The Firefighter Myth: Breaking The Cycle Of Burnout

ff blog post

Dwight Eisenhower once talked about the need for leaders to avoid confusing the urgent with the important. If you have ever taken a time management class or read a book on how to get your life organized, this idea is probably familiar.

Importance – the value of the task. What are the consequences of non-completion?

Urgency – how quickly the value of the task degrades over time. Can this be done later?

The skill of prioritization, or focusing on what matters most (if you are a devotee of Covey), is essential to leaders at every stage of life from student to professional. Many high performing leaders do a good job of understanding this distinction between urgent and important, and applying it to the way they invest their time and effort. In this way, they avoid the first trap of time management: Distraction – urgent tasks masquerading as important.

However, many high functioning leaders allow themselves to be caught up in the second trap: the Burnout Cycle. Because these leaders have a tendency to take on a lot of responsibility, and because they are sometimes overconfident in their ability to handle a large volume of work, leaders often find themselves spending the day dealing with tasks that are both urgent and important – emergencies. We refer to this as “fighting fires”.

When we spend all day fighting fires, we come home exhausted. We have all been there. When you have had one of those days at school or work, what do you do when you finally arrive home? Most people crash. We need to shut down our brains for a while and recharge the batteries.

This is smart actually, but the problem is that most of us overshoot relaxation and land squarely in the time wasting zone. When we spend our available time on tasks that are not important or urgent it means we are not focusing on preparation, practice, or prevention – the very things that will limit the fires we need to fight tomorrow. And so, after binge watching our favorite Netflix show until 3 AM, we catch a couple hours of sleep, drag ourselves back to our growing task list…and the Burnout Cycle continues.

How do we break this nasty downward spiral? Do you need to quit or give up activities you value? Maybe, if you are truly overcommitted. But, more likely this is an issue of forcing yourself into the right balance of invested time.

Take a lesson from actual fire fighters. If you speak to one you may be surprised to discover that the majority of their time (90% or more) is not spent fighting fires. Instead, they are investing time in practicing their skills, preparing their tools, and preventing fires from happening in the first place. Remember when, as a little kid, firefighters came to your school to talk about fire safety? That is just one small example of their biggest job – making sure that they have to deal with as few emergencies as possible.

So, if you are one of the thousands of high performers out there trapped in the Burnout Cycle, take a moment to reflect. How can you invest some time today to prevent a scramble next week? What can you change about your relaxation routine to make sure you are focused on recovery and not just wasting time? Take a moment right now and make a list of 10 things you can do this week to practice, prepare, or prevent.

The Burnout Cycle is a trap that can be avoided. Take back control.

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