If you enjoy reality shows in which competitors are charged with completing demanding assignments against extremely tight deadlines, you may recognize that the most important mistakes are made right at the beginning.
Because there is so little time, teams rush into the work too quickly. They shortchange the planning step. They fail to collect enough information to proceed intelligently. They cut certain team members out of the discussion or they dive in with insufficient consensus on how to function effectively.
Sometimes the workload is unevenly distributed. At other times, some members may not understand their assignment or do not receive even minimal instructions on how to contribute to the effort. While some participants may function effectively, the team as a whole does not function effectively or efficiently because it has unwisely rushed the decision process and failed to prioritize tasks.
The problem is similar when we work independently. We’re tempted to rush ahead without clearly identifying the goal we want to accomplish or considering what resources we’ll need along the way.
Having a solid foundation in place is absolutely necessary for getting through the days—or even weeks—when everything is a top priority. While asking “What should we do first?” may sound like a moment of panic, it’s actually the best place to start when considering how to prioritize.
Unless a client is knocking at your office door asking for a deliverable you’ve promised them, the most immediate priority should be developing a plan to manage the situation. Make a quick inventory of pressing tasks and list out everything that must be done soon so nothing falls between the cracks. Then pause for a moment and take a deep breath before reviewing the competing projects.
Once your head is clear and your nerves settled, it’s time to make the most of your prioritizing skills.
All things being equal, typical task prioritization means projects with the earliest due dates get moved to the front of the line. If several projects appear to have the same or similar deadlines, take a moment to do some additional research to find out if those deadlines are either firm or accurate. In some cases, hard deadlines are the result of a valid process and cannot be moved. Sometimes, though, deadlines are assigned arbitrarily on the assumption that the work could be handed in late. In these cases, it might be possible to push a project back to a later time or date to accommodate more pressing needs.
Identifying which tasks are most important isn’t always obvious to every employee. This is especially true in the case of teams operating in an agile workflow or scrum system where some team members can’t even begin certain tasks until other people complete theirs. Asking a supervisor or manager for clarification about what absolutely needs to be done in order for the rest of the team to move forward can eliminate a great deal of uncertainty on a busy day. Although some managers might view such questions as attempts to avoid responsibility and delegate upwards, most of them will quite willingly discuss task prioritization with you. So ask if possible.
As General George Patton famously remarked, “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.” Urgency counts for a lot in any organization, even when the work doesn’t necessarily impact major, long-range projects. Simply clearing essential, “must-do” items off the list can clear up the bandwidth a team needs to refocus its attention on long-term strategic goals that will drive business results. If something is “on fire,” use your prioritization skills to put it out!
Speaking of the big picture, it’s important to recognize which tasks fit into an organization’s broader strategy. Constantly pushing tasks that aren’t immediate concerns to the backburner might make sense in the heat of the moment, but putting them off repeatedly could endanger the company’s future or possibly undermine your career. While it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to complete these objectives immediately (that’s why they’re long-term goals!), setting aside time to make progress on them can help keep the strategy moving forward even as you’re prioritizing short-term objectives.
Instead of digging in and doing it all, why not ask a fellow team member to help? Even if it takes a few minutes to explain the task, delegating simple tasks can still free up hours of your own time for other responsibilities and more high-value work. Delegating responsibilities also sends an important signal that you trust other people to be accountable and deliver results. It also opens the door for future collaboration. By empowering the rest of the team to contribute to achieving key objectives, you will position yourself as a leader instead of a martyr who insists on doing it all on their own.
The answer depends on many factors. One factor is your employment status and whether you must be paid overtime. Salaried employees often feel pressured to work late or over the weekends to get everything done. While having to put in a little extra work every now and then is understandable, doing so on a regular basis can actually be detrimental to an organization because it masks the reality that the company doesn’t have enough resources to complete work effectively and efficiently. If everyone is consistently working extra hours, it may be time to add a new team member to ensure that quality isn’t being sacrificed.
When your workload becomes overwhelming, it’s important to focus on potential solutions rather than muddling through without a plan. Developing a strategy for how to prioritize tasks can help to reduce the team’s overall stress level and make it easier for everyone to put their work in the proper perspective. Taking a moment to ask questions and identify what actually qualifies as urgent can mean the difference between keeping the team on track and letting critical tasks go unfinished.