There are peaks and troughs in every workload, but when you’re struggling to keep all the balls in the air, how do you manage competing priorities? There is some truth in the saying that when everything seems important, nothing truly is.
I’ve had many times in my career where each of my project sponsors believes their work is the priority. Often I’ve ended up having a day where I’ve worked for the person who made the most noise about deadlines instead of on something strategic. Competing priorities can distract from getting things done as you end up switching between many projects – and that’s not good for productivity.
What does it mean to have competing priorities?
Competing priorities are where you have multiple tasks or projects to work on, and they all seem important. There are only so many hours in a day dedicated to productive work, and each of your many projects is vying for attention. Your boss, or perhaps several bosses, frequently remind you about their projects’ importance. Everyone wants a piece of your time to work on initiatives, and you are juggling a lot.
In the worst-case situations, you have several projects or tasks all due at the same time, and you don’t have enough time to complete them all by the deadlines.
Why is it important to manage competing deadlines?
Do you want to start the day not knowing what’s your most important task? Do you want to end the day not knowing if you’ve spent your time well? Struggling with multiple high-priority projects is a quick way to feel like you don’t know whether you’re adding value to the organization any longer. And you’ll likely end up missing multiple deadlines if you can’t prioritize your tasks.
You need to manage your workload, which means knowing what work is the most important priority so you can give it adequate attention.
How do you deal with competing priorities?
There are two ways that I start dealing with competing priorities, and these will work for you too. The first thing to work out is who is creating the competition between your high-priority projects. The approach you take to working out who gets most of your attention depends on who is creating the problem for you.
If your competing deadlines come from one manager…
One of the strategies I covered in my book, Managing Multiple Projects, dealt with this situation: one manager or project sponsor gives you lots of work and says it’s all important.
When one person gives you multiple competing priorities, you can only get so far with productivity habits and strategies for time management. Start by making a complete list of all the work you have at the moment, including any non-project activities such as team management and ad hoc responsibilities. You may already have this in a project management software tool. If not, start laying out exactly what you are working on. Against each activity, estimate (at a high level) the hours you spend on that work per week.
In most cases where I have done this, the hourly total adds up to more than the time available in a working week.
Then, have a conversation with your manager. Go through your list together and agree what priority the work takes. Negotiate deadlines where you have clashes. The purpose of this conversation is to surface the information about how you are spending your time and to reveal your scope of work. Then, gently shift the conversation to agreeing on defining what work is more important than other work. It’s impossible to do it all, so what can you both agree should be done first, second and so on.
In many cases, managers have simply lost track of the amount of work they are expecting their colleagues to do and are happy to adjust their expectations. You just need to have a conversation with them about it.
If your competing deadlines come from multiple managers…
When your competing priorities come from multiple managers, it is harder to find clear answers to what to do first. Everyone thinks their projects are the highest-priority ones.
I recommend carrying out the same exercise as above: start with your current task list. Talk this through with the PMO or your manager before approaching each of the project sponsors to negotiate new, realistic deadlines. Use your work list and evidence to prepare some options. For example, perhaps some projects could be handed over to a colleague with more available time. Your goal is to establish the true priorities of the tasks in relation to each other.
After you’ve had those prioritization conversations with management, you should now have clear priorities. Remember, you may need to have this conversation multiple times throughout the quarter as organizational priorities shift and more work gets added to your plate. Next, you’ll need to schedule your work and keep stakeholders informed of the progress.
Schedule your work
When you know what the priorities are, you can adequately schedule your work. Plan around your new deadlines. Even high-priority projects have times where you are unable to make that much progress – perhaps because you are waiting on other dependencies such as approvals. That’s the time when you can pick up other tasks from your list.
Priorities are always going to change. So you must make sure you shift your schedule to work on the right tasks as things change. Scheduling software like LiquidPlanner makes it easy to see what’s the #1 priority in real-time without having a meeting about it. The software automatically adjusts work plans when something jumps up the priority list, new work is added or resources change.
Keep people informed
Once you have a timeline and have scheduled out your tasks, you’ll need to communicate those timelines to relevant stakeholders. This is especially important if something else does derail your progress. Managing expectations helps people plan their own tasks if dependencies are present. Often it’s not the delay that bothers people – it’s not knowing about the delay. Give stakeholders enough notice to make adjustments to other plans if you are unable to hit the deadlines they were expecting for any reason.
Knowing how to manage competing priorities will help you ensure your time is spent on the most valuable things – the tasks and projects that will get your organization closer to its strategic objectives. Focusing on what’s truly important is a great way to demonstrate that you are adding value to the team. And at the same time, the work that is valued is getting done. It’s a win-win for your organization and for your career, and you can leave the office each night knowing your day has been well-spent.
About the Author
Elizabeth Harrin is author of Managing Multiple Projects and several other books. She is founder of Project Management Rebels, a membership community for project managers who want to deliver with more confidence and less stress.