Have you ever walked into your office and been blasted with being overwhelmed before you even sit down?  Or into a room in your home that you have been “planning” to de-clutter for months?  You dread being there and you don’t know where to begin.

Alternatively, have you walked into the office with a smile, clear intentions and a skip in your step only to be accosted with “emergencies”, “priorities” or “911 issues” before you can even get started?  It’s all very discouraging.  And with today’s’ open architecture environments, we can’t exactly close our office doors to think through our plan of attack.  It can be just one fire after another.  You go home at night and can’t decompress because you suddenly start thinking of all the things you didn’t get to and, frankly, didn’t even have time to write down to address later.

We’ve all read the books on how to get control of our lives and workdays.  But, in reality, sometimes that just doesn’t work.  The best laid plans go awry.  But why?

I contend it is the culture and environment we live in.  We have become a society of sound bites and instant gratification.  With instant messaging, email in our pocket and social media, everyone wants to be heard and wants an answer right now.

At work, we get a fire to put out.  So we go to work on it as it is urgent.  But before we can get any progress made, the next fire presents itself and must take precedent.  Then another, and another, and another . . . etc.  So now the one you started with is down to the fifth or sixth item on your list.  Then you get asked for a status update and the cycle starts anew.  The reality is we are now just spinning our wheels going from one fire to another and nothing meaningful is getting done on any of them.  We do just enough to report on the next status update but there is no quality to our work.

Then the frustration kicks in and we go to our superior and ask the inevitable question, “What is the priority?”  Then comes the inevitable answer, “All of it.”

In our minds we know this isn’t possible.  I’ve heard it said that if you have more than three priorities, you have none at all.  I think back to Covey’s Four Quadrants:  Urgent/Important, Not Urgent/Important, Urgent/Not Important and Not Urgent/Not Important.

It seems we live our lives in Quadrant I.  But there is only so much sustainability to this before we burn ourselves out and our performance suffers.  Several times a week in my current position, I get assigned something in this category.  This is on top of the day-to-day.  I get assigned a problem and have a two hour window to summarize, take action and report back.  You may think. . .”Okay, two hours . . . plenty of time.”  But these are issues that have passed through five (count ‘em . . . 5) sets of hands before they reach my desk.  Frequently they are items that are already being handled by someone else.  And by the time they reach my desk, it may be up to 48 hours since the problem started.  So why the fire drill?

And remember where I work. . . . a leadership position in a customer service contact center.  This all has to be done between team meetings, call coaching, escalations from customers, escalations from stores, the constant barrage of emails, instant messages and people walking up to the desk.

Don’t think I’m singling out my current position.  Every job I’ve ever had has been a constant fire drill.  I suspect it has been for many of you too.

In the grand scheme of things, I’m not even very high in the food chain.

This isn’t just me.  It is hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of us that go home burned out and stressed every night.  We end up grumpy with our families, unhealthy and overweight because we’re too exhausted to get any exercise.

We have to take control back of our days.  I know I’m trying.  I’m now time-blocking my calendar and titling it “work”.  It may just be at my desk.  But I’m setting some boundaries for that time block.  No social chats (hard to do in open architecture), no new emails (they can wait).  I do work on emails.  I work on the ones I have opened and set aside to take action on during my time block.  It generally seems to work.

When it comes to a to-do list or other tickler system, I’ve yet to figure out one that actually works for me.  I found a website with a synced app called IQTell.  The app works with the GTD method.  It has an integrated website that will sync to your apps on your phone and tablet.  I’m just getting started with it but I like what it has to offer so far.

So how do we deal with this never ending torrent of what I call “immediate needs”?  I know the easy answer is “F*** it, it’ll still be there tomorrow.”  That’s one approach but it doesn’t seem to quell the stress.  Yes, it is still there tomorrow.  But we feel the wall of anxiety the minute we step out our collective front doors.  We know what is waiting for us.  Is that the right approach?

Realistically, it probably isn’t.  But equally realistically, there is no way we can ever be “done”.  We have to find a way to manage it.

For me, I open my email when I get to the office but I try to just scan for important items and save the rest for later instead of trying to address everything right away.  Then I go into reviewing the reports of yesterday’s activity/business to get ready for my 7:30 meeting.  Then I get my main objectives ready for the day ahead so I have a working list of things that must be addressed.  By the time I’m done with those items, the chaos has started.  How much I actually get accomplished is directly related to the interruptions I get throughout the day.

Does this work?  Most days it does.  Others not so much.

What about you?  How do you manage the daily grind of a total lack of priorities and firefighting?