My summer job before I left for college in 1965 was the night admitting clerk in the emergency room in the Huntsville, Alabama county hospital – a facility built to support a few thousand in a small rural community but now taxed with serving hundreds of thousands, brought to town by the new Apollo missile program.  Saturday nights in the small emergency room were often pure chaos, with auto wreck victims lined up on gurneys in the hallway. Those shifts passed the quickest for me, and I slept the best, afterwards.

Crisis promotes a kind of serenity. Why do people commonly tend get into their “zone” then? It’s because of what the situation demands: appropriate engagement. Think about the last time you were in such a circumstance. What were the fundamental components of your experience and behavior? Immediate integration of potentially meaningful inputs; clear definition of desired outcomes; trust in your intuitive judgment; decisions about specific next actions and physical movement on the most critical; consistent recalibration of all factors as required; acceptance of what can’t and needn’t be done at that moment. Those are all core elements of triage, and, actually, appropriate engagement with anything. Put together they’ll get you into your “zone.”

Why don’t we (and our organizations) live and work in that zone? One would think it would be obvious that it was the most effective way to get the right things done with minimal resources. The simple answer is: without an immediately clear emergency, the boundaries in the psyche are released to confront the infinitely complex and multifarious nature of our worldly relationships. Your boss, your organization, your car, your kids, your vacation, your health, your bank, your senior team, your career, your dog, your old printer, your parents.

With no imminent disaster, you’re likely in a bigger one. It’s more dangerous, because it’s insidious. Crisis generates stress, for sure, but that pressure is addressed, utilized, and relieved. The stresses of the potentially overwhelming aspects of life and work become the boiled frog – it won’t get out of the water that slowly cooks it to death.

Solution? Learn from what crisis teaches us about appropriate engagement, and practice it day to day, instead of waiting for a crisis to force it.

Immediate integration of potentially meaningful inputs. Capture everything that has your attention into your in-baskets, to be addressed, sooner than later.

Outcome and action focus. Address what you’ve captured. Decide what needs to be finished about whatever has your attention, and what the very next physical, visible action is required.

Consistent recalibration. Step back and see organized versions of the bigger picture, with appropriate recursions and altitude. Regularly bring up the rear guard, to maintain a clear, current, and accurate picture of your landscapes.

Trust intuitive judgment. Sufficiently executing the previous three principles gives you permission to make confident choices about focusing your resources. The only perfection is appropriate engagement with the rhythm and content of a changing, dynamic universe.

We need a lot more prevention than patch-up.  Do your “rounds” across the field of your life, not just on the fifth floor. Why should “intensive care” be relegated to the results of its neglect?

Try this: In the next twenty-four hours (1) Do a “capture” of everything and anything that has your attention – write or type that list somewhere; (2) take at least one of those items that really is tugging at you and decide what your desired outcome is, and the very next action required to move forward on it; and (3) take a half hour to step back and consider all the things you should be considering, in order to truly relax about what you’re not doing tonight.

You’re doing versions of this already, to some degree, or you wouldn’t be reading this. But make these practices more conscious, complete, consistent, and applied in the important arenas of your life and work, and notice how much more time will disappear and restful sleep you’ll have.

David Allen is the chairman of the David Allen Company. This article brought to you by Xerox Corporation.

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2 Responses for “What’s the Real Emergency Room?”

  1. Dan Armishaw says:

    The emergency room is an apt analogy. Sitting in the emergency room for triage to bring up our turn, small talk about the Olympics or the impending election is clearly identified as such. I suppose the antithesis of this mindset is that of the couch potato, clinging to the current asinine sitcom or contrived controversy on CNN for distraction.

  2. Katy Smith says:

    David Allen’s stuff is the best! I’ve used his techniques for years after going through five other methodologies. Your nicely blocked out schedule is blow out of the water by the first phone call … his system can absorb any monkey wrench thrown at it and keep on truckin’ without losing integrity. Great free tips on his website too.

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