Fire fighting

6 things you can do to reduce your amount of unplanned work (aka fire fighting)

Like most people, you probably start work every morning with a plan in mind. Instead, you end up dealing with more urgent items that pop up randomly throughout the day. Having to put out these fires makes your day chaotic. It puts you behind schedule and now you have to rush everything to meet your deadlines.

Sound familiar?  This is called unplanned work (aka fire fighting).

There are simple steps you can take to reduce the amount of unplanned work. First, we need to understand the two types of work: planned and unplanned.

Planned work is proactive. Your goals are clear, you’ve defined your tasks and you have estimated the amount of work required. You know the cost of planned work.

Unplanned work is reactive. It is very expensive, because unplanned work comes at the expense of planned work!! When you spend all your time fire fighting, there’s little time or energy left for planning. When you react to a situation, you will never reach your full potential. Planning will always get you better results.

Unplanned work will always happen no matter how you’re organizing your workload. Here at FlexPay, we are working to reduce the amount of fire fighting we have to do on a daily basis.  Your ability to handle properly unplanned work is the key to your success.

Are you fire fighting?

According to an article published on the Harvard Business review website, here are the symptoms of fire fighting

From our observations, fire fighting is best characterized as a collection of symptoms. You’re a victim if three of the following linked elements are chronic within your business unit or division.

  • There isn’t enough time to solve all the problems. There are more problems than the problem solvers—engineers, managers, or other knowledge workers—can deal with properly.
  • Solutions are incomplete. Many problems are patched, not solved. That is, the superficial effects are dealt with, but the underlying causes are not fixed.
  • Problems recur and cascade. Incomplete solutions cause old problems to reemerge or actually create new problems, sometimes elsewhere in the organization.
  • Urgency supersedes importance. Ongoing problem-solving efforts and long-range activities, such as developing new processes, are repeatedly interrupted or deferred because fires must be extinguished.
  • Many problems become crises. Problems smolder until they flare up, often just before a deadline. Then they require heroic efforts to solve.
  • Performance drops. So many problems are solved inadequately and so many opportunities forgone that overall performance plummets.


Stop Fighting Fires

Here are 6 things you can do to reduce the amount of unplanned work and free up your time to focus on planned work:

Maintain a bullet list of unplanned work items

Nothing fancy here, just a bullet list. You need to know your enemies so you can act on them.  Write them down in a form of a bullet list or a short description. The goal here is to make sure that you have them on file. Maybe it can be shared among your coworkers. They might have the same pain.

Perform triage

Because you listed them, you will now realize that some work items are recurring.  These are the one that hurt the most. You can categorize them by occurrence, priority and impact.  Work on the ones that are align with your business goals.


Ask yourself if this unplanned work item can be delegated. If yes, document the resolution in the form of playbook and delegate it right away.  For more details on that, you can refer to the 4 D’s of productivity.


If they are recurring, why not automate the resolution?  Investing a bit of time to automate the resolution could save you quite a lot of time.  Automation also means documentation.  With documentation you can delegate.

Identify Business Goals

Ask yourself if this is urgent. If yes, is this related to a business goal? Are you responsible for that business goal? If you are a bottleneck, should you only work on high-priority items related to your business goals? Could it be time to delegate this task?

Knowledge based

If their something to remember here is that you should always document the resolution.  How can you delegate if you don’t provide the solution? If you take the time to fix and issue, make sure to document the resolution in a knowledge based. Ensure that knowledge base is accessible to your coworkers and easy to search.

In Conclusion

The Do’s: List unplanned work; Work only on item that hurt the most; Delegate; Document the resolution and Automate

Remember, there is always unplanned work. If you learn how to manage it, you will generate a lot more value and spend more time on what really matters: planned work.

Reference: Stop fire fighting

Reference: The 4 D’s of Productivity, and How to Use Them

Book suggestion: The Phoenix Project