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Getting things done: There’s more than 1 way

From the ABCDE Method to “mind maps,” various tools can help you achieve your personal and professional goals


This is the time of year when people state intentions and set goals, both personally and professionally. Yet many people also find that their best intentions do not result in real outcomes. Why?

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Have you made your New Year’s resolutions yet? Have you already broken them?

This is the time of year when people state intentions and set goals, both personally and professionally. Yet many people also find that their best intentions do not result in real outcomes. Why?

Procrastination and distraction are ever-present challenges to getting things done. There is always something else that seems to take precedence, some more urgent task to be accomplished.

Two approaches to tasks

How you perceive and manage goals can have a big effect on whether those goals come to fruition. There are two general schools of thought about how to begin when tackling a large objective.

One school of thought is along the lines of a quote often (but probably incorrectly) attributed to Mark Twain: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” In other words, do the biggest, hardest, nastiest thing first, and then everything else you need to do will be easy.

This approach works well for tasks you would otherwise tend to procrastinate about. For example, you need to do a detailed inventory of all the medical supplies but find yourself doing PT, writing emails and cleaning the kitchen until there isn’t time for that other project. Maybe next shift, you think. Choosing to do the least desirable thing first can ensure that it gets done.

Sometimes, however, it works better to take the opposite approach, especially for difficult tasks that require full attention and concentration. If you are someone who is easily distracted, it can help to “clear the decks” by resolving all the smaller, less-committing tasks first before taking on the more complex and absorbing endeavor. Then you will not be tempted to veer off from the larger goal when smaller demands come up.

The ABCDE method

When developing discipline for attaining goals, lists can help tremendously. In his book “Eat That Frog,” Brian Tracy recommends what he calls the ABCDE Method, a way of “thinking on paper.” This method allows you to prioritize goals before starting any one task.

Start by making a list of all the things you feel you need to do in the coming day. Then assign each task a letter following these guidelines:

  • A tasks are all the things you absolutely must get done, as there will be serious consequences if these goals are not met.
  • B tasks are things you should do, but with less severe consequences if you don’t.
  • C tasks are things that would just be nice to do, with no negative outcomes for not doing them.
  • D tasks are ones that you can delegate. The general rule in this method is that you should delegate everything you can, in order to free up time to address A tasks on the list.
  • E tasks are ones that can be eliminated altogether.

“Mind maps”

This method and others like it can be very useful for mitigating procrastination, but it’s not always as simple as it may seem. First, who gets to decide what is the most important task of the day? You may set a priority for your crew and have some outside force interfere. That’s the nature of emergency service – the best laid plans often come to nothing. This method also may too heavily emphasize tangible goals, such as completing a certain number of inspections versus less tangible ones, such as debriefing a difficult call with the crew.

There are ways of visualizing goals that are less linear than lists, and these can be useful especially with larger, longer-range goals. For example, say your big personal goal is to finish your fire science degree. This is not something you can just do all at once. It requires planning and research. Making a “mind map” to facilitate this process can help.

Start by writing the ultimate goal in the center of a blank page and draw a circle around it. Then start brainstorming all the things you need to do to address this goal. Write these around the perimeter of the central goal and draw circles around them as well, connecting them to the center with lines. For example, you might write things like “get transcripts from community college” or “research local colleges about programs.” Each of these sub-goals will spawn smaller goals and tasks which can be represented in smaller circles attached to their larger goals. In the end, you will have a page full of interconnected circles and ideas, and a good start on how to address a goal that might otherwise feel overwhelming.

Have a plan

When addressing goals and completing tasks, it is good to have a wide range of tools and not be stuck on doing things only one way. You may be an “eat the frog first” kind of person, but there are days when you simply won’t have the energy or attention to do it, say, when working the second half of a 48-hour shift after being awake the first 24. On those days, you can focus instead on the smaller, less committing tasks that also need to be done, clearing the way for addressing the big things when you are more physically ready to do so.

The big takeaway from all time management literature is having a plan. The plan does not have to be written in stone, but if you come to work each day only with an attitude of “let’s see what happens,” most days, not that much will.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.