I Want It NOW – How to prioritize when EVERYTHING is an Emergency

In my previous career, I had a work life where a majority of my time was what I called “inner-directed.” To me, that means that when I walked down the sidewalk in the morning, approaching my office building, thinking what I was about to do at work that day, I could count on being in control of about 65% of my day. I was busy, fulfilled, and worked hard, but I decided when, how and what I would be doing.

All that changed when I became a research administrator, where a majority of my time is now “outer-directed.” I come to work, thinking of the things I need to do and knowing that I’m going to be able to control, if I’m fortunate, about 25% of the events of my workday – given the fluid and dynamic nature of research, and the ever changing needs of our investigators. I’m busy, fulfilled and challenged, and I’m working hard, but – I’m sure you know what I’m going to say next – I’m lucky some days to cross one item off my to do list with the issues that come up that must be handled.

Ha! Isn’t that just the way – everything is an emergency. It’s all important, every PI wants their project handled now, every house is a four-alarm fire and we get to the point where all we can do is jump from one fire to the other. It’s hardly the way to handle the complex and difficult work of research administration.

Neuroscientists talk about the “fight or flight” phenomenon and how, in high stress situations, when a human being is primed to respond NOW – NOW – NOW to a situation, it is impossible to work at our best. This situation creates a parasympathetic nervous system response in the brain, which generates a whole host of physical symptoms, from a faster heartbeat, an adrenaline rush and even tunnel vision. It can take 20 – 60 minutes to “come down” from a code red-type situation. In the life of a research administrator, when these type of events can occur on a large or small scale every week or sometimes more than once a day – it becomes necessary to develop strategies for managing these events differently, because the type of stress this creates is simply untenable and unmanageable for the work we are asked to do.

As realistic professionals, we realize that we’re not going to change the investigators we work with. The people who produce work at the last minute are not going to start producing applications or financial reports three weeks in advance. Unfortunately, this is a large part of the source of our emergent stress. However, the fact that we no longer expect that it is unpredictable – means we can plan for it. (An “emergency” has less power to surprise when it is planned for, wouldn’t you agree?) But the mental challenge of managing emergent and multiple projects is an ongoing issue for research administrators.

What do you do when every project is an emergency – when every “house is on fire?” 

1. My equivalent to “Stop, Drop and Roll” is Stop and Think. Just because someone else says something is an emergency doesn’t mean you have to respond like it is.  Assess, take stock.   What is it about this project, compared to your other deadlines that has to get accomplished right now? I’ve started to tell people – “thanks for bringing this to my attention, I’ll get back to you in X.” to build in time for myself to think before I respond.

2. Develop a barometer. Every disaster has one. There’s a four alarm fire. A 10 on the Richter scale. It’s because some emergencies are not as bad as others. Figure out a criteria. I have a brief one – it doesn’t work for all situations but it helps to assess some circumstances.

I use 4 D’s:

If there is a deadline, a dollar amount, a Dean/Department Chair and/or Da Feds attached to a request I receive, it gets my attention faster. The more D’s, the higher the priority. (You can tell I’m from Chicago with the Ditka reference.) The bigger the dollar amount, the closer the deadline, and it gets more attention. Triage and respond accordingly. Do your work and double check it.

3. Go slow to go fast. I’m usually pretty good at going to a Zen place right before an application is due, but there are other times when this is a good practice. It’s too easy to make mistakes or for your brain to get muddled when you rush. Even when the PI and everyone else is telling you to hurry, resist the urge.

4. When your adrenaline peaks, go for a walk to burn it off. The longer your brain chemistry is cooking, you’re screwed. If you can’t do that, bring in other people to talk through what you have to do.

5. Work your checklists and tools. I got a ton of crap for my old fashioned adding machine –you know the kind that prints totals on paper tape? My fabulous GenX colleagues who love Excel and couldn’t imagine using it. But it remembers a string of totals without printing a page – and there’s a lot of times we need that when we’re doing reporting and budgeting and ya know what? They don’t make fun of me anymore. (Not for that anyway.) Find what works for you that reduces repetitive brain power.

Emergencies aren’t going away. How we respond to them, however, can make all the difference.

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