Over the course of doing such work, on more than one occasion I have heard a writer say that they could not take advantage of their writing time because they were “putting out fires.” This is not unique to academics. We all encounter unpredictability and sometimes chaos in our professional and personal lives. On occasion, we’ll have to put aside our regularly scheduled activities to attend to these situations.
If you find yourself constantly neglecting your calendar or rearranging your schedule to put out fires, however, you need to reassess your priorities. As urgent as they might seem, these fires are not always worth your energy and attention.
Sometimes, you need to just let those fires burn.
This is admittedly difficult. There are two related reasons why putting out fires assumes so much importance.
The fires are urgent in a way that writing is not. You may experience an immediate sense of satisfaction from solving a problem that you do not have when you are laboring over a first or second draft of a manuscript.
You’re driven by obligation and guilt. You have taken on too many commitments and now you feel guilty about letting people down. You’re convinced that ignoring an emergency or a request would make you look selfish, or you just generally have a hard time saying no.
It’s important to be a good member of your professional community, and there are probably some emergencies that are your responsibility, or some commitments you feel passionate about. This does not mean you need to bend over backwards to accommodate everything and everyone. If you need a reality check about where you should be directing your energies, ask yourself this question: Can I write about this in my tenure application?
Can you tell the tenure and promotion committee that you just “had to” come in on your writing day to attend an emergency committee meeting? If you delay submitting a manuscript for a peer-reviewed publication because you “had to” do a colleague a favor and commit to writing a chapter in an edited volume because someone pulled out at the last minute, will that chapter have the same weight in your tenure packet?
Also, consider that would happen if you did not put out the fire. Your fellow committee members may be irritated with you. An editor may have to put in extra work to find another contributor to their volume. Weigh the consequences against the consequences of putting off your own work, and think about what the short and long term repercussions might be. There may be a few situations where the consequences are dire, but in general, they won’t be.
Refraining from rushing to put out every fire is not merely an act of self-interest. I would argue that it’s instead an act of self-preservation. But it’s also more important than that, because it’s a direct reflection of how you treat yourself. Think of it as the golden rule inverted – do unto yourself as you would do unto others. If you are always putting others’ needs and emergencies ahead of your own, then how will you ever be able to further your own career, and in turn take care of yourself?
Remember, not everything is your problem.
You are your number one priority.