Planting seeds or putting out fires?

Do you spend most of your time planting seeds, or putting out fires?

If you’re planting seeds, you not only have to wait before getting the benefits, you also have to put in more work to cultivate them. It’s slow, but the earlier you start the greater the payoff in the long term.

If you’re only putting out fires, you’re dealing with the urgent, short-term problems, but neglecting your longer-term success.

Here’s an example…

  • You’re working on your PhD as hard as you can. You are reading and reading and gathering data as quickly as possible. Everything is rushed, because there’s NOT ENOUGH TIME.
  • You worry about your level of English, but you don’t have time for lessons. You just have to write because your supervisor wants to see something and it’s been so long since you sent something you feel you have to produce more.
  • And you have a ton of data to analyse, but you’re no good at statistics and there’s so much to do. If you just get something down on paper maybe you can sort it out later.
  • You’re working as hard as you can, but nothing seems to work and you’re afraid of being found out as an impostor

You’re putting out fires. There’s no time to think, let alone do the slow work required to cultivate your basic skills.

But nothing is on fire. There is no emergency. And the stress and energy you are investing isn’t going to pay off. By working in a panic, you’re neglecting the longer-term development of your project and your skills, so when time runs out and there’s a genuine emergency, there’s nothing you can do about it.

What to do

Slow down.

Let’s just take one aspect of the situation above; the stress about writing in English. This is entirely predictable and solvable, but it takes time. The earlier you start to address this problem, and the more consistently you attend to it, the easier it will be later.

If you know you have to submit a thesis in a second language in 3 years, you have 3 years to work on that skill. One lesson won’t make much of a difference, but if you start early and spend an hour per week with a language tutor, focusing primarily on formal written language, and if you do the work to practice, you’ll be fine. But you have to stop putting out fires and plant and cultivate the seed.

The same principle applies to statistics or to any other skill you have to develop. Make time to plant and cultivate seeds, no matter what else is going on.


2 thoughts on “Planting seeds or putting out fires?”

  1. I think this addresses a KEY point. We are often advised to “just get the job done” and we keep on setting targets to get some task done, but never really get anywhere because the rush neglects the long-term development requires to make progress in advanced fields. There is a culture of “just get it done”, we want fast results: this may work in certain situations where no new skills are required or we’re not expected to come up with anything original to a hard problem. I think Seth Godin has a nice talk typifying this approach: and anything that’s not seen as putting out a fire is seen as “procrastination” or that other bad p word, “perfectionism”!

    • Hi Akshay,

      I’m a big fan of Seth Godin! There’s nothing wrong with perfectionism if you have an idea what standard you are trying to reach, have a means of assessing whether you’re succeeding, and have the skills to rectify mistakes. Very often, people use the term perfectionism when they have no idea what’s good or not, so keep changing their minds about what they’re going to do.

      I prefer to use the terms “care” and “indecision” for these two situations

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