The Working With… Podcast | Episode 28 | Coping With Crises And Remaining Productive

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In this week’s episode of The Working With… Podcast I answer a question about dealing with major and minor crises disrupting your plans for the day.


In this week’s episode of The Working With… Podcast I answer a question about dealing with major and minor crises disrupting your plans for the day.

Hello and welcome to episode 28 of my Working With Podcast. A podcast created to answer all your questions about productivity, GTD, time management, self-development and goal planning. My name is Carl Pullein and I am your host for this show.

This week I have a question about what to do when no matter how well you plan the day, crises of one form or another regularly interrupt your best plans and leave you feeling busy but not really knowing what you have accomplished for the day. 

Before we get into this week’s question I’d just like to remind you if you have a question you’d like answering in this show, please get in touch via email, Twitter or Facebook (or LinkedIn for that matter) and I will be happy to answer your question. Also, if you haven’t enrolled in my FREE online course; The Beginners Guide To Building Your Own Productivity System, then please do so and don’t forget to share the course with as many people you know so together we can help a million people to discover the benefits of an organised and productive life. 

Okay, into this week’s question, so it is time for me now to hand you over to the mystery podcast voice, for this week’s question:

This week’s Question comes from Keith in Ireland. Keith asks: I work in a highly reactive environment where dealing with crises every day is the norm. This means I often do not have time to collect the tasks and just have to get them done leaving me feeling frustrated because I do not know what I have done and I am not able to get the work I want done. Do you have any tips for handling this kind of environment?

Thank you, Keith, for your question. I have noticed a lot of questions about this kind of situation regularly come up on my YouTube channel or in comments on my Medium blog and I understand it can be an incredibly frustrating situation when you want to get yourself better organised and become more productive. 

Okay, there are a few things you can do. 

The first is to not schedule too many tasks on your to-do list in the first place. Now, I know it is much easier to say this than do, but if your days are regularly disrupted by crises, then there really is no point in trying to schedule twenty tasks on your to-do list. The reality is you will never get them done anyway, so not only are you feeling frustrated at not getting the work you want done, you are also wasting a lot of time scheduling those tasks in the first place. It is far better to organise your to-do lists by contexts and work from your lists based on where you are, what tools you have with you and who is with you. In a sense, you follow the GTD principles of only scheduling tasks that absolutely must be done on a specific day and at a specific time. 

For example, if you must call your colleague in Galway before lunch-time because she is flying to Geneva at 12pm, you would schedule that call in your calendar or put a date an time on the task in your to-do list manager. At some point you will have to call her before 11:30pm—never call her at 12pm, she has to leave at 12. Calling her then will not make you her most popular person—That gives you 2½ hours between 9:00am and 11:30am to make that call. 

Now in my experience of crises, they often need some form of action immediately, but there are always a few minutes between events unfolding where you have time to make a call. That would be the time you make that call to your colleague. 

Many years ago, I worked in the hotel industry and that is one of the most reactive industries to be in. Guests and customers have a bad habit of asking for things at the most inconvenient of times. And, while to the guest their request may be simple, the reality is I would have to go from one side of the hotel to the other, talk to the chef, and anyone who has experience of the hotel trade in the 1990s with know that most chefs in the 1990s hated everyone who was not a chef and they always had a big knife in their hands. Ask very gently for what I needed and then get back to the other side of the hotel as quickly as possible, Any delay and the guest would be calling reception asking what had happened and then reception would ‘bleep me’ which meant I had to run to reception to find out what they wanted, only to find they wanted to know about something I was already dealing with. And this went on ALL day. 

It left little to no time for doing the work I was employed to do. Back then, GTD had not been invented and I was already writing down on paper (no smartphones back then) the things that had to be done that day and carrying that little notebook with me everywhere I went. 

Every day when I came on shift, I would have a hand-over meeting with my co-worker and he would tell me what he had managed to do that morning or night and what was left to be done. I had to learn very quickly how to prioritise. A meeting scheduled to start at 8:30am in one of our meeting rooms always took priority. Fresh iced water had to placed in the room at exactly the right time. 

What I learned was that as long as I had a list of the things that needed doing that day, I could manage the requests and crises when they came up. I dealt with them, did want needed to be done and carried on getting my work done. Sometimes, a meeting organiser would ask for the tea and coffee to be served an hour earlier. There was often no time for this to be written down on the function sheet, but I made sure I wrote it down in my little notebook. Between all these little jobs, crises and requests I would be referring to my notebook— what needed to be done next? 

The important thing is that the work or task gets done. There is always time at the end of the day to take a breath and reflect on what you had done and what still needed doing. Whenever I finished my shift I had a handover with my colleague and I would go through what was done, what was almost done and what still needed doing. It was a wonderful cycle and I also learnt the importance of working as a team. 

Sometimes there is no time to write down the task. You just have to do the task. Call the right person, email the documents or just go talk to the customer. There is always time afterwards to reflect on what it was and decide whether you need to record what you did somewhere. 

Because of my experiences in the hotel trade, a wonderful trade to be in, by the way, I learnt that long lists of to-dos rarely get done and this leads to frustration and more often than not giving up on trying to be organised. Maintaining as a shorter list of planned to-dos as possible always gave me the best chance of getting what I wanted done and it also meant I learnt the importance of being patience. Small steps each day soon build up to big achievements. 

And this shorter list of planned to-dos also means on those rare quiet days, once you have completed the to-dos you want to do, you can look at your contextual lists and decide what you can do next. There will always be something you can do from what you have planned tomorrow, today and that does keep you moving forward. 

One more thing I learnt in the hotel trade was the ability to anticipate problems. I learnt early on that no matter how well planned you are for something, once that plan meets reality everything changes. It’s like the famous quote “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” Or as Mike Tyson put it more eloquently, “we all have a plan until we get punched in the face”. This is the reality of life. As I learnt more about my industry I found it was actually quite easy to anticipate what might go wrong and so I developed methods—templates if you like—for dealing with those issues. I still use that today. Whenever I am scheduled to do a talk I know there are likely to be problems with the IT department not knowing how to connect a Mac to their projector or the power disappears in the middle of my presentation. I make sure I have a PowerPoint copy of my presentation on a USB drive and a PDF print out of my slides in case I have to go without the use of a projector. I haven’t used any of these backups for a very long time, but I know one day it will happen so I prepare myself. Always prepare yourself for the worst happening.

So, the best advice I can give you,Keith, and anyone else who works in a highly reactive industry is carry a little notebook with you where ever you go. If you prefer you can use your phone, but in reactive situations, I have always found the trusty pen and paper is the best way to capture what needs doing and crossing them off when they are done. Expect things to go wrong and keep your scheduled tasks to barest minimum. Work from contexts— the people, place or tools required to do the task— and develop strategies for dealing with the common crises that occur. 

Finally, even if you are not handing over to a colleague at the end of a shift, it is always a good strategy to do a five or ten minute reflection at the end of your working day. Reflect on the things that happened, how you dealt with them and ask yourself if there is anything you can do in the future to either anticipate that kind of crisis or prepare for the crisis happening again so next time you are prepared and can put in place a trusted action plan. 

I hope that helps, Keith and I hope that helps anyone else who works in a very reactive industry. 

Don’t forget to keep your questions coming in. I want to help a million people between now and 2020 to get better organised and become more productive and I can only do that with your help. Please spread the word, share this podcast, share my blog posts, YouTube videos and share my online courses with anyone you feel will benefit from learning more about the wonderful benefits of being productive. 

Thank you very much for listening and it just remains for me now, to wish you all a very very productive week.