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Stop Just Putting Out Fires, Start Really Working

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extinguisherEditor’s note: With this post we welcome Amber Riviere to the WebWorkerDaily team. Amber is a web designer with  She lives in Louisiana, working alongside her very old boxer, Annie, and her energetic love bird, Sebas (see-bass).

I can always tell when I’m just putting out fires (moving from one “urgent urgency” to the next).

“What? A client needs help with an über-pressing concern, and it has to be handled right now or his web site will explode? I’ll get on that right away!”

“What, Ms. Prospective Client, you have the ultimate web project, but you need a quote within the hour? No problem.”

It always starts with checking email first thing in the morning. Open, read, react, and an hour later, reply. Open, read, react, and an hour later, reply. On and on it goes, until it’s two o’clock and not one smidgen of paid work has been done, or if it has, it’s been done in a haphazard way, usually at the client’s demand instead of using my own tried-and-true schedule and system. By the end of the day, I’m zapped and feel like a heel for allowing my work to control me, instead of the other way around. There has to be a better way!

Think of those all-too-rare productive days that fall at the opposite end of the spectrum. You pick up with your “Start Here” task. (You know, that’s when you stop midway through a project or task, and you leave yourself a note to “start here” tomorrow.) No email, no interruptions, no coffee breaks — you get right to work, stop a couple of hours later, and mark that task off your “To Be Done Today” list. Then you give yourself 15 minutes to check and reply to any important emails (quote requests, referrals from clients). Fifteen minutes later, it’s back to work. You check your list, pick the next most important task, and jump right in.

By two o’clock, you’re done. All lead generation is complete, you’ve finished your target amount of paid work, and you’re free to…do nothing, do anything!

So, how do you end the cycle of firefighting and have more of those productive days?

Use “start here” markers.

For every open project, you should have a “start here” note that tells you (specifically) where to pick up with the work (example, “Next up — map domain and set up email”). That way, when you pick up the project, you don’t have to think about where to begin.

End each day with a “To Be Done Today” list for the upcoming day.

Note the projects that need your attention, in order of priority, as well as any other important to-dos. Note or put stars next to the three most important tasks so that you’ll quickly zoom in on what should be done first.

Have “assigned days” to tackle recurring tasks.

For me, Monday is for firefighting, since a lot of things tend to pile up over the weekend. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are heavy on lead generation, and Friday is for wrap-up (tying up loose ends in the hope of fire-proofing Monday).

The main thing is to be pro-active. Start off each day with a purpose and a plan so that you’re more productive and, in the end, more profitable.

What steps do you take to try to balance your work week? How can you go about lessening the number of fires that you have to put out on a regular basis?

Image by flickr user samantha celera

23 Responses to “Stop Just Putting Out Fires, Start Really Working”

  1. Finding the difference between urgent and important is critical to your day’s success. You can still respect the person who has an urgent issue by helping them in a respectful amount of time. However, If they are abusers then they need to find a system that would be helpful to everyone not just them.

    Checking e-mail once a day could be a mistake. Checking e-mail and responding to e-mail is two vastly different tasks. Checking e-mail can prevent you from doing work that has been cancelled. Responding can prevent others from duplicating co-workers tasks or doing work that has be cancelled.

  2. Thanks for the great information. I use two variations on your methods:

    Start Here – Since I write software, I use commented text such as “START HERE” in the code so I can do a search and be taken right to where I left off. I also use “TEST” anywhere I put test code so that it doesn’t get left in like a scalpel inside a surgery patient.

    File Organizer – I have several wire letter baskets that live in a drawer in my desk. Notes and documents about a project are all kept in one basket, so I can take out one basket/project at a time. The nice thing about the baskets is that they stack nicely and can all fit into that drawer at the end of the day. (No, it doesn’t get done that way all the time, but it’s a great system when I use it.)

  3. Angee in Lousiana

    Great article. It has lots of useful information that I’ll need to start doing. Thanks so much for writing about this. I look forward to reading more from you. :)

  4. Amber Riviere

    Missed you, Tony, when I was responding to Emily’s questions.

    I agree completely. A lot of times, it’s the clients (or colleagues) who are scrambling late in the afternoons and at night, and they want someone to rescue them. They feel pressured and overwhelmed, so they handle things haphazardly. Our reactions, though, can be very methodical, so at least we stay on top of our on work and schedules. I like your thought that if it came in overnight, it’s not an emergency. Good way to stay on the ball!

  5. Amber Riviere

    Hi, Emily. Thanks for commenting. Here’s how I handle your dilemmas.

    For your first question:
    I detail my communication preferences and policies on my contact page and within the client pages on my website, and in both places, I let clients know to expect responses within one business day. Generally, I think we ourselves set the parameters of our relationships with clients right out of the gate (rather than the other way around). When a prospective client first contacts us, we are so excited about the new work that we jump on every email right away, and then the client comes to expect that. We should just set our schedules and stick to them – always.

    For your second question:
    Although I’m an avid believer in web-based tools and use a ton of them to keep myself organized, I use a plain ol’ paper-based system for my start here markers. For instance, I have all my projects (along with all their “overall” tasks) in Basecamp, but I also have a “in progress” checklist for each project that is simply a piece of paper. I list my “next up” tasks and draw little check boxes next to each one. Each client gets his/her own slot in a file organizer (see link below for example). I just slip the sheet in there, along with any current (soon-to-be-tossed) notes. When I’m ready to work, I grab the contents of the given slot and get rolling.

    File organizer example –

  6. TonyCurtis

    I can’t believe how true this is, and how often that post 2pm time is when people come and ask for favors for THEIR side projects and duties. In the 24-7 world of business, my new thought is that anything that came in overnight could have been handled live by another office; not an emergency, not getting done first.

  7. Terrific article. This is, unfortunately, the perfect snapshot of many of my days. The tools that help me are lists or GTD applications (I’m currently using Remember the Milk). Then, I start the day with high-priority to dos rather than with email.

    I have two questions:

    1. Any ideas on how “train” clients not to expect an immediate reply from an email? It seems that everyone expects an email to be replied to asap.

    2. What tools do you use for “start here” markers?

  8. Amber Riviere

    @ SXS Freelancer – Glad it helped. For the client side of things, I try to fill my website with resources for clients. I have a section of my site devoted to them, and it includes a “Working with Brown” section. I also just recently started putting together short video montages to help with this. I had a client comment on the first video this week, so it’s working so far.

    @ Matthew – That’s a great idea. My accountability partner and I talk about that all the time, how we should treat ourselves more like clients sometimes, and creating personal projects is a great way to do it.

    @ Celes – Thanks! Lol about the line – isn’t it true, though?! I agree. The absolute best way to keep email in check is to avoid it as much as possible. Your idea of checking it once daily is great!

    @ Catherine – Thanks. Glad it helps. The “start here” thing really keeps my projects moving smoothly. When I leave a jump-off point, it immediately jogs my memory so that I know what I did last. It really increases my speed.

  9. Hey Amber, I love this post. Your line ‘Open, read, react, and an hour later, reply.’ is hilarious, because it hits on such a true insight! What I’ve learnt is I’m not going to even read/react to a mail unless I’m sure I’m going to reply it there and then. Else it’s just a waste of my time. I’ve also recently limited my mail checking to just 1 time a day, and that’s really helping a lot in keeping my productivity up.

  10. Matthew

    Firefighting and lack of organization are the two biggest time killers for me. The other problem, depending on your industry, is finding time for new or experimental work (e.g. I work as an indie game developer, so I need to not only do client work, but also find time to create new titles on my own).

    In order to ensure I always get time for learning and experimentation I assign myself a project. So you have all your usual client work, but also you are your own client on Project X.

    Project X gets scheduled time every day or week. It can be harder to concentrate on your own projects and it is easy to replace them with firefighting on others, but by making it a project as if it is for a client it become easier to work on regularly.

    I agree with everything above, just don’t let the firefighting get in the way of new work, or even enjoying yourself with some experimental, personal projects which reinvigorate you for your other work.

  11. Excellent article. I’ve really been struggling with this lately. I’m going to try to implement this tomorrow.

    BTW, do you have any advice for training your clients to better respect your time, without sounding like a jerk?

  12. Amber Riviere

    Thanks, Joanna. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. If you have any tips for how you’ve learned to better handle the fires, be sure to share!