BY PAUL J. URBANO
Do you frequently find yourself not being able to finish tasks or assignments on time, wondering where the time has gone, or deferring things until tomorrow because you have simply run out of time? My answers to these questions were a resounding “Yes.” This prompted me to find out why.
I know what you’re thinking. Effective time management is virtually impossible in the fire service because we respond to emergencies all day. That may be the case for some but not all of us. Even with slower run volume, it seems that something is always cropping up begging for or demanding our attention. With ever-increasing run volume, training requirements, and nonemergency demands, requests for tasks and assignments continue to increase.
Can we really manage time? Or, can we manage how we use our time? Obviously, we must be flexible in our line of work, but let’s look at this from a task-management vs. time-management perspective.
What is our goal? Is it to get more done or to get the right things done? Aside from responding to emergencies, training is probably the most important thing we do. In fact, our day should consist mostly of training in some form or another.
Let’s look at some ways to spend a little less time in our offices doing administrative tasks and a little more time in the streets doing some realistic, hands-on training.
Why do we struggle with trying to get things done? We have only so much time. Whether we like it or not, tasks, assignments, and problems are unlimited. Our time, energy, and resources are limited. We have to recognize these limitations. Trying to do everything is nearly impossible; we have to face the fact that we may never be completely caught up.
Are you passive rather than active in your approach to accomplishing tasks? Do you usually prefer to do the following?
- Do something you like before something you don’t like?
- Do something simple before something complex?
- Do something familiar before something you never before attempted?
- Do something in front of you before something out of sight?
When it comes to setting priorities, whose do you follow the chief’s? Others’? Yours? It’s quite frustrating to prioritize your day only to have someone else reprioritize it for you. Sometimes, the organization has unclear expectations with regard to priorities. Instead of prioritizing, I found myself accomplishing the easy things first to get them out of my way. All this did was defer my most important things until latersometimes much later. I felt good about crossing items off my list, and I thought I was being effective and efficient because I was accomplishing things. Unfortunately, they weren’t the most important things. Effective implies that you get things done, things that you want to do. Efficient implies that you do tasks well, with little waste.1
Not all tasks or assignments are imposed on us by the organization; for some, the heavy workloads are sometimes self-imposed. It’s important to know when to say no and to recognize your limitations.
Solution: Obviously, you have to do what your boss says, but do you communicate your schedule and existing tasks and assignments? As supervisors, we can’t expect subordinates to successfully complete tasks and assignments if we don’t establish clear expectations and give them the time, training, and materials to do them. I frequently used a to-do list but never prioritized it. Making a to-do list is only part of a solution. Prioritizing helps determine what is most important and what should be accomplished first. When possible, do your most important task first thing in the morning. After a day’s worth of interruptions, you’ll be glad you got your most important thing accomplished, or at least started.
Additionally, it’s important to know your limitations and those of your company. You may have to develop a not-to-do list. Our chief has given us the opportunity to say norespectfully, of course, and justified. Fortunately for us, he knows there’s a limit to what we can effectively and efficiently accomplish. In the end, we must be sure our priorities align with the overall department mission.
Why do we procrastinate? The underlying emotion of procrastination is often fear. We are afraid to start something because we are not sure of our ability to do it properly. Perhaps we are in the habit of asking too much of ourselves. Maybe we don’t think we’ve been trained adequately enough. Maybe we are being passive aggressivedragging our feet intentionally. Sometimes our insecurities stem from the fact that we focus on the entire projectits importance, its complexity, its difficulty, and that we’re intimidated and feeling overwhelmed. (1)
Solution:Procrastination is probably one of the most challenging time-management obstacles to overcome, but you have to get started. Do something every day, even if it’s only a tiny portion of the task. Set small goals such as time goals (work on a task for one hour) or unit goals (work on this portion of the project today).
How many interruptions do you encounter each day? I read somewhere that we are interrupted every 11 minutes. Wow! No wonder we can’t get tasks accomplished in a timely manner. In our line of work, it’s hard to avoid them. Some call interruptions time wasters; the phone ringing off the hook, endless incoming e-mail (the new, yet still cluttered inbox), and not having a quiet work environment are just some of the ways we are interrupted.
Another time waster I find very difficult to control is socializing. Firefighters love to talk. Since I’m a firefighter, too, I find it so easy to stop what I’m doing and join in the conversation.
Solution:If possible, isolate your office from the most active and noisiest part of the fire station to best avoid interruptions. Let your company members know you’re working on a project. Reduce clutter; too much clutter in your office or on your desk creates clutter in your mind. It can also waste your time when you have to search for or recreate something.
The telephone can also be a distraction. So, unless you’re the only person at your fire station, let others answer it. Each time you answer the phone and it is not for you, you are interrupting your workflow.
You probably remember years ago hearing that computers were going to put an end to paperwork and make our lives simpler. That must have been a joke, right? To improve how those electronic boxes impact our fire service lives, we must be better at using them.
Solution: Learn how to use the software. Unless otherwise mandated by your department, get your most important task accomplished before checking your e-mail. E-mail, much like the Web, can be a trap; it can suck you in for much longer than you expect. Here are a few more e-mail tips:
- Include only necessary recipients; “cc-ing” everyone just adds clutter to everyone’s inbox.
- A relevant subject line helps others organize their e-mail inbox.
- Be concise with the content of your e-mail.
- Don’t keep your e-mail open throughout the day; instead, check it periodically. Incoming e-mail can distract you.
- Check e-mail in the morning and again in the late afternoon; this allows you to plan for and schedule a time to process e-mail.
- Don’t use e-mail as instant messaging; instead, pick up the phone.
- Set a timer. After a predetermined amount of time, get off the computer and go work out or conduct a company drill.
Delegation was one of my most underused time management solutions. When I was first promoted to company officer, I rarely delegated. I’m not sure if it was because I did not trust anyone to do something as well as I could, it might not get done exactly the way I wanted it done, or I did not want to burden my subordinates with my work. Regardless of the reason, I was failing to use a very common solution for getting things done.
Solution: When I started delegating more, I found out a few things. My company members wanted to do their share of the work. They wanted the responsibility of completing a project on their own. They wanted ownership in something worthwhile. Delegating gave me an opportunity to observe their performance, and it demonstrated that I trusted them. It gave me an opportunity to work on other things. I eventually realized my reasons for not delegating were unfounded.
We can also approach delegation from an organizational perspective. Depending on our rank structurei.e., lieutenants and captainswe should look at ways to share the workload across platoons/shifts. Following are 15 delegation categories for when, why, and don’t to consider:
- When they have time
- When they have been trained
- When they know the expectations/parameters
- When they can be successful
- When they can be challenged
- Why? (your attitude plays an important role)
- Not just because you don’t want to do it
- To share workload
- To increase experience
- To increase ownership
- To increase company efficiency and effectiveness
- Set them up for failure
- Always expect it to be exactly the way you’d do it
- Give just unpleasant tasks
- Always select the can-do person
Do you tend to overplan for a projectspending too much time planning, trying to get it just right, almost perfect? You spend so much time, in fact, that you get burned out before you’re even out of the planning phase of the project.
Solution: When appropriate, I’ve been trying to treat planning like an outlinea quick list of bullet points. Then I start the project using my planning outline to guide me.
RESPECT OTHER PEOPLE’S TIME
This could be a “double-edge” solution for planning time: It helps you and the other party to adhere to a schedule. When you call someone or knock on their door unexpectedly, ask if they have a certain amount of time to spend with you. If they say, “Yes,” keep your word, and don’t stay past the specified time.
After recognizing and admitting my struggles with time/task management, I have implemented many of the solutions presented in this article. I now find myself making better choices for getting the right things done instead of just getting things done. Since our day should consist mostly of training in some form or another, try these solutions to see if you can spend your time more wisely.
1. Ambraziejus, A. Managing Time. (Stamford, CT: Longmeadow Press). 1992.
Allen, D. Getting Things Done. (New York, NY: Penguin Books). 2001.
Blanchard, K., W. Oncken, H. Burrows. The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey. (New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, Inc.). 1989.
Olson, J. The Agile Manager’s Guide to Getting Organized. (Bristol, VT: Velocity Business Publishing). 1997.
PAUL J. URBANO began his fire service career in 1986. He’s been a member of the Anchorage (AK) Fire Department since 1995 and serves as the captain of downtown Fire Station #1. He has an associate’s degree in fire service administration from the University of Alaska Anchorage.