By: Mason J. Brandt, E.I.T., Design Engineer, Providence Engineering Corp.

Busyness in the AEC industry is a great blessing, but it can also be an immense challenge. With demanding schedules, lengthy task lists, client calls to return, meetings to attend, etc., we push our ability to manage daily tasks to the limit. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, David Slick from Texas holds the world record for juggling three objects the longest: 12 hours and five minutes. Eventually, even he dropped something. The question is, when the “ball is dropped,” what is the consequence of the juggling act crashing to the ground? Are you juggling with tennis balls or with flaming torches? A tennis ball dropped may mean you missed returning a phone call. No big deal. Dropping a flaming torch, however, could be a severe event that temporarily derails your project or even leads to legal action, injury, or worse.

I refer to this latter kind of juggling failure as a fire breaking out, literally and figuratively. Combating the sudden explosion of a problem (or problems) may be severe enough to cause an “emergency response.” Each emergency response may give other preventable minor issues the space to evolve into fully developed conflagrations of their own. Before you know it, you’re a full-time “firefighter.”

Task List Firefighter

After fifteen years in the Lancaster County, PA fire service, I can easily see the similarities in fighting physical fires and managing a day-to-day task list.

Fire Control is a resource-heavy activity that can be physically and emotionally taxing. When a fire breaks out, it requires an urgent response that leaves little time for decision making. Many decisions are made purely based on previous experiences or gut reaction. During a fire, damage has already been inflicted and efforts are concentrated toward putting it out and minimizing loss.

Many people share the experience of “firefighting” in controlling the chaos of their daily schedule. When a task erupts into a “fire”, all your (or your team’s) effort is suddenly shifted from other important tasks to this now urgent task. This sudden shift in focus means that other important, but lower priority, tasks get delayed, moving them closer and closer to the point of themselves erupting into flames. Predictably, this can turn into an endless cycle of tasks only being dealt with when they demand urgent and immediate attention. Your day to day becomes “putting out fires.”

An Ounce of Prevention

Fire Prevention activities are based on the understanding that fires happen, and they are often caused by specific behaviors, actions, or triggers. By identifying these triggers, we can reduce the likelihood of fires breaking out, or prevent them from happening altogether. In your daily routine, can you foresee getting a phone call from a client asking you to walk them through a particular process or decision? In your project schedule, is there a vendor or subcontractor who routinely struggles with quality control or is projecting a schedule problem? Even mundane things like whether or not your stapler is stocked or whether you have a back-up pen in your bag or at your desk can be a trigger.

At some point in your day, you will get a call from a demanding client, you will run into a schedule issue due to weather, and you will run out of ink or run out of staples. At the end of each work day, I take ten to fifteen minutes to clear off my desk and prepare for the next work day by making a list of the most important things that need to be done and any issues that might “pop up”. This is not a guarantee that I’ve covered all my bases, and there have been times where the task list gets thrown out because something unforeseen has come up, but more than a few times making the list has helped me to meet deadlines and client expectations.

Keep Your Head…and Your Hair

Not every issue can be solved with prevention. In a construction project, there will always be unforeseen problems that arise and need to be addressed immediately. It is important to remember that if you have time to think, gather information, and consult others before acting, then the outcome of your action will likely be improved. Taking a few minutes to identify the triggers that can turn a small task into an enormous undertaking, or transform small issues into raging infernos, can dramatically reduce your level of stress. The small steps we take today to prevent tomorrow’s fires can pay dividends that accumulate to ultimately benefit your work week, the success of your project or even the trajectory of your career.

February 6, 2020