Why You Must Stop Putting Out Fires: the Urgent Disrupts; the Important Erupts

smokey the bear poster only you
Preventing beats fighting
Remember:  Only YOU can prevent [forest] fires. Do you find yourself spending most of your time responding to other people’s crises?  Is your day consumed with disruptive activities? Answering email? Responding to texts and voicemail? Are you constantly reacting, with little time left for acting? If so, you (and most likely your co-workers too) are probably not doing the important preventive work that must be done so these urgent fires don’t break out. There is a way around this.  But first you must fully embrace the notion that firefighting is not your job (unless, of course, you work in a firehouse and slide down a pole when an alarm goes off).

Firefighting, sadly, is a lot easier than fire preventing. It takes comparatively little thought. You just get into “action mode” and can be really busy. Busy resembles productive.  And you feel like a hero. But, when you really stop to ponder the matter, wouldn’t it be better if you allowed the important, planful, preventive work to erupt from the constraints you’ve placed on it so those fires never occurred?
cartoon of donald duck firefighter sliding down pole
Here I come to save the day!
Firefighters are only needed when you/everyone is neglecting the important activities of preventing fires. Important activities are those that have outcomes designed to get you to your goals.  Urgent activities are often associated with someone else’s goals. Even if you’re a boss, and think it’s your job to help staff accomplish their goals, you undoubtedly still have your own agenda to accomplish.  And maybe your agenda is putting in place the systems/procedures/training/staffing that would help your staff avoid the fires?
Getting the right job done requires prioritizing and time management.  In “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey distinguishes again and again between the urgent and the important, noting that focusing on the former makes us dependent (all of our work is reactive) while the latter gives us independence (we can take initiative that propels us toward our own goals).
Some tips:
  1. Put first things first.  Begin with the end in mind. Prioritize, plan and execute your daily/weekly tasks based on what’s important rather than what’s urgent.  Ask yourself: Will working on this today get me towards my goals?
  1. Take responsibility for your choices.  Embrace the fact that your decisions determine how effective you’ll be in accomplishing your goals.  If you choose to react, then you’re not going to get where you want to go. It’s your choice. If you choose to work on somebody else’s problem, it’s not their fault.  
  1. Block off time on your calendar.  When you have an important project to accomplish, make some inviolate time.  Treat it like an appointment.  Don’t look at your email or cell phone during this period.  If you must, get out of the office and go someplace else where you won’t be distracted.  Trust me; in the few hours you’re ‘disconnected’ the world won’t come to an end.
    Urgent/Important Matrix
  1. Delegate urgent items.  Keep your priorities in mind and don’t fall back on the tendency to think either (a) “This is a quick fix” (as a general rule, there’s no such thing), or (b) “I can do this faster/better than anyone else” (this may be true, but you can also do your priority task faster/better than anyone else – and it’s more important).
  1. Consider using an Urgent/Important Matrix. This is a tool credited both to President Dwight Eisenhower and Steven Covey.  If you’re a visual person, and it helps you to graph things out, this may be useful.
  1. Plan ahead to avoid the urgent. A lot of urgent things happen because we leave important things to the last minute.  Anyone who’s ever pulled an ‘all-nighter’ knows this. Some things, of course, cannot be foreseen.  But a lot can, and should, be anticipated.
  1. Before favoring an urgent task over an important one, ask yourself key questions:
    • Must this be done NOW?
    • If not, when can I schedule to get it done so that it becomes part of my plan and an important ‘to-do’?
    • If so, do I need to be the one to do this? To whom can I delegate?
    • What do I have to put on my ‘to-do’ list for the future so this doesn’t happen again?
Allow the important to erupt. Give your important tasks the time and space they deserve.  Don’t hold them back by spending all your time responding to interruptions. Interrupting fires, even when you fight them, burn down forests. It’s a never-ending cycle; a battle with no productive end. Erupting volcanoes build mountains. What’s your mountain?  Own it. Build it. Don’t get distracted by the fires.  
What do you do to prevent forest fires from consuming your time?
If you were to commit today to doing one thing differently so that you can change your focus from the urgent to the important, what would it be?
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  1. This is by far my favorite topic of all time management topics – first things first! There is always busy work to be done but none of that work will have much lasting effect.

  2. Thanks Natasha. It's puzzling that so many of us continue to succumb to the 'busy-ness' trap. I try to break out by scheduling time in my calendar to work on important projects. Also, it's often helpful to break projects into chunks so they don't seem so overwhelming. The "quick fix" urgent matter is more approachable than the "huge" important project. So… we get seduced to simply accomplish something. We forget that what we accomplished didn't much matter in the long run.

  3. I just created folders for each of my team leads. I did this to remind myself that I am not in this alone. I need to concentrate on the things that only I can do. Everything else I delegate and follow up. However, I also try to train my staff to take on more responsibility as I can. This will improve their skills and allow me to address other issues or expand my responsibilities. This is where growth can happen. It is in the delegation of the real time actions not just great big projects. Great article. I love thinking through these things.

  4. First things first is one of my mantras. But moving away from the urgent quadrant is one of the most challenging for busy executives. I think it takes a mentor or coach to hold an ED accountable and make them promise (with significant consequences) to stop being so busy and urgent.

  5. Thanks David. And you're spot on to remind us of the importance of delegation.

  6. Thanks Clay. I'd agree that a coach/mentor can definitely be helpful. We all need someone to give us a good shake now and then, and ask us: "What are you doing right now, and WHY?!"

  7. Thanks Eclaire, A very helpful and important reminder! I know it in my head – but application is always the challenge!

    Richard B

  8. Appreciate your reading and commenting Richard. Yes, it's a bit like trying to remember to stand up straight. Still… practice makes perfect!

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