Alarm fatigue is a problem. How do you identify urgent and important situations? How do you triage priority when everything is an emergency?
There are several phenomena at work here, and I'd like to unpack them today: urgency versus importance, alarm fatigue, artificial deadlines, triage in a crisis, when to drop the ball, and more!
Managing important tasks, urgency, and alerts are all important topics to me. In one part, it's because I work in the tech industry, but the other part is because I style myself as the executive leader of my household:
I have limited resources and many, many responsibilities to juggle. Leading my household requires diligent thought put into how to carry that out.
What often happens is that people come to me with emergencies, either at work or in the household. With so many urgent, important, and crisis situations to sort through, how do I manage them without destroying myself?
The Urgency vs. Importance Matrix
To begin with the basics, urgency and importance are not synonymous.
Urgency is about how soon something needs to be done, usually due to deadlines or crises. Importance is harder to qualify, beyond the tautology of how it's important to carry something out.
When you use urgency and importance as the axes for a graph, you get four quadrants to split tasks up into:
First you have your high urgency, high importance tasks that need to be done immediately. Stuff with deadlines, crises, things that are bleeding money or risking lives, and so on.
Second you have the important stuff that you can take your time on – that doesn't mean you're free to forget about them, though. Things like dealing with technical debt need an actionable plan, even if it's not immediate.
Thirdly you have the urgent but unimportant things. Often this comes in the form of synchronous communications like phone calls, sync ups, or meetings. They can also be time sensitive tasks that have a small but definite impact.
Fourth is of course the unimportant stuff with no deadline or urgency. Usually it can be safely eliminated, or ignored until it fades into irrelevance. Sometimes it's fodder for doing just to knock something out of the way – or for giving to the intern, metaphorically.
One of the nuances is that importance is in the eye of the beholder. What is an emergency for one person may not be so for you. This is why it's so hard to define what importance even is, beyond its tautology.
There's an easy approximation: if a task provides net value, then it's probably important. The more value it provides, the more it is important.
Now that we share an understanding of the differences between urgent and important, we can carry on with more specific problems relating to emergencies and urgency.
Artificial deadlines are rife in the tech industry, thanks to release schedules and software development lifecycle practises. In brief, an artificial deadline is an arbitrary date where work needs to be completed.
Arbitrary deadlines like this are a synchronisation tool, a way of getting lots of people on board and moving in the correct direction at the same time. They're good, in some respects.
There's an adage that "work expands to fill the time allotted." By keeping deadlines, you force the work to keep from sprawling on forever.
However, artificial deadlines are a large part of the burnout problem in the tech industry – and others. People perform "heroic efforts" to fit into deadlines, without reward or recuperation. Then time and time again they must make sacrifices to meet the next deadline.
There's a real human cost to meeting deadlines consistently, which is often unaccounted for by managers and executives.
There's also another problem I see playing out with artificial deadlines: doing it right vs. doing it right now.
Rushing causes problems that planning could avoid, but planning takes precious time. With the constant pressure to get things done now, I've seen far too many folk make the judgement call to put off doing it right.
There's always excuses: "We can revisit this after we get a minimum viable product out," and "we can fix it if it turns out to actually cause problems" being the most common valid points.
Yet all too often, leadership doesn't budget for workers to revisit these rushed decisions. There's no follow-up, because it doesn't affect the topline.
Between the constant urgency of artificial deadlines, and the technical debt of rushing causing problems in output, workers can become fatigued. Which leads us to the next point: alarm fatigue.
What is Alarm Fatigue?
Let's pretend that we've set up an alarm in our house for whenever it gets so hot that we need to turn on a fan. If that alarm triggers every hour, we'll quickly grow accustomed to that alarm and might be lazy about getting to it. We might even begin to ignore it.
The constant triggering of an alarm fatigues our minds, and we can't react with a sense of urgency every time.
Now imagine that instead of a low-stakes alarm in your house, you're a nurse dealing with vitals monitoring equipment that is constantly measuring dozens of life signs and periodically squawking at you for attention.
If you stop caring, if you lose your sense of urgency, you may get sloppy and risk someone's life and health with your carelessness.
Yet alarm fatigue is an inexorable force, you can't fight it with willpower alone.
The problem of alarm fatigue arises from having something urgent come too frequently. There are two ways to fight that: by making there be less urgent things coming in, or by spreading the load out to more people.
How To Reduce Alert Fatigue
Let's consider another scenario: that of a leader that has people regularly bringing problems to them of all four types of urgency and importance.
The first approach to handling alert fatigue, reducing alarms, is a periodic struggle. The leader in this scenario would need to get experts to tune monitoring tools to produce less alerts. They would also need to train the people bringing problems to them to recognise whether a problem can be solved independently, or whether it truly rates the leader's attention.
The second approach, adding more responders, is a rare feat in our capitalistic world. More people are expensive, especially skilled ones! Imagine if we had two co-leaders, who could take week-long shifts to respond to problems and then take a week off to focus on recovering.
They won't burn out as quickly, and don't need to make huge sacrifices to get the job done. Yet it costs a lot more money to do it that way.
Delivering Less and Gauging Urgency
When you're given an urgent task, rarely are you expected to have a solution bundled up immediately. Even when something should be done "as soon as possible," people shouldn't usually expect heroics that burn you out.
That's why you might adopt the policy of delivering something small up front to gauge urgency.
For instance, if someone wants you to devise a whole project, you might spend the day compiling research into a presentation about high-level decisions and options. Then you can present that at the next meeting to show that you've done some work, even if the project is not completed.
Most often, the stakeholders in such a project don't expect immediate results – just immediate effort. Something small will hold them over.
If they expect more from you – more urgency, done sooner – then they can give you that feedback after you deliver the first appetiser.
When to Tell People No
Sometimes people will come to you with all of their problems, even self-inflicted ones.
Sometimes this is a problem of the person not feeling empowered to make a call alone, for instance, technicians reaching out to the on-call engineer every time a sensor fails.
In that case, the technician doesn't feel prepared or skilled enough to diagnose something on their own, so they immediately escalate it to someone who is.
The proper response from the engineer is usually to:
- Accept the problem the first time (or two or three times...)
- Train the technician on how to handle diagnosing failures for the future
- Ensure the technician first tries to troubleshoot it themselves and proves that it's out of their depth before accepting future escalations
That's the graceful way of telling someone no. It's a properly cooperative spirit, helping someone grow and thus sparing yourself of the extra work.
That's only one case, though. Other times, people bring all their problems to you in a particularly frustrating way: these people create their own crises and then foist them off onto you.
Thus comes the saying, "Your failure to plan does not constitute a crisis on my part."
Telling these people no is an important skill for preserving your own workload.
When to Drop the Ball or Triage
When people fail to uphold their part of the work, or when they foist their work onto you unduly... you need to know when to step back, drop the ball, and let them fail.
It's not in the most cooperative spirit to do so, but it is crucial for winnowing out people who aren't cooperative. Let them suffer the consequences for their selfish failings.
Dropping the ball intentionally like that is a step of last resort. It's what leads to people getting fired, and it reflects poorly on the health of whatever group let someone (or some people) fail.
However, that's not the only time to drop the ball.
What do you do when there is more work than you can handle?
You likely already know how to triage work, deciding what is the relatively most important amongst a stack of tasks to perform first.
It's important when you're overloaded to triage your work; don't spread yourself thin and fail at multiple things. Contain the damage, complete what you can, and drop only portions that you can afford to.
When Everything Is An Emergency, Nothing Is
What if everything is urgent, critical, important, and so on? How do you triage, then?
At first you may still carefully inspect each incoming crisis, finding out which are truly problematic and which are less than they seem. However, that takes vital time to do, especially as you sustain a heavy workload.
Eventually, either fatigue sets in or the urgency of solving things pushes you into the area of treating all the emergencies as equal. You do what you can, when you can.
In short: when everything is an emergency, they're all the same. Nothing is the most important thing to tackle any longer.
It's important to understand this eventual degenerative state. You normally need to work to avoid it.
The right way to handle overwhelming emergencies is in prevention, not slapping on fixes after it's too late.
Grow your skills, and those of the people around you. Give people psychological safety to try risky things. Bolster people's confidence in doing things on their own.
Above all, recognise when things are getting overwhelming and reach out for help.
Many hands make for a lighter load, after all!
If you are new to my domain, then I shall call to your attention this recent article I wrote as a potentially interesting read: