August 8, 2019

Handling Emergencies (at Work)

Editors Note: Everyday, engineers are usually expected to handle a gazillion emergencies; system is down, urgent meetings, bug fixes, messages are all over the place, you name it! It can become overwhelming dealing with all this at once. Productivity Expert, Alexis Haselberger lays down some ground rules to regain calmness at work.

One question I get asked quite frequently is some version of: “My day is filled with emergencies. How can I handle them, AND get my other priorities handled?” or simply “How do I handle it when my day is filled with emergencies??”

Now, let’s be clear that the people asking me these questions are not typically emergency room doctors, or first responders. So, let’s take a step back and recognize that perhaps the word “emergency” is a little overkill for most of us in our jobs. (But also, let’s be compassionate with ourselves and recognize that if we don’t have a plan for how to handle the unexpected, these things certainly can feel like emergencies.)

These emergencies (real or perceived) are one HUGE factor that can lead to things still being unfinished at the end of the day and add to our sense of stress.

The first thing I’ll say here is if you are using a system for your tasks (whatever than means to you: an app, a spreadsheet, a bullet journal, etc.) and you are prioritizing it appropriately, then you are very rarely, if ever, going to be experiencing a self-imposed emergency. (You know the kind I’m talking about. You’re chatting with your colleague in the kitchen and then suddenly you remember that you have to get back to that client with a proposal today, in an hour!)

So, let’s assume that we don’t have self-imposed, memory-related, emergencies anymore. (And if you’re not quite there yet, let’s chat.)

Now what are we dealing with?

We’re typically dealing with things that seem urgent, or are expressed as urgent. Maybe they are coming from your boss, or a colleague, or a client.

In all of these cases, what we perceive as emergencies often aren’t. Email, text and Slack are terrible ways to identify tone, and people also often don’t include a time-frame in their written requests, which can make requests seem urgent, even when they are not.

So, the first thing to do is to check on the timeline of the request. Your response can be as simple as “Got it. When do you need this by?” Or you can take it a step farther and say, “Got it. I should be able to get this to you by Thursday. Will that timing work for you?” Most of the time, you’ll find that you have a lot more time than you thought, and you’ll be able to prioritize the task appropriately. “Emergency” resolved!

Now, there are cases when the response will be “I need it in an hour, sorry.” or “I need it this afternoon”. And in that case, you’re going to do one of 3 things:

  1. If you’ve already completed all your must-do tasks for the day or if it’s for a client, then you are just going to do it, because it has become a brand new must-do for today, and everything else on your list can be pushed if necessary.
  2. If you’ve still got must-dos on your list and you think you can fit this one in too, then do it.
  3. If the person who is asking is a colleague or your boss, you might have a bit more leeway to push back than you think. And you can say something like “I understand that you need this urgently, and I have X, Y and Z on my plate that must be done today. Given the time constraints, I’m wondering if you think it makes sense to prioritize this over X, Y and Z, or if there might be someone else who could handle this today. I’m open to either option, but I just wanted you to have the full picture and to make sure we’re on the same page about what will be delayed if I do this.

So, now you have an action plan for how to handle these emergencies. And maybe we can reduce our stress levels just a bit by no longer thinking of these unexpected issues or requests as emergencies because we’ve now planned for them.

Originally published on