  Do you need to attend to impromptu requests yourself? Could others solve the problem or find the answer without your input? Are there systems and processes you could set up to deal with reactive work more efficiently?

Teach and guide others how to do things themselves. Discourage them from depending on you to solve their issues. Resist coming to their rescue every time they fail or have a setback.

Do your most important work first. Many start their work day by reading emails and listening to voice mails. But this can lead you away from your true priorities. You could wind up processing and addressing inquires all day long without getting any real work done. At least set a timer to prompt you to move on to more significant tasks.

Spend the better part of your day on creative work, not busy work. Block out time to do real work when your energy is at its peak and when there are fewer distractions

Make a realistic plan. At the end of your day, decide on the single most important task that you need to do the next day. Schedule it on your calendar. Make sure to initiate it or complete it as planned. That way, no matter what happens, you will accomplish at least one thing that matters to you.

Pare down your to-do list to the top three things that you can reasonably commit to getting done. You will stress yourself out if your to-do list is too long and you try to do everything on it.

Reflect on your progress. Pause purposely. Observe with curiosity. How is your day going? Are you doing the things you set out to do? If not, what are your obstacles? How can you overcome them? What will you need to put aside to do your real work?

* * *

When you spend too much time on daily firefighting and attending to others’ needs, you can lose sight of your top priorities. Strive to put reactive work on the back-burner so you can focus on important, high-value, creative work that satisfies your own agenda.


# # #

Photo by: timailius