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Article: Time Management Memo -- Putting Out Fires Related Resources
Time Management Memo: Putting Out Fires
1990 C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.

The least successful method -- oh yes, it is a method -- of time management might be called "putting out fires." That is, you do whatever is most demanding of your attention right now. As if there is no real choice. There is someone on the telephone saying that this memo has to get out within the hour, so you do it immediately and deal with whatever comes up next when it comes up. So goes your day; so goes your life. There is little predictability, little control. You never quite feel finished; you're always on alert; you generally have the sense of having too much to do and not enough time to do it. And typical time management methodologies would appear to simply add to the burden with more things to do -- more schedules to fill out, more records to keep and more steps to take in every task.

Well, Fire Troopers, there is an up side to this. While this is not a very successful approach under usual conditions, it can become an extremely successful methodology when properly organized and structured. What is the best news about the organization is that it requires almost nothing in the way of the external structures you hate -- like written forms and schedules. (Well, maybe just one...)

What will help organize you is:
1) Gaining a new perspective on time,
2) Learning to focus on purpose instead of activity,
3) Becoming aware of your choice and control options and
4) Learning to constantly simplify.


Gaining new perspectives on time.

Time is a concept, not an object, function or event. Time is a way of referring to a set of experiences humans share in such a way that we can agree on the parameters of those experiences.

The time is now; the place is here. Being present-centered is the most reality-oriented perspective. Anything that is not here and now is a fantasy, whether it be a memory or a projection of future possibilities.

The opposite of "present" is not "past" or "future," the opposite of "present" is "absent." Again, all we have is whatever & whoever is here now and whatever is happening now. All we can deal with is who or what we can touch right now. However, a balance is required. That is, being present-centered does not mean ignoring the past or future. It means being sufficiently focused on the here and now to understand how it got that way from the past--and to seize current opportunities to direct the future--without losing your awareness and appreciation for living and doing now.

(You might think from your very behavior that you understood all this very well. After all, isn't your problem that you leave most everything alone until it come along urgently demanding your attention? Surprise. A fire trooper gets to be that way by ignoring the demands of the now that affect the future. And by fulfilling demands of the now that are non-productive for the future.)


Since time is not an object, you can't really manage it. Time management is actually your personal management of your own tasks, schedules and activities.

Living with purpose. If you wish to manage your time effectively, no matter what approaches or techniques you use, you must have a clear idea of for what purpose you are managing your time.

First, let's consider a few definitions.

Purposes, Goals, Plans, Activities -- and management by objectives:

(1) PURPOSE: ( A purpose is a meaningful intention or reason for being or doing. It is the ultimate "why" of any existence and every activity.)
(2) GOAL (S): ( A goal is an aim or end result intended from activity or activities. It is designed to support a purpose.)
(3) PLAN: ( A plan is a formulation of a strategy or strategies to achieve a goal. A strategy is an organization of goal-directed activities.)
(4) ACTIVITIES: ( An activity is the performance of a specific function in the execution of a plan.)

What you primarily need to do is think in the terms outlined above in making choices about your daily activities. Try to eliminate activities that don't support your plans for achieving goals and fulfilling your purposes. In order to do that, you need to have a firm idea of

1) your Life Purpose,
2) your Work Purpose,
3) your Purpose in (each) Relationship,
4) your Purpose in Children (if you have them, or your purpose in not having them) and so on.

Each of these purposes have supporting goals, plans and activities. Each purpose must be reflexive toward the others and toward the Life Purpose; that is, each must follow logically from the Life Purpose and network with and support each other. Without purpose and a supportive network, your life is chaos.

If you are a Fire Trooper, you probably don't like the idea of sitting down and working out ideas on paper. Nevertheless, I recommend that you use the outline and ideas above to do exactly that. You will find it easier to identify the goals and activities that support your purposes if you see the purposes in writing. You will be able to see the conflicts in your goals and activities if you plan them in writing. You will be able to easily reduce your planned activities once you see in writing that you have conflicts, overlaps and unnecessary tasks.


Edwin Bliss, in his book GETTING THINGS DONE, outlined the following categories of time use -- or in our lexicon, task and activities management. I recommend the entire book as the best I've seen on the title subject. Think about his ideas I've reworked below in relation to the necessity of being constantly aware of your purposes, goals and plans in selecting activities.

Also remember that responding to someone else's demands is your own choice and selection of activities. (To put that idea in the strongest possible terms: even if someone has a gun to your head, you still have choices. You may not like your choices, but you have them. You can choose to do what the gunman demands, you can choose to refuse and risk dying, you can choose to fight and hope your reflexes are quicker, you can choose to pretend cooperation and look for an opportunity to escape. You get the idea.)

1. URGENT AND IMPORTANT. This is your highest priority. The items in this category are things that have to be done and have a time limit. Important here means important to you. It means an activity that supports plans, goals and purpose. But let me throw in a cautionary reminder: they have to be done, true; you have to see that they're done; it does not necessarily follow that you have to personally do them.

2. IMPORTANT BUT NOT URGENT. This is an orphan area of activities. The activities in this category support plans, goals and purposes. However, since there is no time limit on them -- like one of these days I'll write that book -- they get put on the back burner, often until it's too late. What's more unfortunate, is that they get put aside while you do things in the categories below.

3. URGENT BUT NOT IMPORTANT. This is the trickster category. Because of the urgent nature of these activities, we tend to place an importance upon them that they do not have. For us. Important and not important in this context relate to whether or not the activities contribute to our plans, goals and purposes. If they do not contribute, then they are detrimental.

What is confusing is that in a sense these activities are important -- to someone else. And if you are not constantly checking on what's important to you, you get caught up in supporting someone else's plans, goals and purposes to the detriment of your own.

You can easily see, for example, that if you are simply begged by last year's chair of the charity booksale to take the chair for this year's -- coming up in two weeks and the originally-selected chair has the flu -- that this is urgent and someone considers your participation important. It can be hard to say no. Watch out, this is where you can lose your greatest amounts of valuable time.

Another cautionary word: consider that the demands in this category often come from those closest to you -- spouse, parents, friends, children -- and it's difficult to sort them out from your own purposeful plans. After all, your purposes in these relationships involve love and caretaking, which in turn mean sometimes fulfilling demands at a sacrifice to your immediate wishes.

Learn to tell the difference between the demands you should fulfill to achieve your highest purposes and those you should refuse because they are detrimental. Example: you are a working mother who's just got the kids to bed and have started watching a video, snuggled up to your spouse. Maybe with some ideas for more pleasant things than snuggling. Five minutes later, a little head pops up beside the sofa demanding a drink of water and a tuck back in bed. If you don't have your purposes and priorities straight, you're going to be manipulated in your actions by a complex network of guilt over the possibility of not having spent enough time and attention on the child, anger over the manipulation and frustration at having to deal with anything more after a full day.

A purposeful, goal-oriented attitude combined with a clear awareness of the psychological deceptions inherent in this category are essential to working your way through this maze and deciding what items fit here or elsewhere.

4. BUSY WORK. This is already probably well known to you. It is straightening your desk when you should be writing a report. It is searching your files for an article when you should be filling out your budget forms. It is sharpening your pencils when there is a pile of memos to read. It is doing anything of low priority while higher priority work is on the agenda. Especially work that is Important But Not Urgent. Don't do it. You'll just feel bad after.

5. TIME WASTING. You know what this is. Don't do this either. You'll feel worse than with busy work. You can tell the difference between time wasting and time simply used for non-work pleasure. Unless you are a workaholic, or otherwise pathological you feel enriched by time used simply for pleasure and relaxation and you feel defeated by time wasted.

PARETO PRINCIPLE-- 80/20 Rule--A Good Reason to Simplify.

This is the rule that says the significant items in any given group will usually be a relatively small portion of the total items in the group. So, for example, if you have 100 employees, about twenty employees do 80% of the work.

In managing your time, this translates to say that about 20% of your activities accomplish 80% of your objectives.


O.K. there's one form I said you'd really need -- all of the below integrated into a single printed sheet, 2-sided.

a. Appointment books and calendars

i. Appointments
ii. Task Schedule
iii. Task Completion
iv. Task delegation record
b. To Do List

i. Task planner
ii. Prioritzer
iii. Delegation planner

It's called "One-Page Time Management" and I've included 2 jpg's you can use to make a 2 page printout to be reproduced as a singe 2-sided sheet by your printer, photocopy or offset. Make as many copies as you need, but only for your own personal use. Click on the thumbnail images to download the full-size images to your computer.

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