First Things First

Ever feel like you're constantly putting out fires?

This is the third part of an 8-part series called “7 Habits of Highly Effective Pharmacists.”

Ever feel like you’re constantly putting out fires? You’re busy all day, but when you lie down in bed at night, you’ve got nothing to show for it.

When I was in retail pharmacy, I remember feeling like I was always putting out fires, solving everyone else’s problems and moving slightly toward my goals, but not making much progress.

One retail pharmacy I worked for was pushing us to administer more flu vaccines, which we found distracting. In the middle of our attempts to get work done, we’d have a random patient wanting a vaccine. It felt like the pharmacy was changing the pharmacists’ priorities.

Looking Backward—and Forward

Let’s revisit the previously discussed habits. The first habit, Proactive Mindset, says you must take responsibility for your actions by becoming a proactive person. With the second habit, Begin with the End in Mind, you create the direction of your life by taking the time to understand and write out your guiding principles.

The third habit, First Things First, is the physical creation of the second habit. By putting it into practice, you’re exercising your independent will toward principle-centered living.

Say I want to become a runner. I think, “I'm a runner.” When I go to bed, I think about running. When I wake up I think, “I’m going to run.” But, if I don’t spend a single moment actually running, there’s no change.

If I were to review your calendar and your bank statement, I’d be able to tell what you value the most. If you’re spending all your time at work, you’re saying you value work. If you value your time with your children or spouse, you’re saying they’re important.

This habit may sound like time management, but that’s a misnomer. What you’re really doing—intentionally or unintentionally—is managing yourself. It’s about self-control.

Creating Quadrants

“Time management” is a buzz phrase today because it sounds less oppressive than self-control. With the third habit, you’re going to create a visual guide to help you think about how and where you spend your time.

Think of a graph. To the left of the X-axis, list the crazy, urgent things that happen: “My mom is in the hospital. I have to go.” This is also for things like text messages, which some believe are urgent. I’m sure you’ve been in a conversation when someone’s phone buzzes and they check their message because, apparently, it’s urgent.

To the right of the X-axis, list things that aren’t urgent, like spending time with your family. The right-hand side might include daily tasks, a weekend trip, or watching TV.

On the Y-axis, list importance things. At the very top are things like going to the hospital because your mom’s there, but as you move down the Y-axis, list less important things, like minor interruptions at work.

Quadrant 1, in the top left, includes urgent, important matters, like putting out fires at your job. Quadrant 2, in the top right, includes non-urgent but important matters. Toward the bottom left, Quadrant 3, are urgent but unimportant matters. On the bottom right, Quadrant 4, are non-urgent, unimportant matters.

Living in Quadrant 1 can create stress, burnout, and crises, while living in Quadrant 3 or 4 can be irresponsible and result in losing jobs, not spending enough quality time with your family, and depending too much on others.

Living in Quadrant 2, however, bases things on your principles, which means having discipline and self-control and few crises.

So, how do you live in Quadrant 2? How do you arrange things so you aren’t always extinguishing fires and instead doing things that matter?

To start, create a graph like the one described, prioritizing urgent tasks on the left and non-urgent tasks on the right.

E-mail Distractions

Pharmacists are distracted many times every day, leading to more stress, lower productivity, increased mistakes, and decreased work results. What if you took responsibility for yourself (habit 1), dictated priorities (habit 2), and made rules around them (habit 3)?

A great way to take ownership of answering e-mails is to choose the time you’ll do so. Leaving your e-mail notifications on all day invites automatic, uncontrollable, unexpected distractions.

If you’re deep in thought or trying to make a clinical decision and you hear a ding, you’re suddenly distracted and wondering, “Who is it? My boss? My medical director? Am I in trouble? Do I have to answer it now?” Even though you haven’t technically taken any action, the ding already pulled you away from your thought process.

A manager I know chooses to answer e-mails only at 8 am, noon, and 4 pm every day. “But what if it’s my boss? What if it needs a response as soon as possible?” If it’s urgent, why are they sending an e-mail? That’s like texting an ambulance for help. It’s faster to call 911 than to type out a request, and the same goes for e-mail.

Managing Tasks

Obviously, you can’t plan things like your mom going to the hospital, but you could plan an emergency fund to reserve for the random accident that costs you money. Having a bad-stuff-happens fund makes that emergency less urgent.

Moving from Quadrant 1 to Quadrant 2 also requires planning. You can probably eliminate or minimize the time you spend on unimportant things in Quadrants 3 and 4, like checking Facebook.

Focus on how to make the things you write in Quadrant 2 more important by planning your life around them. What action steps can you take to give these tasks the priority they deserve? If you want to spend time with your family, don’t let random texts distract you from a conversation with your daughter, and don’t let work e-mails distract you from interacting with your spouse.

Taking Action

Get out your graph, write out all the things you do on a day-to-day basis, and put them in quadrants. Then, develop a realistic self-management plan to help you spend more time on your Quadrant 2 tasks.

If you don’t understand which tasks are most important, you may end up living in Quadrant 3 or 4 too much. The more balanced you get, the more you’ll shift your focus.

Eventually, you’ll work in Quadrant 2 most of the time and Quadrant 1 only when necessary. You’ll do less and less in Quadrant 3 and start getting rid of items in Quadrant 4.

Back to the pharmacists-and-vaccines example, the pharmacists got proactive and created a marketing plan to vaccinate on specific days. Sure, we still had the occasional random patient coming in for vaccines, but it was significantly less problematic.