Time Bandit Number 1 – Changing Priorities

Changing prioriteisThrough the years of coaching people to become more focused and productive, the number one time thief has to be shifting priorities. These are the situations when you (or an entire organization) are forced to drop everything to put out fires, react to the unexpected because not reacting has a high price.

We all do this from time to time, but when it becomes a regular part of your day (unless you are a real fire fighter or emergency room doc) you have a problem. Fire fighting will distract you from your objectives and often leave you drained of energy or scratching your head saying “now where was I” when the fire is extinguished.

Steven Covey To The Rescue

This is the classic example of the Steven Covey Four Quadrants Matrix. You have probably seen this many times, but it is worth revisiting. Look at the illustration and you will see that the four quadrants are Urgent/Important (crying baby, fires, floods other emergencies) Important/Not Urgent(planning, good communications, learning), Urgent/Not Important (ringing telephone, e-mail reminder messages, popular activities, interruptions) and Not Important/Not Urgent (web surfing, busywork, television, etc.).

Firefighting clearly falls into Quadrant I, the important and urgent. MerrillCoveyMatrixThose activities that must be done, no matter what. Living in this quadrant causes chaos in an organization and high stress for individuals.

In the real world, what causes the firefighting mentality? On the surface the cause appears to be different in each situation, but when we dig deeper, the root causes are almost always the same. Here are the biggies:

1. Lack of Planning (a Quadrant II activity)
2. Missed Details (part of good plannnig)
3. Too Busy (I’m too busy changing tires to pick up the nails)
4. Poor Communications/Delegation (Both of which are Quadrant II activities)

Bad Managers Don’t Plan

Bottom line, a firefighting culture is the result of bad management This applies to poor management of an organizaion or bad self management.

Effective managers take time to plan and think, both of which fall into Quadrant II. They developed the habit of deliberately carving out time on a routine basis work on quadrant II activities. But making this happen consistently, is not easy. Spending time  in Quadrant II requires an investment of time with little to show for it immediately.

No Pain No Gain

Quadrant II is not instant gratification. Sometimes it can be almost painful. It is rarely exciting; certianly not as exciting as pulling out the fire hose. But the payoffs can be profound. Getting there requires a change of habit, which is almost always uncomfortable.

If spending more time planning is such a no-brainer then why don’t most of us do it? Why does it seem so painful, so brain hurting? One reason is that we are Addicted to Urgency. Urgency Addiction is almost an epidemic. Fighting fires causes a rush of adrenalin; it can release endorphins which feel good (for a while). Chasing urgency is easy because it pulls on you, it create itself. You only have to show up to save the day.

We will discuss Urgency addiction in more detail in my next post.


  1. found your post while researching the covey quadrant. i’ve been in fire fighting mode too long and i think i need to STOP and go to quad 2 in order to create a plan to stop fire fighting and start moving forward and create new habits. i am still in a “time is of the essence” situation but maybe it will help calm me down a bit and get me moving forward!


  2. Bob Patterson says:


    You’re welcome, and I hear you. Reducing time and attention on quadrant one is a constant struggle for me too (and almost everyone I know). Like keeping writing down everything you eat can keep you on track, just being aware of the pull of quadrant one and your presence in it is enough. It’s too easy to get sucked in without being aware.

    Thanks for the comment.