Dear David,

What is the best way to manage true emergencies? My weekly review doesn’t account for those times people come bursting into my office with a fire that only I can seem to put out. When I spend time on these seemingly legitimate emergencies, it can derail my week and put me behind on the tasks I had planned to accomplish. What is the best way to manage this part of life that likely won’t ever change—despite my best efforts to plan?

Pin Ball

Dear Pin Ball,

I certainly empathize with the frustrations that can emerge when your best-laid plans get thrown off the rails, especially when you have invested time, energy, and thought into those plans. However, banking on a world void of surprises is obviously a futile exercise. This is especially true today when the rate of change is accelerating in virtually every professional environment. Thirty years ago, conventional wisdom suggested that at least 40% of your workday would be consumed by unexpected tasks, request, and obligations. Likely, this ratio can only have increased.

So, what’s the cure?

Let me start with what may seem like some hard news. There are no interruptions—only mismanaged inputs. Whatever you are allowing into your universe is either something you are accountable for, or it’s not. If it ought to be dealt with by another role or individual, you need to reroute it appropriately. If something has escalated up or over to you that you really aren’t responsible for, then you have an organizational issue that may need to be solved with a crucial conversation.

If, on the other hand, the input actually is something your job commitments require you to deal with (your “legitimate emergencies”), so be it. It could be that it’s simply a reality you need to accept. If the situation seems unacceptable, your options would be to change your role or work to reconfigure it. The latter case should happen if dealing with the “emergencies” is preventing you from fulfilling the primary responsibilities of your role.

If you really don’t think those changes to your role are workable solutions, take a lesson from none other than the fire department. Why not? Their job is to put out fires. What you might not know is the vast majority of fire alarms are false ones. Talk about a reason to feel frustrated! However, I doubt you’ll see fire fighters throw up their hands and complain the next time an alarm sounds because there’s a high probability it’s a false one. Instead, the fire department is structured to deal with surprise. When they’re not fighting a fire, fire fighters are cleaning up, organizing, and getting themselves ready for whatever real or perceived emergency might come next.

So, just like the fire department, we also need to be prepared for surprises. How do we do that?

Well, when I’m not doing anything else, I’m cleaning up my backlog—emails, notes, new inputs. I’m getting all my in-baskets to empty and current with all my commitments. Why? The smaller my backlog of un-captured, un-clarified, unorganized stuff, the more comfortable I am receiving anything new. Also, because I regularly ensure I have a complete inventory of my projects and actions (through emptying my “ins” and doing Weekly Reviews), I am able to assess the relative importance of the new thing in my world much more intelligently.

If you are not doing those best practices to keep things clear, the volume of lurking “unknowns” in your psyche will continue to grow. When this happens, any new input feels more like a distraction than an opportunity. You will have this gnawing sense that there’s something more you could, or should, be handling. And while you’re not exactly sure what, you’re certain it’s more important than the emergency. This uncertainty creates the sense of breaking agreements with yourself—one of the greatest sources of stress.

We all have important priorities and responsibilities we need to attend to. And, we should keep our focus on the most meaningful of those. This means we need to stay focused on our desired outcomes while navigating the bumps (and surprises!) in the road.

David Allen