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When a surprise disturbs your work-life balance, know your ABCs

Surprise can be unwelcome. It can set us off balance.

Your boss hits you with a rush assignment even before you grab your morning coffee. New furniture arrives at home a few days early – before you have prepared. In each case, you have to adapt. But you may be flustered and flummoxed.

Bruce Harpham, who works in Toronto as an analyst at a large financial institution, has experienced both frustrations. But unlike most of us, he has also studied his reactions, and tried to figure out a system for assuring rebalance. He calls it the ABC Problem Solving Strategy and shared it recently on his Project Management Hacks blog.

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A is for assess relationship impact, a vital aspect of handling such stressful situations that we often neglect. B is blow the alarm for help – you're not in this alone, even if it sometimes seems like that's the grim situation. C is change your calendar to create buffers so next time you're more flexible to handle the disruption.

When something unexpected strikes, our first instinct is to burrow into the problem. If the boss announces he needs a report by the end of the day – or lunchtime – we forget everything else and attack it.

But Mr. Harpham says before that you should take a triage moment: Figure out how long this disruption will take, calculate the impact on the people you work with – will you have to miss a meeting or delay another report for a colleague you were finishing? – and let them know. Usually your colleagues can accept the delay you are foisting on them but he says it's professional courtesy to let them know immediately.

The same courtesy extends, of course, to your family. This is an area that he admits to having both wins and losses in. Every weekend he and his wife calibrate their schedules to know when they will be home at night – which days it will be 6 p.m. and when 10 p.m. He tries not to change those promised times when he hits a workplace emergency. "One can make sacrifices occasionally but need to be mindful so you're not drifting into it happening all the time," he says in an interview. Be aware of the relationship impact, and deal with it.

Beyond your family and immediate colleagues, others can be affected, notably clients and suppliers. If you work in a large organization and the delay will be long, you may have to study your other work, looking at each step and the individuals involved, to figure out who to advise.

In many cases you might be able to handle the unexpected matter yourself. But if you hit a roadblock he suggests you blow the alarm for help. Large organizations create interdependencies. They also have handy resources, including expertise that can speedily deal with a question perplexing you. "Call in the cavalry!" he says. "It can be hard to do as there is an element of humility involved to say, 'I'm stuck, I don't know how to do this.'"

It helps if you show you have done some work on the matter. He suggests creating two solutions, as a sign of the creativity you have applied to the problem. If you want more than advice – direct, hands-on assistance – make that clear, although be prepared to be rebuffed given you have now complicated that other person's life with an unexpected challenge.

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The final step is to prepare in advance for such disruptions by creating buffers in your schedule. "It's a sad reality that many of us feel compelled to schedule each and every hour – and that includes me," he writes. "When you are fully scheduled, small challenges have a disproportionate impact."

To counter that impulse, he has learned from consultant Chris Brogan, who only schedules 40 per cent of the day, allowing flexibility to handle problems or errors that occur. Mr. Brogan suggests – this may hit close to home – most people operate in the opposite fashion, scheduling 120 per cent of their day.

Mr. Harpham now tries to leave the first and last hour of the day unscheduled. In that first hour, he can organize himself and deal with any hot potatoes that have arisen overnight. Freeing the last hour allows him to complete unexpected challenges or work on matters shunted aside because of unexpected disruptions that day. "It works quite well," he says.

Some people respond to the exigencies of the day by toiling at night. He will do so but doesn't consider it ideal, as something that would take half an hour at 10 a.m. will expand to one and a half hours at night.

Of the three steps, he finds the most important is the first – assessing the relationship impact. As our responsibility grows in an organization there is little we do by ourselves. So any challenge impacts others. The toughest has been carving out buffers. "But it's a hill worth climbing," he says.

So next time there's a family or work emergency, remember your ABCs.

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Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More

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