One day at a former job in IT, two supervisors wanted updates on two separate projects, a team leader needed me to take support calls, and the business owner emailed – asking for a meeting and a blog post.
So which problem would you address first? (I sat down and took some calls. Customers are the real boss, right?)
Most of us have been in a similar position before. Due to messy organization, supervisors with conflicting needs, or a never-ending string of fires to put out, we know what’s it like to juggle more than one “top priority.”
Here are five steps you can take to help set priorities when everything is urgent.
1. Plan Backward
Take a look at your milestones and plan backward. Often, we don’t get to choose our own deadlines, so this is an ideal place to start. Examine each task on the road to that milestone and set a clear deadline for it. Work backward, from project completion to present day. You can use Sifter to set milestones, label the priority level and assign responsibility. This should give you a good idea of when tasks need (or needed) to start, and it can also help you rank their value. This will create a solid outline of what you need to accomplish and when.
2. Lists are your new best friend (If they weren’t already)
Now, using your outline, make a list of what you plan to accomplish today, tomorrow and this week. Be honest with yourself. Try to be as accurate as possible, but remember that more urgent obligations will likely come up.
This is not a best case scenario or dream list; it’s a list of what you plan to accomplish. The best approach is to plan conservatively, rather than to fall further and further behind on a task list that’s too unrealistic. Setting deadlines that are too tight is a good way to end up with shoddy or incomplete work – costing you more time in the long run.
Setting deadlines that are too tight is a good way to end up with shoddy or incomplete work – costing you more time in the long run.
3. Assess the Value of Your Tasks
Your team may not agree on the importance of each task. The obvious strategy is to tackle the earliest task due first, but you may not always have that luxury. If a project manager suddenly puts a rush on something you hadn’t planned for, pivot and take it on smoothly. Some tasks can be pushed back more easily than others. Sifter can help you reorganize your priorities by using tags.
Get your team on the same page regarding the difference between “Important” and “Urgent.” Urgent tasks need to be handled immediately to prevent bigger problems. Important tasks have a high priority, but the world won’t end if they aren’t finished in a few hours, or by the end of the day. Replacing an outdated phone system is important, repairing an email outage is urgent. Keeping up with a project timeline is important, hitting a client deadline is urgent.
Sometimes you may not even be sure of one task’s priority compared to another. A good piece of advice, in that case, is:
4. Communicate With Your Teammates
Ask your team leader which tasks are the highest priority (they might even agree with each other). If there’s a conflict, try to get them talking about it.
If you know you can’t complete a task before someone else finishes another, politely ask them about their status. They may be asking you a similar question tomorrow.
Working on the same page will help you and your team meet goals on time and can cut out a lot of needless frustration when group priorities get out of sync. Sifter can help you out here as well. One of your team members may be flat-out too busy to talk, so just check on a project’s status in Sifter and avoid a “Got a minute?” meeting.
5. Be Flexible
No matter how much you plan, truly urgent issues will interrupt your schedule. You will have to make compromises.
Evaluate the importance of tasks carefully, because you’ll likely also have to make cuts. Sometimes, entire projects get dropped at a moment’s notice, so know what your next task will be if this happens. Stay calm and stay relaxed.
Changes are a big part of any project; the best thing you can do is roll with the punches, secure in the knowledge that you’re on top of everything. You can also use a tool like Sifter to help you nail down your team’s milestones, responsibility and priority.