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Academic Achiever

How to become fireproof

If you find you are spending the bulk of your time putting out fires, you need to consider reasons behind them.

BY ELIZABETH WELLS | APR 12 2024

“Putting out fires” is one of the most common things I hear from academics when I ask them what gets in their way of getting their work done. Department chairs and deans often report that this makes up the majority of their work days. Certainly, you can organize yourself to the hilt, plan perfect days of productivity mixed with leisure, and kick off work at 5 p.m. with a clear conscience and a quiet mind. However, for many people “putting out fires” derails the best laid plans and leaves us exhausted and overburdened at the end of the day. So what can we do to ameliorate this and make ourselves more fireproof?

As I’ve written before, academics tend to be reactive. We respond to emails, to students, to scholarship that we read and to the news. We are very good at commenting on the world around us. We are not as good at thinking ahead and being proactive. If you are putting out a lot of fires, the first thing you should ask yourself is “what kind of fires are these?” Are these unexpected events, or a failure of systems? Are we working with the wrong people doing the wrong things, or are we in a volatile environment that lends itself to crises? When I try to help people to get a handle on their email, the first thing I ask is why they are getting this email in the first place. The same thing should be asked about fires. Could we have anticipated these problems? Much of the time the answer is “yes.”

For instance, you should probably have a fail-safe for most of the things in your working life (or even in your personal life). If the technology doesn’t work as is often the case, do you have an analog backup? Do you have things saved on multiple platforms so you can access everything from anywhere in the world on any device? How well have you trained your teaching assistants or lab assistants? Have you asked them to develop fail-safes for the problems that can go wrong? If you have children or an ailing relative in your care, do you have plans in place for days when they have unanticipated appointments or are sick? Do you have roadside assistance for your vehicle? Do you have “insurance” in the form of backup plans or people who can help you untangle messes? In short, how well have you prepared for emergencies?

Working ahead of the game (something I highly recommend) is the product of two things: saying “no” so that your workload is reasonable, and getting ahead of your deadlines so that if something comes up, it does not interfere with the rest of your plans. When I was dean, I liked to have theme days and have meetings on block days. Not everyone has problems on my schedule, so I reserved the first hour of the day for “problems”: emergencies, urgent meetings, etc. I made these hours early in the morning and planned on crisis, so that I could calmly deal with problems in a pre-ordained temporal space and then move on to the rest of my day in relative peace. If you are always “chasing a class” (preparing at the last minute so you are just in time for teaching), you will be more on edge and more vulnerable than if you have everything ready well in advance. If you have too much work to get ahead, I suggest you start working on just one thing in your future earlier than you had planned. When you get a “win” of finishing something weeks or months in advance, it gives you an opportunity for breathing room, and then you can slowly start working on another task and another. Factor in one or two meetings that are empty so if you or a loved one get sick or there is a snow day you don’t get behind. If your work is under control and your systems are solid, you can start seeing “fires” as “interesting opportunities to start my day.”

One of the most important things to remember about fireproofing is that you can teach others (including your colleagues, students, and assistants) but you cannot control them. Like so many things in life, it’s not the fire that’s the issue, it’s how you respond to crisis. If something is going wrong, don’t run. Walk. Breathe. Slow down and analyze the situation. At the end of each week, it is profitable to sit down for a few moments and ask what went right and what went wrong. What made good days and bad days? Analyze your fires and think about how you can forestall them in the future or how you could react to them differently. Your response to crisis is the best thing you can do to make yourself more fireproof.

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