Smokey Vs. The Arsonist - Next Action Associates

This silence was definitely not golden. My audience looked at me expectantly, willing me on, but I had run out of words. I looked over to my parents seated in the second row. They too were encouraging but didn’t have the words I needed. Head down, I made a run for my seat between them.

Unfortunately, this was not one of those ‘forgot my lines’ nightmares, but an uncomfortable reality for my five-year-old self.

At that stage there was no signal to bring the lone Canadian television channel to our cottage in the woods, so when a poster went up at the local store advertising a ‘Smokey the Bear’ evening in the area, my sisters and I were dead keen. For those of you who don’t know him, Smokey was what passed for a sylvan super-hero for a generation of North American children. His face looked out from countless posters with admonitions on careless behaviour and suggestions for preventing forest fires.

On the evening of the presentation, we drove the few miles to the meeting point, a clearing near a railway crossing. A re-purposed rail car did service as our ‘theatre’, and – there being no television for anyone else either – there was a good turnout.

Our facilitator held forth (on behalf of Smokey) on the joys of the forest, and the dangers of dropping cigarette butts out of car windows. At a certain point, they offered a prize to anyone able to sing the ‘Smokey the Bear’ song.

The prize thing sounded good, and I’d sung the tune a thousand times so got my hand up fast. The room fell silent, and I stood up and launched in:

“Smokey the bear, Smokey the bear, prowlin’ and a-growlin’ and a-sniffin’ in the air, he can find a fire, before it starts to flame,….”

I got that far on enthusiasm, but when I noticed the 80-odd eyes trained on me and my performance, all memory of the other verses* (see link below…) disappeared. Cue that silence I mentioned.

The audience was generous, and I got a round of applause for my efforts. The presenter was generous too, and I got the prize – a book on the flora and fauna of our local forest.

Why do I tell you this?

Well, Smokey was big on stopping fires before they got too big, so very early on in my work with GTD®, I identified him as an informal patron saint of the Weekly Review ®.

When I began teaching the methodology I noticed that my clients were consistently complaining about how they felt forced to spend so much time each day fighting fires that they just didn’t have time to work more strategically.

It took me a while to work out that they had it backwards. They were fighting fires all day because they wouldn’t work strategically.

Building on their metaphor, I began to accuse them of being their own arsonists. It was – at least in part – their own inattention and negligence that was creating the fires they were spending all day fighting. I knew I was onto something when they smiled rather than threw me out when I said it. I could, more or less, watch the pennies drop as they began to see how they might be causing their own complaint.

Let me come back to that word ‘strategically’. It sounds like something grown-ups do. Military planners, CEOs or management consultants. Maybe. Most people I work with become dramatically more strategic if they simply take only a few minutes every once in a while to step away and have a look at what they are doing from a fresh perspective. The hour per week we suggest for a Weekly Review turns them into strategic geniuses, for all practical purposes. Assuming 8 hours of shut-eye per day, that’s 0.89% of the waking week.

Let’s be clear. You can’t stop all the fires with a Weekly Review, but you can reduce their size and number for sure. It’s not magic. It is a simple process of going through your commitments systematically, looking for things that are off-track. Something that is 2-3 degrees off track for a few days is inches of divergence from the correct path. An easy fix. To go back to the forest fire metaphor, a shovel full of dirt on a few smoking embers – or a quick e-mail – will get things back on track quickly. Three degrees off track for a few weeks requires a much greater course correction to get back on track, and shovels won’t be enough. You’ll be back to the firefighting again, speed dialling water bombers and calling in the national guard.

What we want is to be more Smokey, less arsonist. Being just strategic enough to find the fires in our lives before they start to flame. All that is required is less than a percent of our week engaging in the gentle discipline of reviewing our action lists, calendar, and the outcomes we are committed to. Genius optional.

Smokey the Bear song performed, without interruption:

Origin story:

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