Active vs. Reactive: How to Stop Putting Out Business Fires and Get Actual Work Done

by Annie

in managing overwhelm

Firefighter Standing By Fire Truck

UPDATE – see the yellow box of text at the bottom of this post for an awesome FREE resource to help you master proactivity.

I love firefighters.

What’s not to love? You’ve got the serious hero factor, plus all those cool toys and the truck, baby …

But here’s the thing, couch warriors:


Are not firefighters.

So what the ever-loving holy fig are we doing putting out fires all day long?

Why Putting Out Fires Is No Way to Run a Business

For some reason, I see this most frequently with my solo lawyer peeps.

They get so much crap thrown at them in any given workweek that they’re constantly juggling several different clients and cases at one time. They’ve got to keep so many people happy — or at least, not homicidal — between the judges, the clerks (often scarier than the judges), opposing counsel, and their own staff members …

Throw into the mix the spinning chainsaws of death – little things like running a small biz, handling small biz finances, marketing a small biz – well, it’s a wonder more of them don’t run screaming for the hills, frankly.

And what inevitably ends up happening is that they begin to feel like all they do is put out fires, all day long.

This is not a good thing in the lands of Small-Biz-istan and SolopreneurVille.

A lawyer who’s feeling like that will end up spending more time because she can’t bring herself to spend a few extra minutes getting a handle on things. It’s go-go-go all the time, and since planning doesn’t feel like go-ing, or do-ing, the planning never gets done.

Even when they do manage a few moments at the beginning of the week to strategize and plan out the week’s obligations, by Tuesday that plan will be shot to hell.

Why? Because biz-fire-fighting is like one of those gross-scary viruses that just gets stronger the more you try to struggle with it.

Avoiding Fire-Fighting: Getting Proactive and Engaging Your Inner CEO

If you want to prevent this from happening to you and your business, then here’s what you’ve got to do:

  1. Make an unbreakable appointment with your inner CEO every single week. Same bat time, same bat channel. Give the bitch (or bastard) a full hour of your time, and make sure your actions are getting the team closer to the CEO’s vision for your biz or endeavor.
  2. Develop the preview/review habit. Every Monday morning, and every work-day morning, before you do anything else, take 15 minutes to review the upcoming week and day, respectively. At the close of each day, and the close of each work-week, give yourself another 15 to 30 minutes to perform a wrap-up review.
  3. Chunk your schedule. Give up on the whole “I’m always accessible, all the time” act. It’s killing you, and it’s killing your business. Set two half-hour periods during the day for returning telephone calls, and another two half-hour periods for checking and responding to email. In the meantime, do your work in uninterrupted half-hour or hour-long chunks of similar tasks (i.e., similar to the concept of “contexts” in Getting Things Done).
  4. Build workable business systems wherever you can. Use software, apps, flowcharts, mindmapping, and scripts to automate whatever repetitive tasks take up your time. Even if work has to be done in an analog fashion, simply outlining the steps to doing the job can point out time-saving shortcuts. Aim to handle or process each piece of information just once, and reduce or eliminate duplicative work.

Curing a Case of Firefighter-itis When It’s Already Hit

If you’re already in the middle of a bout of putting out fires, being reactive instead of proactive, then you’ll need a slightly different strategy to help you overcome the obstacles in your way.


First things first: get a crystal-clear picture of what you’re up against.

Gather your calendar, your files, whatever you use to capture tasks and to-do’s, and turn off the phone for an hour or so.

Then go through each project or client, and figure out what the next step is, when it needs to be completed, and what you need to complete it.

Do this for every item on your list, every client on your roster, every deadline making you sweat, putting them in descending order of consequences for failure. Crap that gets you arrested if undone goes at the top. Crap that makes you homeless goes next. Stuff that will merely make someone roll their eyes can go near the bottom.

I recommend creating a new list of all these pressure-causing deadlines and tasks in a new text file, so you can work with it more easily in the next few steps.

Analysis & Organization

Once you’ve got the list of all impending deadlines and tasks completed, go through the list item-by-item and ask whether it can be renegotiated, rescheduled, delegated, or simply deleted.

Organize your list into sublists now based on your answers. Everything that can be renegotiated goes in one list – these represent calls you’ll have to make or emails you’ll have to send, asking to change the parameters of whatever you said you’d do. Same with items that can be rescheduled.

Things that can be delegated go in a separate list, and further subdivide the list by the name of the person or company to whom it will be delegated.

Deletions? Put them aside for now. You don’t have time to actually delete them from your system, so just keep the list separate for now, and get rid of them later.

Focused, Chunked Work

Now, you’re in a better position to actually do the work. Chunk the tasks that didn’t get assigned to one of the above categories, and create sublists based on those chunks. Example: emails, writing, research, editing — these are all separate tasks, requiring separate skillsets and tools, so each of these would represent one chunk.

Set a timer for thirty minutes, and dive in. Do not come up for air – do not answer the phone – do not look at your email – for thirty minutes.

Why thirty minutes? Because it’s a measly amount of time, compared to the enormity of your list, but it’s enough time to actually get a sense of flow going. You’re more likely to continue working once you hit the thirty-minute mark.

Lather, rinse, repeat as needed. Remember to take breaks every hour or so.

Bottom Line: Get Proactive to Kill the Fires For Good

Yes, it takes time to get your shit straight when you’re in the middle of a biz-fire-fighting spree, and that’s time you will not want to spend. Your inclination will be to keep hustling, keep juggling, keep moving — because that feels like work, and as long as you’re moving and working, nobody can yell at you, right?

Wrong. They can yell. They WILL yell. Sit your ass down and follow this process to get out of that scenario. Then resolve to never let it happen to you again.

One note of warning: It will happen again. It totally will, and we really can’t guarantee it won’t. But you can certainly minimize occurrences, and that’s worth doing.

‘Cause if you’re gonna put out fires all day, you should at least get to ride on the truck and work the siren, y’know?

BONUS! Free Resource from the Fabulous Michelle Nickolaisen

UPDATE: For the next few days you can register for an absolutely free training call from Michelle Nickolaisen of “Let’s Radiate” on this very topic! Join me for this awesome call on July 20th at 4 PM EST/ 1 PM PST.

Photo credit: © Thomas Lammeyer |

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennifer Hanford July 16, 2012 at 1:55 pm

I really like this post, Annie. Everyday I have “fires” to put out – mostly my co-workers ideas of what should take priority over what really needs to be done. However, as you pointed out in your final paragraph, being proactive does really help, or at least it helps me feel prepared for the daily onslaught of “emergencies” in my office.

Great post!
Jennifer Hanford recently posted..Engaging Online in B2B Marketing


Annie July 16, 2012 at 2:41 pm

Hey Jennifer! Thanks for the comment. It’s even harder to overcome firefighting syndrome in a multi-worker team environment, I think. At least when you’re a solo you only have yourself to manage! As you say, proactivity, once you can get there, really does breed more success as well as happier workers.


Lori Cain July 16, 2012 at 4:01 pm

Don’t know that there’s any way to avoid fires, but I definitely like the suggestion of the preview/review habit – and making the daily appointment to do so! Great post!


Annie July 16, 2012 at 4:32 pm

Not completely, you’re right – but it certainly is possible to minimize them and not be perpetually caught in that cycle! Thanks so much for commenting, Lori!


Nick Armstrong July 16, 2012 at 4:01 pm

Oh my god, so right on.

Those systems are the key to successful organization in business. I’ve decided from now on that I absolutely am not available for any meetings before 11AM. I just can’t do it – I end up running late, it pushes back everything else in the day, and before you know it, I haven’t gotten any work done!

I also love the idea of an inner CEO weekly meeting. Whiteboards are gonna be filled, I tell ya!
Nick Armstrong recently posted..#$%!: a Guide to Profanity in your Messaging


Annie July 16, 2012 at 4:37 pm

I LOVE the idea of setting up absolute bars to availability, Nick! Just make sure you educate your clients, and be patient with them while they get used to the change, LOL. A client of mine is actually doing this same thing right now. We worked together to craft an email announcing the change in her policy, when she would be available, how to get her attention if it was a true emergency (because in her business, those do happen on occasion), and how much it would cost in addition to her regular rate. Every single client said “sure, of course!” – and then about 40% of them proceeded to call during the forbidden times for nonemergencies anyway. It’s taking her some time to re-educate herself, too, but she’ll get there. 😉


Jeff Belonger July 16, 2012 at 5:51 pm

Annie, I could have used this post a long time ago in my 19 yr mortgage career. I was always trying to be accessible and yes, it did kill me. But it wasn’t an act, because I did answer my phone around the clock. And making that unbreakable appt for yourself, to yourself, is a must… in order to stay focused and to keep organized. I enjoyed this post, chalk full of into.


Annie July 16, 2012 at 6:19 pm

Hey Jeff! Thanks for commenting. 🙂 Yes, I totally agree – that level of commitment – whether it’s strong enough, or there at all – is a huge underlying productivity problem. We’d never break an appointment with a client – we need to show at least the same level of respect to ourselves!


Sheila Hibbard July 16, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Being organized is how one can flex with the shifts that are bound to happen.

I sometimes think the folks who are always saying “don’t have time” are the ones who just enjoy being in the “fire” state. They don’t realize that they can control the flames, if they put a little thought and time to addressing the fires that will surely occur. Many thanks for the great organizational and project management tips.
Sheila Hibbard recently posted..Marketing, Moonwalking With Einstein and Memory Keepers


Annie July 23, 2012 at 4:21 pm

“I sometimes think the folks who are always saying “don’t have time” are the ones who just enjoy being in the “fire” state. ” Ooh, I love that, Sheila. I agree – I don’t want to assume someone else’s intentions but I frequently get that feeling myself.


Michele Price (@prosperitygal) July 16, 2012 at 8:07 pm

Yes I LOVE chunked work, it allows me to be more efficient AND creative. Our brains need more time that we give them – so not shifting gears all the time.

Snort, loved the comment “Give the Bitch ( or bastard) time in your schedule.
Michele Price (@prosperitygal) recently posted..Adapt & Thrive Workstyles | The Finch Effect | #BBSradio


Annie July 16, 2012 at 8:58 pm

LOL – thanks, Michele – I don’t know about yours, but my inner CEO can be a raging bitch on occasion. SO demanding. 😀


Joseph Ruiz July 16, 2012 at 8:37 pm

Annie, appreciate the productivity advice I will take all I can get. The chunking is so important. I keep getting distracted by all the different platforms lose sight of the tasks then fall into all or nothing procrastinating.
Really good stuff


Annie July 16, 2012 at 8:59 pm

Hey Joseph! I SO agree on chunking. That was one of those instant-gratification productivity strategies that I glommed on to and saw results immediately. Most of us think that way, usually, so it only makes sense to organize our activities around the same structure! Thanks for commenting. 🙂


Dan Polley July 16, 2012 at 8:41 pm

Great post. I’ve never been a solopreneur, but I the basis of the post — being proactive instead of reactive and planning your time and tasks — are takeaways for any field.

(P.S. Love the name of your blog.)
Dan Polley recently posted..Self-Dishonesty and Brand Loyalty


Annie July 16, 2012 at 9:00 pm

Aw, thanks Dan, and welcome! I think these strategies can be useful whether you’re running your own business full-time, engaging in a creative sideline, or just trying to get your 9-to-5 job done more efficiently and better – at least, I hope so. 😉


Paul Woolley (@MySocialPro) July 16, 2012 at 8:57 pm

Thanks for the tips Annie! Reminds me of my previous life as a Financial Advisor where I felt like I was always working but never getting the meaningful things done. I’m actually going to take a preview break here in a second. Thanks for the reminder 🙂
Paul Woolley (@MySocialPro) recently posted..How to Lose Friends & NOT Influence People on Twitter


Annie July 16, 2012 at 9:36 pm

Thanks Paul! I’m so glad you found something useful here. 🙂 Rock on!


Kellie Leigh July 16, 2012 at 11:00 pm

Thank you for this post, Annie. It is a great reminder that using systems and a time tracker are very important in managing your day. I am just learning this process now, after years of being reactive while working for a corporation. Effective time planning and being pro-active are the keys to success, especially as a small business owner. Thanks for the reminder.


Annie July 16, 2012 at 11:19 pm

Hey Kellie – thanks for the comment! It’s so much easier to start off in a proactive state than to get there after being programmed in the “firefighter” mode. But the beginning of a new business is a great time to start new, good habits. And that’s all we’re really talking about here — productive habits vs. not-so-productive habits.


Jonathan Payne July 17, 2012 at 3:22 am

You can’t please everyone, so there will always be a few fires, but minimizing the number of them is crucial to staying on the path to profit, value production, and success. Really great post!
Jonathan Payne recently posted..How Employers Use Social Media for Job Recruiting [Infographic]


Annie July 17, 2012 at 3:08 pm

Thanks JP!


Nicole Fende July 17, 2012 at 2:27 pm

Hey Annie – it took me a few minutes to get past the hunky firefighters (LOL).

Seriously I’m glad you tackled this topic. As my business has grown I’ve worked hard to implement systems. Even though it feels like I don’t have the time, I know that I’ll never have the time if I don’t just do it. Every day I commit to spending at least 30 minutes on a way to streamline, systematize or outsource things that don’t require my personal, hands-on attention.
Nicole Fende recently posted..Stop Playing Coffee Shops, Start Playing Stadiums


Annie July 17, 2012 at 3:10 pm

*sigh* I know, right? I looked for a cute one, just for you.

As to systems: preach, girlfriend. It’s a complicated process – it requires thinking both analytically AND abstractly, which most of us have trouble doing at the same time. I love the idea of devoting regular time to this process – that’s an awesome idea. I’d think having this as a regular practice would trigger more creative ideas, too, as regular practice of any kind generally does.


Caelan Huntress July 18, 2012 at 4:00 pm

I still find myself blaring the siren and wearing uncomfortable fireproof pants most of the day, despite my awesome GTD-inspired task management software (Things by Cultured Code).

I’m going to take your advice, Annie, and schedule my day in 30 minute chunks today. Thanks!
Caelan Huntress recently posted..Ebook Design and Copywriting


Annie July 18, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Fan-damn-tabulous! Glad it triggered something useful for you, Caelan. Come back here later and let me know how it went, OK?


Robbie Schlosser July 19, 2012 at 7:39 pm

Thanks, Annie, for this wonderful reminder to seize control of our schedule. Great practical advice all the way through, especially the section about how to dig out from underneath! We all find ourselves there, regularly. Thanks for recommending GTD. You could add Steven Covey, too.
Robbie Schlosser recently posted..The Seven Habits Steven Covey Taught Me


Annie July 23, 2012 at 4:24 pm

Hey Robbie! Thanks for the comment. One clarification: I purposefully do not “recommend” any productivity product, book, tool, application, program, etc. – the reasoning is two-fold. One: productivity is like losing weight – any “diet” will work, if you work it consistently. Two: what’s excellent for one person might be completely unworkable for another. My approach, rather, is to take out the best advice from every resource out there, and create a productivity toolbox. Then I can pull out specific tools for specific problems my clients report. That seems to work best. (And yes, I love Stephen Covey too – many of his principles are in that toolbox. The field of productivity lost a brilliant mind when he died. RIP.)


Sheila Hibbard July 19, 2012 at 11:00 pm

After years of agency work, I agree with the chunking process as well as the idea of setting aside some hours that are forbidden zones. It’s the only way to get anything accomplished. I’ve read about the 30 minute chunks but find I need some time to get a head of steam going and hate having to take a break if it is going well. More discipline is required.

Good piece and great tips. Thanks, Annie.
Sheila Hibbard recently posted..Website – Stop Treating It Like A Field Of Dreams


Annie July 20, 2012 at 7:08 am

Nothing’s to say you have to take a break at the end of those 30 minutes, to be sure. (The enforced 5-minute break is, however, an important part of the Pomodoro technique, which I do recommend for certain projects – things like long writing projects – but not for everyday productivity, necessarily.) I totally agree on the importance of momentum! Thanks so much for commenting, Sheila. 🙂


Shamelle July 21, 2012 at 5:36 am

Being proactive than reactive.. Yes, we could all use more of that.
It’s often a matter of predicting risks and having a mitigation plan. We don’t really give much thought to the future and the long running operations.
Shamelle recently posted..Best iPhone Video Camera Accessories To Create Awesome Videos With Your iPhone


Annie July 21, 2012 at 12:30 pm

Risk management is an important part of it, to be sure. Thanks for stopping by, Shamelle!


Tea Silvestre, aka the Word Chef July 23, 2012 at 2:59 pm

[Okay, I could’ve sworn your email promised a firefighter sans the heavy coat…he’s definitely a keeper tho.] This. Stuff. Is. Crucial. Especially the weekly CEO appointment. Love your tips and will be sharing widely today, my dear. Hope you and Michelle had a rockin webinar, too!
Tea Silvestre, aka the Word Chef recently posted..Game-Changers Wanted: I Need Your Advice


Annie July 23, 2012 at 4:19 pm

LOL, Tea! File that one under “things we WANT to see” maybe?


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