Work in the Face of Opportunities, Crises and Requests
How can I most effectively reprioritize my work (tasks and projects) when
people make unanticipated requests of me, or when I see new opportunities
or problems? I can figure out the priority of emergent requests
and opportunities if I take the time to reflect on them. But sometimes
the "window of opportunity" closes quickly, or the person making a request
of me needs or expects a quick answer. How does one rapidly reprioritize
well? What habits or tools have you found helpful?
I have found that the tool attached helps people be very
clear how they set priorities. If you have the criteria internalised, then
it is easy to decide if a new task is worth doing or not.
(I posted Nick's document on my webpage: http://www.wright.edu/~scott.williams/LeaderLetter/priorities.doc
... also see Nick's webpage: http://homepage.ntlworld.com/nick.heap)
back to the top
At least where I work, new requests
and crises come in all the time. I am the Database Administrator for
Sinclair Community College. The utmost important thing is to keep
the system running correctly. This means that many times I have to
drop what I am doing to fix something that broke or is perceived to be broken.
In the non-crisis mode, you need to keep the user/clients informed on what
is going on and what the opportunities and requests that are currently on
the table at any given time. Keeping your
direct clients informed on what your current set of priorities are is very
important. This will give them a feel of when they can expect to see
their requests being answered and also will let them inform you of their
needs (what might seem to you as a low priority can seem to them a high priority).
In short, communications will balance the two sets of expectations (yours
and the client's) thus giving a constantly changing set of priorities that
all can understand (if not agree upon).
back to the top
If I get a rush request from my superior, I immediately
conclude if I need
data/assistance from another person or dept and send out a request at once
to get going. Then I actually schedule some time on my planner to
done and in per deadline. It is also helpful if you leave several
per week open on your schedule for unplanned requests or personnel issues.
First, with unanticipated requests,
I make a quick judgment as to whether I will even handle the request. There
are times, when I have to say:
If it is a task that I (1) should handle and (2)
can handle -- and I choose to (or have to) handle it at that moment, I make
a judgment as to how much time it will take. If it can be done in a short
period of time (30 minutes or less), then -- if I am at a point where I can
stop -- I most likely will leave my priorities as they are and insert this
task at the current spot. If it is going
to take longer, I judge it for it's priority and insert it at the appropriate
spot on my list. With the above scenarios,
I normally don't need to completely re-prioritize my list -- everything
- no (unless it's my boss)
- not now, but later (then I will place it within
my prioritized tasks at a place which allows me to respond to it)
- or I may delegate it -- to my staff, or I
may recommend it go to another, more appropriate department.
- handled as planned, or
- shifted down one notch, or
- the unanticipated task is put in the list at
it's appropriate spot -- all tasks above it stay as they are, and those
below it are shifted down one spot.
back to the top
My answer is not very technical. I ask myself these questions.
Is it for a customer?
Is this customer more important than current customer concerns.
What is the financial impact to my business?
How does this compare to current tasks?
Does my current workload and schedule allow for it to be inserted
If not can it be effectively delegated to make the most of
organization's time and skills?
In answer to the survey question I am only responding to
the impact on business. I will tell you now if a family member or
friend is severely injured or sick they are #1 priority.
I first look at the impact this will have on the customer or the company.
If it is high it takes first priority.
Then I look at my other tasks and prioritize as to what can "slip" and
not have an impact and what cannot.
I also have a rule of keeping my time at work 80% full. It sounds
counter productive but at 100% you cannot tolerate change,
interruptions, or fires and you are not a team player or effective over
back to the top
Even though we may not have much time to reflect on sudden
demands or opportunities, we must make some sort of snap value judgment
regarding them. Hopefully you are familiar enough with your job and
your company to be able to make these snap judgments when necessary.
First we must identify how urgent or important the issue is and how soon
it must be addressed. Does it take precedence over items you are currently
working on? If a big sales presentation is suddenly moved up a couple
of days, it is probably imperative that you put other things aside to work
on it. If you are a builder and a Client has water running into his
basement, you have to address the issue immediately. If she has a
light fixture that isn't working properly, the issue can probably wait a
few hours or days. Sometimes the issue can be addressed by someone
else in the organization - delegate if you can. Other times, someone
else can start the project, and you can finish it as time becomes available.
Other times someone else can do the bulk of the project, and you may just
need to review it. Don't be afraid to ask for help. One thing is for
sure, you must make a decision one way or the other. Don't be afraid
to say no if warranted.
How do I effectively reprioritize my work?
I believe that this process is driven by the organization that you currently
work for/in. We, as individual managers/supervisors, evaluate our organization
and determine which method works best for us. In the current structure I
work in I reprioritize based on the level of the individual presenting the
request..... a manager trumps a supervisor, a director trumps a manager,
my boss trumps them all, etc. In my previous employment situation my boss
expected me to ask all the necessary questions of the individual making the
request and then prioritize based on my own determination. I, of course,
had to be prepared to justify my decision and usually I felt very comfortable
in doing this.
I prefer the second method to the first as it has always made more sense
to me. I have always believed that we are better off making the decision,
explaining that decision, learning from potential mistakes and moving forward.
This method is the one that makes us stronger as individual employees and
in the long run results in fewer repercussions.
back to the top
Can you do what you are being asked to do in less time
than it will take to think, plan and organizing to do it?
If so, and it makes sense to do it, just do it and save all the organizing
time. Sometimes I spend more time thinking about what I have to do and when
I'll do it than it takes to do it. Usually I do this with things I don't
like doing but have to do.
Consider how the request fits with your key objectives. If it fits make
time for it. If it doesn't say no.
Review the past few months to see how many things you said yes to that
you should have said no to. From that adjust accordingly.
Bottom line, saying no too often does more damage to your reputation than
saying yes to often does.
I find keeping a physical or mental "to do" list is a necessity.
Then, as projects/tasks are handed to me I can quickly figure out what I
need to do first before I start on the new task. I also find that when I
am feeling overwhelmed, placing smaller important projects in between large
projects seems to break things up. I can work on one large and 2 or 3 small
tasks at once. The skill to learn is juggling. I find a lot, though, when
educated people have to ask themselves this question, they have too much
on their plate. It is time to either delegate some of the work out, or stop
accepting new projects. I am the worst when it comes to saying "no", especially
to a superior, so I guess in effect taking control of your time management
is also a skill. I am currently in the midst of 2 large projects amongst
my daily tasks. The first is designing a new student registration form and
the second is combining course inventory forms. In addition I have to complete
my normal day to day tasks including emails, student services, verification
letters, degree acceptances, and some other minor duties. I do not have any
time to myself that I am not accessible to students. Therefore, my challenge
is doing my work amidst being interrupted on a consistent basis.
back to the top
Just a thought....Before I would change my priorities and
force a re-schedule of my work I would ask the person making the request
of me some questions to ascertain if there is a sense of urgency.
Also, I might ask them up front if we can work out a time for me to be involved
at a later date or time. If their issue is urgent ... I would have
to at least know what they have done to address the problem before I would
take it on and what their expectations would be of me in terms of time and
resources. I would try to do this politely because it may just be their
sense of urgency is due to their poor planning and if I help them...I
may become their eternal crutch...If the entire organization is affected
by this request...and my help is needed...be damned the schedule...all hands
Step 1 - does it fit your vision
1. A very clear understanding and belief in your personal DNA - core values
2. A very clear following of your North Star - your purpose.
3. A well defined mountain that you want to climb and the time frame you
want to accomplish it in - mission.
So, determine if the task falls within your DNA, fits your North Star and
will support your mission. If it does not touch any of those three, don't
touch it! If it does, move to Step 2.
Step 2 - testing for authenticity
1. Consciously chosen and given thoughtful consideration for full value
impact and what you can contribute. (Remember when you asked me to be on the
WOASTD board? This is where I hit the wall in determining if I could contribute
and make a commitment.)
2. Does the task give your purpose clear support?
3. Will the task give you energy, enthusiasm and motivation? Nothing worst
than a task that sucks the life blood out of you and derails your mission.
4. Free you from the circumstance.
5. Realistic task that challenges and can move you and the organization
I check and prioritize my day first thing in the morning (@ 5 AM). My "to-do"
list is broken into about 6 categories. Each category is prioritized according
to important/urgent, important/not urgent, not important/ urgent (delegate)
not important/not urgent (delegate or pitch).
back to the top
I already have who I give my top priority to and generally on down the
line. If there is a conflict, then I defer to the top priority --
will this requested task interfere with me meeting my #1 priority?
It takes dedicating some time to list out and think about the amount of time
things will take really. I can't say I'm the best at it either.
If there is a "trick" to the trade, I'd be interested too!
Scott, On occasion I get requests requiring rapid responses and on occasion
I ask for rapid responses. A rule of thumb I often make is related
to money. Example: if someone wants me to edit a grant (which is a
request often made of me) I try to drop everything and do what they request.
If it is not money related, I consider the level of importance (from my
perspective) and respond accordingly. Also, I have organized my life
in a way that I am not under the gun to get things done...and I often meet
deadlines a week or two in advance, so an immediate request or a "rapid"
request is somewhat easier for me to accommodate than in times past.
Also, I have an attitude of "I want to help" (which is a requirement for
my job) so again, it is not too upsetting for me to drop everything and
help. And, when I cannot meet the request because of time constraints,
I try to let go of the frustration asap and go on with the work at hand.
back to the top
I use two methods that require
method, importance vs. urgency quadrant trying to balance what is very important
and not urgent along with what is very urgent and very important.
a Seriousness, Urgency , Growth prioritization method; Seriousness +/- 10%
or more profit affecting, Urgency needs attention in the next month vs.
next six months, Growth, is the problem growing at a significant rate. You can use a point system and weighting system to
complement the analysis.
For me the key to priortizing unexpected, urgent
requests (this is specific to my job) is
1) Anticipate issues that may arise and give some thought
to how you might handle them if
they do (I know some may say if they are "unexpected'" how do you
anticipate them). Many
unexpected issues are unexpected simply because one is ill-prepared,
incapable of seeing potential consequences of certain actions.
2) For me experience has been the key in dealing with these
types of issues. Things
needing an immediate response do not allow for reflection and the
application of reason or
typical problem-solving mechanisms. If I do not possess the
requisite experience and time
is of the essence I seek out those who do have the requisite experience.
3) A cost/benefit analysis, albeit a quick and dirty
one, should be done to assess the
consequences of allowing yourself to be diverted from previously
planned activities vs. the
consequences of not acting on the "urgent" requests.
In my line of work I face this repeatedly. Nos 1 and 2 above
are the most reliable and 3 is
an evil necessity that sometimes leads to choosing the wrong course
of action, given 20/20
to the top
I have personally found that people will continue
to pile things on you until you say stop. So the first thing a person
has to do is learn to say no and mean it. It is not being mean to say
no, you can only do so much. Be nice but let people know when enough
is enough. Secondly being proficient at your job and being an over
achiever can be too different things. The meaning of this is that if
you do your work in a timely manner you are good. However if you are
always getting it done early then that can become the norm and what is expected.
So when something happens and you turn things in on what might be considered
timely for others it might make you look bad because it is not your norm.
Please do not get me wrong I am not saying do not do your best. What I am
saying is perform at a level that you can perform at on a consistent basis.
The third thing I feel you need to look at is the amount of work you are
doing. Are you always getting more work than others or are you just
not getting as much done as they are? If so why? If you are getting
more work, then are you really that much better than they are. If so
maybe it is time to ask for a raise. If everyone else is performing
the same or better, then what are they doing that you are not. Next, if you
do have to much or more than others, then do not be afraid to ask for help.
This is not a sign of weakness it is a sign of a good manager. You can see
when you need help. The final thing I recommend is WALK AWAY!
Sometimes you just need to walk away for a little bit. And I mean really
walk away. Go to the bathroom or breakroom. Take a walk.
Also do not just do it physically but mentally too. Put it all out of
your mind for just a few minutes. Do whatever it takes to distract yourself
for this short period of time. You will feel refreshed when you go
back to address the work. Now you can start organizing what you have.
In some situations, it is possible to "just say no" coupled
with a tactful explanation of why you cannot comply with the request.
Too many people accept assignments and suffer the stress and reduced effectiveness
that might have been avoided with a little assertiveness.
In other situations, however, "no" is not acceptable -- if it's your boss,
or a customer/client, or someone with whom you must maintain or rebuild
a relationship. In these cases, I have found one or more of the following
- Most importantly, one's priority list must be kept current, considering
both the importance and urgency of each item on the list. With a mental
picture of the list, one can quickly place the new assignment into the list.
The new task may bump the bottom item off the list. One can often
accept that the displaced item will not get done if its priority was low
and the consequences are not severe.
- Delegate, or solicit help, for one or more tasks on your list --
even if the task may not be done as well by someone else. Once again,
one must consider the risks of possible reduced quality.
- Explain, in accepting the new task, the impact it will have on
other commitments you've made to the requester. This is especially
useful when the request comes from your boss or a customer and can form the
basis for negotiating a resolution.
- Take on the extra work -- even though it means stress, overtime,
and/or missing other deadlines -- with the implicit understanding that "now
you owe me one." (While this can be manipulative, if it is addressed
rationally it is called reciprocity.)
- Suggest an alternative. Creativity and quick-thinking are
important here. There may be another way to accomplish the task, or
substitute a less demanding task, or move a deadline, or complete the new
task if the requester can help with other tasks on your priority list.
In one of my projects, for example, the customer made a new request.
When I explained my pre-existing commitments, the customer agreed to persuade
my boss that another of my deadlines could be moved back.
to the top