Digital Strategy Insights Marie Poulin

Is your business in fire-killing mode?

“a life’s mechanical functioning is a result of the systems that compose it.” – Sam Carpenter

I’ll admit it. I’ve been in fire-killing mode —gulps with embarrassment— for years. I didn’t fully realize it, at least not completely until early last year. You know when you familiarize yourself with a concept, or a word, and then you start seeing it everywhere? Yeah, for me, that was SYSTEMS.

I was a one-woman operation, and yet making one small change in my business felt like trying to turn the Titanic around.

If I was so small and nimble, why was it taking so long for decisions I made in my business to show up? Why were projects always taking longer than anticipated? Why had I not been able to take a vacation in 3 years? Why was I working every evening and weekend with no end in sight? Why was every project coming in a last minute emergency?

And most importantly, why was that last project such an epic disaster?

To clarify, the website and brand turned out gorgeous. But the client interaction? It was sour. I nearly quit a few weeks before launch, and chose to send a carefully crafted email instead. (I had 2 different respected friends help me with this very difficult email. Both friends had also warned me to get out of the project months earlier, but I felt I was in too deep to turn around). It was the only time in the history of my business where I launched a project for a client and we never spoke again after launch. The project went so far out of scope, that I was embarrassed to even think about how little I earned compared to the work put in. I had never poured so much of my time and energy into a project only to feel so little… reward. What the F?

It was the project that made me question everything about my life and business.

This was January 2013, and I told myself that I would take the next month to “reset.” I would minimize my client work, and take some time to look at the inner workings of my business. I needed to look at why the project went so sour. Why was my time and cost estimate so out of whack? Why did I allow my client to lead the project? Why did I allow my client to talk to me in such an abusive way?

Fast forward to April 2014, and I am finally taking the time to reset that I intended last year. It took over a year to finally move out of “fire-killing” mode and into a more purposeful, intentional business (and life!).

What changes did I make last year to help me move out of fire-killing mode?

I can’t pinpoint one specific thing, so I’m listing the major things that I believe have had a huge impact on the growth of my business over the last year, the biggest of which were moving into a systems mindset, and getting ruthlessly intentional about my business.

1. I learned about, invested in, and studied all things “systems”

Being not a natural “systems thinker,” I found myself studying up on all things “systems!” I read all things Michelle NickolaisonWork the System by Sam Carpenter, and signed up for Natasha’s Systematic Success (highly recommend!!). I started to look at my business as an “ecosystem,” and began mapping out my process to better understand how to tweak the inner workings into something that could work for me. (I talked a bit about this in another post)

  • I studied and learned about other people’s systems and processes, talking to other designers, developers and business owners.
  • I took a good hard look at my project processes, identified where things typically fell through the cracks, and made changes accordingly. Lots of experimentation with this!

2. I invested in a mindset shift

Having your systems in place is one piece of the puzzle. But if you aren’t recognizing your own patterns, and getting your head in the right space, all the “knowing” in the world won’t help you.

  • I surrounded myself with mentors, peers, coaches, and business friends. I initiated conversations with people I admired. I asked a lot of questions and studied those who had solid systems in place.
  • I invested in business coaching with Erika Lyremark, which helped me get into the mindset of intentionality in your business. I now view everything through the filter of “is this helping me create my ideal business and life?” Or is this just a paycheck?
  • I worked with an incredible coach on a project, and she reminded me that I was clinging to a story about my overwhelm, and that it was time to change the story.
  • I started making a list of lessons learned after each project launch. Big or small, what could be learned from this project?

3. I made a plan of action

I realized that if I didn’t start booking my own personal projects into my schedule, they were never going to get done. After a little help from this Skillshare course, I started tweaking my email and project management systems so that I could start moving from fire-killing mode into planning/strategy mode. No more loose ends, and no more projects that sit on the back-burner for months or years.

  • I found accountability budd(y/ies) that I could check in with regularly.
  • I turned down every new project request that came in from November 2013 until now (and there were a lot!) If I was going to make time for my projects, I knew that every project I said “yes” to meant that I wouldn’t have that time to work on my own projects. Ruthless intentionality!
  • Made a work-back schedule for projects “I’ve been meaning to work on forever.” It doesn’t even matter if it’s accurate – it’s a starting point!
  • Booked my own projects into my schedule as though they were a client project. With launch dates!

It took me nearly 5 years to move from fire-killing mode into strategic business mode. Yowch!

I was lucky enough to always have a steady stream of client work. But now it’s time to create more intentionality in my business.

“…you are only as successful as you feel, and you are 100% in control of that.”
– Illana Burke, Reactive vs Proactive business owners

Don’t wait to get intentional about your business. Take the steps necessary to remove the excuses, and change your story. Your clients aren’t all crazy. You can change your process. You can choose who you work with. And you DO have control over your overwhelm. So what are you going to do about it?

Stop putting out fires, and start building the business you’ve always wanted to have.

Think Like a Strategist

I'm on a mission to help everyday business owners get more strategic. Learn more




  1. Hi Marie,

    I started making a list of lessons learned after each project launch. Big or small, what could be learned from this project?

    Will start with such a list today. Your post is very true!

    Post a Reply
  2. Hi Marie, love your post. This is exactly what I’m doing at the moment. Turning down clients who are ‘just a paycheck’. Quite a scary step (with three children to support), but one I feel I really must take. And it does feel good! I’m indeed finally taking the time to work on my own projects, which I know will benefit me much more in the long run.

    Post a Reply
  3. Hi Marie,
    Really enjoying your posts about systems! What’s the name of the Skillshare course that you took? I’m not a member so I get a link to the homepage. Thanks!

    Post a Reply


  1. When was the last time you said "No"? - Nikki Groom - […] intentional about your business decisions, so you can start being more pro-active (aka, get out of fire-killing mode). It also…

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