How to deal with work “fires” and curveballs

August 14, 2023

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We all know the frustration of having a solid plan for the day and having it derailed by work fires and curveballs. Let’s talk about practical strategies to address curveballs and how to make them less stressful.

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Full Transcript

Episode 16. Curveballs

[Upbeat Intro Music]

Kelly Nolan: Welcome to The Bright Method Podcast where we’ll discuss practical time management strategies designed for the professional working woman. I’m Kelly Nolan, a former patent litigator who now works with women to set up The Bright Method in their lives. The Bright Method is a realistic time management system that helps you manage it all, personally and professionally. Let’s get you falling asleep proud of what you got done today and calm about what’s on tap tomorrow. All right, let’s dig in!


Hey there! All right, so today we’re gonna talk about curveballs or fires or however you want to think of them. Basically, it’s those things that keep you living in reactive mode, and we’re gonna focus on the work setting because I think obviously in our personal life we can have nig curveballs, but they’re more consistent in the work setting in the sense that we are just consistently dealing with work curveballs. And it’s a problem I hear a lot about from people who, first, come and start working with me. That’s a big impetus for some to come work with me. They’re like, “I’m just sick of living in reactive mode and having my plans derailed all the time,” and things like that. It’s also something I hear kind of about people who are thinking, “The Bright Method can’t work for me because of this.”

If you’ve been here a while, you know that I’m a big fan of plotting everything we have to do out in your calendar, and so, some people hear that and they think, “Well, if I plot everything out in my calendar, those plans are inevitably gonna get blown up every day because my job is different. I just deal with so many curveballs that those curveballs would explode any plan I created, and therefore, this won’t work for me.” I want both sets of people, whichever kind of camp you fall into, to know that The Bright Method can work for you, and it really does work for you. And so, we’re gonna dig into that today on some strategies you can use to think about how you deal with curveballs and fires at work.

So, just to clarify what I mean by fires and curveballs at work is (I think you get it) you kind of come into your day, let’s say you’ve plotted out what you’re gonna do every hour of the day between meetings and to-dos and eating lunch, and you’re feeling good about it, and then you open that email inbox, and there are a thousand emails screaming fire at you basically or a lot of phone calls or a filing gets filed and something derails your plans. It’s super frustrating, very defeating, and you’re kind of like, “Why am I even trying to plan?” Living in reactive mode itself is just a very stressful place to live. You’re kind of constantly in firefighting mode, or at least maybe not constantly, but a big bulk of your day is in firefighting mode, so you end your days knowing you were running around like crazy but not totally sure what you got done or feeling like you’re just not moving the ball forward on the most important parts of your career, and that is obviously very aggravating. So I want to talk about two strategies today you could use to help with this.

Minimize the Number of Curveballs You Get – 2:52

The first is, if we can, the first thing we want to do is minimize the amount of curveballs you get. And so, what you might want to do — and you can either reflect on this now or kind of watch it over the next month — is what are the frequent curveballs you were dealing with, and is there anything you could do to help avoid them?

Part of what we do inside The Bright Method is breaking down projects to create game plans over time that help us avoid last-minute scrambles that we might create or that a delay in someone else’s work might create for us. Obviously, if we can minimize those and the last-minute scrambles, that has an impact on how many fires and curveballs we’re dealing with every day. So that’s one place that we look at.

Another thing is if you are dealing with people asking you lots of questions that are kind of fire-level because they’re asking a question they need to answer immediately because they may have their own deadline. Could you work on workflows, and what would those look like? So these are things that I’m mentioning at a high level today but just know I never want to make things sound easier than they are. Those can be tricky, and I do like to work with clients on that.

But what I wanted to focus on today is also kind of taking a step back and really analyzing, “Is my value in the curveballs?” And what I mean by that is that’s not everybody. So I think that there’s always a goal of getting rid of as many curveballs as we can. “How do I avoid not dealing with curveballs every day?” And it’s a very valid goal. But what I want to throw out there is for some of the women I work with, especially if you’re kind of up in more of a managerial role, you’re over-seeing a lot of people, you’re kind of helping people stay on track with their projects, you just might want to be aware that your value is actually being in those curveballs.

A lot of curveballs we deal with are not avoidable, and your judgment is good, and that’s why your company values you, and so, they want you in the curveballs, if that makes sense. They don’t want you to do only the drafting of the brief or client strategy over here that’s long term. I mean, they might want you doing that as well, but they also want you in the messy curveballs because your judgment is solid, and they want to keep you there.

And so, what’s important to realize is kind of where you fall on that. Is your value in the curveballs, or are those curveballs taking you away from your value? Because that will inform you how much you want to unload the curveballs versus maybe unloading the curveballs is not the right move or you, and what we need to do instead is actually unload some of the non-curveball work to give you the breathing space to deal with those fires and bring your judgment to them.

So just to summarize this first point is I think it’s a good goal to say, “What are the types of curveballs I am seeing most frequently, and how can I minimize those,” but also analyze if your value is in the curveballs, you don’t want to just focus on minimizing curveballs. It might be a better approach to focus on, “I am never getting to this other work because I’m in these curveballs all day, but my value is actually in the curveballs, so what I need to do is unload some of this other work.” And if that’s not you, and the curveballs are taking you away from your work, then we really want to focus on getting you out of the curveballs and just kind of being a little bit more mindful and observant of what these curveballs are and thinking of creative ways that we could get you out of them.

Curveballs Are Unpredictable in Nature – 6:27

The second point is this is a little weird, and so, it’s totally fine if you resist it, but keep an open mind to it, and even if you’re resisting it, consider trying it. The thing about curveballs that are so funny is that they are obviously unpredictable in nature. That’s a curveball – a fire. We don’t know. You know, you wake up at 8:00 AM, and you don’t know what’s coming during the day. That’s why we call it a curveball or a fire. And so, they are unpredictable in nature. But they are predictable in that you know they’re coming. What I mean by that is if I ask you, “How many hours of curveballs do you deal with on an average day at work?” you could give me an answer or a range of an answer. At the very least, you could give me a rough idea of how many curveballs you deal with in a week.

You might not know it off the top of your head, but if you sat down and really thought about it, maybe even over the next couple days, you could give me an answer like, “Every day about 3 hours of my days get derailed by curveballs,” or “30 minutes a day,” or “3 hours a week,” or “5 hours a day.” If you think about it and look back at your days, you can be like, “Man, this much of my day is getting derailed by curveballs,” and what the important part to hear is is it’s predictable to you that X amount of minutes or hours every day is gonna be derailed by curveballs.

And so, as with everything that I teach, we just have to embrace that reality. Again, step one is we can try and minimize it. But step two is with most of our jobs, curveballs are inevitable. Things are going to come up. People are going to email me. People are going to call. You can evaluate whether they are in fact curveballs that need to rank, which is something we can talk about and maybe I’ll do another episode on, but at the end of the day, it’s unavoidable that we’re all gonna deal with a certain amount of curveballs. You can predict roughly how many hours or minutes they are going to take away from your day.

And so, what we need to do is plan for that because let’s say you deal with three hours of curveballs a day, at 8:00 AM when you’re looking at your day, I don’t want you to be essentially thinking, “I have an eight-hour workday I get to play with in terms of what tasks I want to do and what meetings I want to do,” because you know actually three hours of that is gonna go to curveballs, so you actually only have five hours of a workday. I’m just using a general eight-hour day here, but you get the point. You have to understand that curveballs take away — those predictable amounts of curveballs — not predictable (we don’t know what they are in specifics), but the amount of time that you could predict is going to be taken away from your available work hours for you to plot out meetings and tasks that you want to accomplish during those work hours.

Protect Time Visually For Curveballs – 9:18

I think we don’t think to plan this stuff because it’s hard to know how to plan it. You’re like, “Well, I don’t know when they’re gonna hit, so how can I possibly plan it?” What I want you to hear without going into all the tech strategies to do this is essentially what we want to do is towards the end of your day, protect time visually for those curveballs, for yourself. So you’ll want a visual reminder in your calendar that you can call something like “flex time,” or “wiggle room,” or “curveball time,” or “just don’t fill it up,” whatever you want to call it in your calendar.

I’m gonna give an example. Let’s say you end your day at five o’clock, and you get two hours of curveballs every day on average. You would probably want to block three to five in your calendar for curveballs. Obviously, that does not mean that you only deal with curveballs from 3:00 to 5:00, but as the curveballs hit at 9:00 AM, 10:00 AM, 11:00 AM, whatever time they hit, the tasks and the meetings that get dislodged by those curveballs have somewhere to get pushed into. Essentially, you are creating cushion in your day that the things that are getting dislodged move into.

There are ways you can do this without blocking your availability and things like that, but for purposes of today, I really want you to hear that we’re just trying to embrace the reality that you deal with X amount of time of curveballs every single day and plan for them in a way that actually works. Totally fair if you’re resisting this. I would say most of my clients look at me like I’m crazy when I suggest it, but those that try it love it.

Now, I will say, it’s not the most puppies and rainbows feeling of happiness and joy when you put this into your calendar. It is incredibly aggravating to see this stuff and plot it out and put it in your calendar. But I’m always a fan of front-end frustration when it comes to planning because it makes your day to day so much better. Clients will say things like, “I hated putting it in my calendar, but I am relieved every time I have to use it.” I think that’s really what it comes down to. And then if you don’t use it, you get this bonus time, which is awesome! I would much prefer you to discover bonus time in your day than to consistently be wondering why your perfectly planned day is getting derailed every single day by three hours of curveballs. If it’s predictable in terms of the time, let’s plan for it in a way that’s realistic and that works.

All right, so obviously there’s more nuance into this and strategies and things like that. But that’s what it really comes down to is we want to minimize the number of curveballs as much as we can. That said, if your value is in the curveballs, we might need to minimize the other work on your plate so that you are freed up to have the breathing space to deal with those curveballs without crazy amounts of stress, at least on the logistical front. The curveballs themselves may be stressful in nature, but you also don’t want the added stress of sweating how you’re gonna get those five other hours of work done today if you have five hours of curveballs every day. And also, we want to account for the curveballs we can’t avoid or that we’re dealing with in the interim as we try and figure it out and really plan for them in a way that works. The way that we plan for them is padding our days at the end of the day with reminders to ourselves not to fill up our days with plans and tasks and things like that because we know we’re gonna need a certain amount of time to deal with curveballs. Then as the curveballs hit throughout the day, we have cushion where things can get moved down to to give it — essentially, that breathing space that we built into our calendar.

This might be frustrating to put in. It will be frustrating to put in, but it’s realistic, and therefore, it will help you feel actually accomplished at the end of the day, help you ensure that you’re prioritizing the main projects in your life. I’m trying to wrap up, but I’m gonna talk about that for a second.

Essentially, if you thought you had eight hours a day of work to do, then you’re gonna put more tasks in there. And then when those curveballs hit and you end up only with five hours a day of work, then it’s a little bit of a crapshoot of which of the tasks in your originally planned day are gonna get done. You might then get done more of the less important things because you just happened to get them done first before those curveballs hit, or it’s just the first thing you saw when you looked in your calendar and tried to grab something to do in the moments between a fire. Instead, if you knew going into your day, “I only have five hours of things to do,” or “I only have three hours of task availability,” then you are smarter at planning those high-priority things and ensure that those things get done versus eight hours of kind of a mixed bag of high priority/low priority stuff, and it just kind of is like luck of the draw of which of those things get done. So I hope that makes sense for you.

Curveballs are an inevitable part of many of our jobs, and so, we just need to accept it and plan with it. If you want to do more of that with me, I love this stuff! Join me for my fall eight-week Bright Method program. You can learn more about it at www.kellynolan.com/bright, and if you enjoyed this episode, please share it with a friend! I will be so grateful, and I hope they will be as well.

Thanks for being here, and I’ll catch you in the next one!

[Upbeat Outro Music]

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