Opinions, Column

Stop Pulling the (Metaphorical) Fire Alarm in Your Life

Traditionally, fire drills are emergency exercises that simulate a building evacuation in the case of a fire. In the corporate world, however, a “fire drill” is what you call it when shit hits the fan. 

I like this phrase because it goes beyond just calling something an emergency. During a real fire drill, we don’t just become aware of the situation—we drop everything, take action, move quickly, and stay calm. When that alarm goes off, the only priority is getting out of the building safely. Outside of these narrow circumstances, most people rarely find themselves in situations where they act so quickly and so desperately with such a narrow focus. Unless, of course, you’re a Boston College student. 

In my personal experience, BC students have 1,000 fire drills a week—not real fire drills, but little personal ones. You forgot you had a big exam this week for your statistics class and now you’re dropping everything to study. The president of the club you’re in texted you that they need answers to these three questions, right now. You’re in class, but you didn’t submit an assignment that’s due for a different class in a few minutes, and now you’re panicking. 

The main difference between real fire drills and the fire drills BC students face on a daily basis is that in a real fire drill, you’re supposed to remain calm. If you’ve ever encountered an overachieving BC student during the day, calm is not the word that would come to mind. Just visit the Rat between classes or the O’Neill printers before 9 a.m., and you’ll see what I mean. We’re always doing something—running to somewhere, running from somewhere, or putting out some fire. There always seem to be several emergencies in our lives, but why? 

At first, this phenomenon might sound like the result of poor time management skills, but the most organized people I know suffer from the most intense fire drills. What these fire drills really demonstrate is a lack of personal boundaries within our personal goals, responsibilities, and expectations. When we let unexpected requests, assignments, exams, or other stressors consume our lives, we succumb to fire drills. The result is that we’re often anxiously and irrationally funneling our time into unexpected issues while neglecting our pre-planned responsibilities. 

Ironically, we rarely set off fire drills for ourselves. Instead, it feels like all of these emergencies flood into our lives from various sources. In this sea of external crises, we may never be able to pull the fire alarm when the problem is about our own needs.

I’m the first to admit that I really struggle with this. Just two weeks ago, when I contracted COVID-19, I realized that it took being completely bed-ridden, brain-fogged, and quarantined to give myself a break. Even while being tested at University Health Services I was stressfully moving meetings online and sending out communications that I would be “out of office.” I felt terrible that I was letting people down simply because I needed a few days off. What I was really struggling with, though, was the ability to put my responsibilities into perspective with my health and the health of others. I needed to let go of the feeling that the world was ending because I was unable to be productive for a few days. 

The solution to fire drills is not to drop all responsibilities and to stop communicating entirely with those who depend on you. But maybe it is time we cut ourselves some slack and do a better job of knowing when something is actually as urgent as a fire drill. This might mean gently pushing back on others’ perceptions of crises. When someone is running frantically out of a building, it’s really easy to assume we should be doing the same—but if we’re all in hysterics all the time, when will we ever relax? 

Setting boundaries for ourselves and others doesn’t have to be difficult work. Sometimes it can be as simple as regulating our emotions or reflecting on why we feel a certain way. I’d argue that a lot of the time we act disproportionately to the size of the problems we encounter. 

When people text you with a question, they’re typically not expecting you to answer right that minute anyways. And if they are, and it’s not an emergency, it’s okay to communicate that you’re unable to answer it immediately, but you will shortly. 

So, the next time you feel yourself reach for that alarm, I want you to ask yourself, is this a fire drill? Take some time to reflect on what truly constitutes a fire drill. If this question does not get answered this second, what will happen? Will this person just have to wait a bit? Will they be mildly inconvenienced? Will the building burst into flames? Probably not.

October 22, 2023