Managing Priorities: When Everything Seems Like Top Priority

Target Audience for This Article: Individual Contributors

  • Trend of less people doing more will continue.
  • Having a ready summary of current work is key.
  • Periodically showing what’s on your plate can help leaders fully understand workloads.
  • Providing details about unexpected challenges or complications helps leaders understand impacts.
  • When you’re not sure, ask your leader for guidance on priorities, using your summary of current work.
  • Combined, these actions will help you better manage your work and be a lot less stressed, and will help the organization stay focused on the right things.
    Virtually all companies in most industries are asking fewer and fewer people to do more and more. Most managers feel forced to ask their employees to do many things that were not originally on their current list of performance objectives. Priorities seem to be constantly changing, driven by external and internal factors. The line between critical and merely important priorities seems to have disappeared, with little clarity available from leadership. So, we as employees often feel like we are drowning in waves of never-ending, unexpected projects and tasks, with no relief in sight.

    For many people, saying “no” or resisting this tidal wave in any way seems like a career-threatening act. As a result, some end up exhausted, stressed, or burned out, while others are simply less productive or less engaged in their work.

    It is understandable to want the company to stop piling on so much work. Yet this is unlikely to happen. So, the question is, what should employees do about this dilemma?

    Switching companies will not likely resolve this issue. Taking steps to manage stress will certainly help, but it will not cause the work or the source of the stress to go away. There is, however, an approach that can help you manage this persistent incoming tide. There is a way for individual contributors to constructively say “hold on a minute” that helps each of you and the company manage and stay aligned on priorities.

    Here are four steps to managing priorities when everything seems like top priority:

  • Know Thy Workload
  • Show Your Plate
  • Detail the Mushroom
  • Let Them Decide
    These steps are detailed below, with the first one being essential to enabling the other three. Practicing all four will help you manage your workload versus your workload managing you.

    Know Thy Workload
    When a manager asks someone to do something new or more, especially if it is not something that was part of the original list of performance objectives, there is usually a difference between an employee’s external and internal reaction. On the surface, we may write down the action item. Inside, we may be dreading the thought of even more things to do and head off back to work wondering how and when we are possibly going to get this done.

    While this may be an over-simplification of what happens, it represents the idea that most employees are not prepared to show what is really on their mind – that they are worried about how they are going to get everything done, with the stated or assumed quality and timeliness expected.

    Too often, managers are so busy when they hand out work, they do not stop to ask about or discuss the possible impacts and changes in priority. At the same time, most employees are not prone to ask about these things, either because they do not know how to ask, or believe it is not acceptable to ask, or because they fear being thought of as a complainer or ignorant.

    There is at least one good way for you to be prepared to respond to requests for additional work. This involves keeping a running list or table, describing every major task, assignment, and project that you (individually) are currently working on and are planning to work on, in the coming weeks or months.

    This list or table should be succinct enough for you and your manager to get a good idea of your workload by reading one page or less. A table could be used to include not only a description of the work, but also start and completion dates, status of progress, and issues.

    Make sure you capture enough information to give your manager a feel for what it is taking to get the work done.

    You may be thinking that this sounds like a status report. Well, it is, and if you are already required to provide periodic status reports, make sure you are using them to your advantage to support the other three steps in this process. However, if you are like many professionals, your manager does not require a status report per se. So this is your opportunity to periodically, when you see fit, the way you see fit, pass along a snapshot of what you are doing and planning to do.

    There are many benefits to keeping such a list or table up to date, every 1-4 weeks:

  • It helps keep your own head clear and organized about what’s on your plate.
  • It can help you prioritize.
  • You can include time for development activities that your manager agreed on, to make sure they remain among the priorities.
  • It helps you prepare for re-prioritization discussions with your manager or team when new work comes along.
  • Contrary to what you might expect, sometimes, simply writing it down relieves stress.
  • You can provide it to our manager whenever we want, following the guidelines in the next steps.
    Preparing this list or table is the first and most important step in gaining more control of your workload. Most importantly, it enables you to intelligently, quickly, and constructively raise issues about new expectations.

    If you are thinking that you do not have time to capture a snapshot of your workload, consider these questions.

  • Is your reputation suffering because of missed deadlines or poor quality work, possibly stemming from having too much to do?
  • Is your health suffering because you can never seem to get out from under your work pile?
  • Are you sure you never have any discretionary time with which to create and update a picture of your workload?
    If you are willing to take more responsibility for how you manage your work, you will find the time to clearly articulate what is on your plate, deliver what matters most, and concentrate on your own development.

    Show Your Plate

    If you are not required to submit regular, written status reports, strongly consider providing your one-page workload summary only when you sense your workload is becoming too much to handle. When you choose to provide a status report every week, your manager may not pay that much attention to the details. Instead, email your workload summary (calling it whatever you want) sparingly and only when you sense your manager may not realize all you have been asked to do.

    Also, when you send your summary, avoid sending it as a complaint about having too much work or a request. Send it as a matter-of-fact FYI (for your information) kind of message, just to keep your manager informed.

    If your report is effectively written, in most cases your manager will be able to tell on their own that you probably have too much on your plate.

    A common reaction among managers who receive such reports is that they come to you and want to redirect how you are spending some of your time and postponing other things. This is exactly the kind of reaction we want, and many times this can be accomplished simply by sending our summary.

    Detail the Mushroom

    Providing periodic summaries of your workload may not be enough to help your manager understand the impacts of tasks and assignments that mushroom into way more work than originally envisioned.

    This tends to happen more when processes are first implemented or changed, multiple departments are involved, or on large unique projects. We sometimes discover more and more unexpected challenges to getting our work done. Initially, we may try valiantly to handle all the obstacles, but in some cases, what initially looked pretty simple grows into a tangle of organizational players working at cross purposes or simply multiple complications.

    When this happens, we may complain to our peers or even our manager about the situation, and sometimes this leads to assistance or a resolution of the issue at hand.
    However, spending 10-15 minutes objectively writing down the context of the task or project, the circumstances that led to the mushrooming workload, and details about the additional work this is causing can create four important benefits:

  • The short-term issues usually get resolved better and faster, because it is easier to determine what to do once at least some facts are laid out.
  • Any long-term issues often begin to get the attention they deserve, because you have taken the time to capture the essence of the problems and impacts.
  • The manager becomes more aware of the specifics of what you have been spending our time doing (and the reason you may be feeling overloaded) and can guide you through any challenges more efficiently.
  • Managers often appreciate being informed about things that are keeping you from focusing on your primary goals and being more productive.
    So, the next time you find yourself becoming overwhelmed on a task or project, and the culprit is too many unexpected issues or roadblocks, detail the mushroom in writing and get your manager involved.

    Let Them Decide

    When you are not able to determine new priorities by yourself and your manager does not help clarify current priorities even after you Show Your Plate or Detail the Mushroom, then just ask your manager to use the information you provided to set new priorities for you (let them decide) or to collaborate in doing so.

    You may not need to do this very often, but when you do, make sure you document and email the newly understood priorities and ask your manager to validate the new priorities by return email. This will ensure you are both truly on the same page, at least for the short term.

    Most managers appreciate being kept informed about what is on your plate and being proactive about staying in alignment. This enables them to communicate more intelligently and rapidly with their own manager about group workloads and priorities.

    The Cumulative Effect

    In addition to the benefits already mentioned, following these ideas should also enable you to carve out or include time for those things you normally can’t seem to fit in. This includes things like planning and strategy, addressing bigger issues, professional and career development, exercise, and rest. Individually, you end up making better choices about how to spend your energy.

    Collectively, imagine what would happen if everyone in the company managed priorities like this. Individuals would be more productive and less stressed, business units would remain more aligned with company needs, and the company would likely realize its goals more reliably and efficiently.

    Know Thy Work.
    Show Your Plate.
    Detail the Mushroom.
    Let Them Decide.
    The more each of us practices these techniques, the more this will become a reality. Start today by creating a written view of your workload, and it will quickly become clear that everything is not, as it seems, top priority.

    References for Further Information

    Workshop. Transformology offers a 2-hour group coaching workshop that can help employees better manage priorities and make better choices.

    Books. These books contain suggestions about managing your priorities and time:

  • The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Managing Your Time, by Jeff Davidson
  • Getting Organized at Work: 24 Lessons for Setting Goals, Establishing Priorities, and Managing Your Time, by Kenneth Zeigler
  • Time Shift: Managing Time to Create a Life You Love, by Eugene Dupuis
    Multiple ideas can also be found by doing a Google search with “Managing Priorities.” The information from these courses, books, sites, and this article should help you better manage what you deliver and how you deliver it.

    “The real social evolution is the switch from a life largely organized for us … to a world in which we are all forced to be in charge of our own destiny.” – Charles Handy

  • Posted in Article Smarticles | 2 Comments

    2 Responses to Managing Priorities: When Everything Seems Like Top Priority

    1. Ivo says:

      Interesting approach to familiar problem. Only … should this really be a problem? The article discusses quantity of work, but does not address quality of work, or better stated: the need to evaluate what level of effort is really needed from a business perspective to do the work. Yes, we are getting more tasks on our plate, but the need from the business as to how we resolve this is changing too. Instead of delivering the ultimate solution, into which we pour all our creative sweat and tears, business nowadays asks for more pragmatism from its employees: If you can give me the jest of your solution with 60% effort, then that is fine. Don’t spend 100% of your effort on this task, because there are more tasks waiting. It becomes key for employees to understand the level of effort needed to come up with the work product.

      • DocMann says:

        You aptly point out that there are more aspects to prioritization that explored in my article. However, I believe most businesses still want 100% on everything, despite the overload. In other words, quality on all the quantity. Now, there may be an unspoken allowance of less than 100& on some things, but not everyone has gotten that message. Stress levels are incredibly high for the average professional, and this is due in part to almost everything implicitly being top priority. The point of the article was to suggest dialogue, so priorities could be aligned. If I would rewrite the piece, I would certainly include the variable of quality. Thanks for the response.

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