10 Oct 2022 Manage competing priorities successfully with these 5 steps
We all know how important it is to prioritise our work. At work especially, we can be inundated by all the urgent stuff and tend to respond to the endless pressures of the moment. I’ve always found the Covey Matrix helpful when trying to prioritise my own workload and have written on this previously. But what do you do when you have competing priorities you need to try and manage?
Sometimes it can be very difficult to work out which of two ‘important and urgent’ priority tasks is the most important and urgent. This is what I mean by ‘competing priorities’. Competing priorities can come in different forms, but they most often arise when various people or departments are looking for us to complete something for them, each seeing themselves as the highest priority, and it becomes almost impossible for us to meet all the timeline demands. Sometimes there just are not enough hours in the day!
One thing is worth remembering: there will always be too much to do, and never enough time to get it all done! Nevertheless, competing priorities can be quite stressful and are never easy to deal with. However, I have a few suggestions you might find useful to reflect on.
Clarify due dates with others
Prevention is better than finding a cure right? Don’t forget to ask a simple question when you get delegated a task. ‘When do you need that by?’ This is so devastatingly simple, but sometimes I find myself forgetting to ask it myself! If you don’t do this, you’re flying blind. Often we assume a task is urgent, or required sooner than it really is, when in fact this may not be the case.
Like I say, a simple but often overlooked question to ask up front.
Sometimes just asking the question is enough to prompt the person giving you the task to think about when they really need it done. Sometimes ‘yesterday’ is the default choice only because it requires the least thought. But asking can make them think twice. Even if you are given a due date, it may be helpful to confirm it as things can change, or that date may have been arbitrary in the first place.
Consider what can be delegated to others
Can you delegate one of these competing priorities to someone else? Even if that is unlikely, it is worth asking yourself the question or at least considering the a possibility.
Perhaps you can give a shout out to a few people in the team requesting some assistance. I’ve written extensively on delegating which might be worth checking out in this article.
Look for solutions that can make some progress on competing priorities
Let’s assume you have two competing priorities and each has multiple sub-tasks … don’t they all? Even if, on the surface, they don’t seem to have multiple sub-tasks, it is good practice to create some yourself. The smaller the sub-tasks, the more manageable they are.
Now, with the task/project broken down into parts, perhaps you can make some progress on one or more smaller sub-tasks from each of your conflicting priorities and submit those as ‘progress’. This may buy you some time.
Keep people informed of your progress
Related to this is the idea of keeping people up to date with your progress. You may have a milestone check list that you can quickly update and send off to others. This can avoid others getting frustrated or anxious when they don’t know how things are progressing. Importantly, it can stop them wasting your precious time by needlessly checking in.
Be prepared to negotiate deadlines
Now let’s say there is very little wriggle room. You know the dates you have are firm, yet you know that getting both tasks done on time is impossible. Now you have to negotiate with both parties (or more).
Often the tasks given to you are from people more senior to you or from other departments, meaning you’re not in a position to make the call yourself as to which task you prioritise. In this instance, it is worth getting others to make the decision for you … in a sense.
You may go back to one person and say something like, ‘I know you are wanting me to undertake this (insert task) for you, but (insert name) has already asked me to do (insert task). I’m happy to do this for you of course, but you’d need to speak to (insert name) first.’ This is especially powerful if someone comes to you with a new project/task but you are already fully committed to another task you’re already working on.
If you try this but it doesn’t make any difference, you are now at an impasse. Your last option is probably to go to your manager with the problem and get some advice.
Dealing with competing priorities is never easy and can indeed be very stressful. You may feel you have very little power in these situations but, in fact, you probably have a little more power than you think. After all, your time is very valuable. People want/need your time and expertise, which is why they came to you in the first place. However you can only do so much! It is perfectly okay to try and negotiate in these situations.
It’s worth remembering that those more senior than you are probably juggling competing priorities themselves from time to time, and using similar strategies to deal with them. (That may be how you ended up with one of these tasks delegated to you in the first place!) It’s not as though they have no idea what you’re going through.
I hope this little article proves helpful the next time you have to try and manage competing priorities at work.
Geoff Prior – Lingford Consulting, October 2022
Workload & Email Management Trainer & Coach and MBTI Facilitator