How to Deal with Shifting Priorities at Work Positively

You know the ugly truth no one wants to go near when giving you the how to be more productive tips? Changing priorities. 

Your average motivational speaker conveniently misses the topic of shifting priorities at work. Yes, we know to stay off social media, we’ve figured out how to time box and we’re pretty good at using scheduling apps. But can I get some insights on how to deal with the boss changing priorities according to who knows what criteria?

Did anyone ever teach you how to organize your to-do list?

Minimalistic face besides a to do list.

No doubt, learning how to sort your priorities is how you conquer all that represents time management. But in itself, that’s something that needs practice and a clear critical eye. 

Let your anxiety take over your decision-making and before you know it, you’ll group all tasks you need to work on under “Top Prio.” 

Let your procrastination lead the way and everything will seem like it could wait a while without any serious consequences. 

I’ve seen people who would categorize all the items on their to-do list as urgent. I’ve also seen the other side of the coin i.e. individuals swearing that there is no need to rush with anything in particular and they will get their work done in time. 

Both sides thought they were skilled in organization. Yet they lacked any kind of balance and the ability to pull the trigger. As the weekend nears, the former approaches burnout, the latter desperation. Not a great way to live.

Boss shifting priorities

Look, it’s a good thing you’ve started the week with a to-do list. Or lists. Most people do it if only to romanticize their working style a bit. Nothing wrong with it. 

Checking items off the lists as days go by is clearly important, otherwise, people would not have created lists in the first place. But you know what’s more important? Spotting that whatever seemed critical on Tuesday morning isn’t really that much of a big deal Wednesday afternoon. 

When it comes to what affects productivity in the workplace, I’d argue that not being afraid to call the shots on what lost its prio status is more valuable to you long-term. 

Big team, small team, solopreneur, things change all the time, and whoever jumps into the flow ultimately wins. 

What’s that? You’ve worked on optimizing blog posts on your website and then you find out you won’t get the budget you were promised for your content marketing strategy? Oh, and also, your boss now needs your involvement in another project? 

Deep sighs, deep breaths, disbelief, speechless, short-circuited brain, and a polite “how can I help?” email you send after you’ve cooled off. Maybe not necessarily in that order. 

If you think prioritization is hard, try deprioritization

Sad face looking a man carrying loads of documents.

There are a bunch of things that can frustrate you in such a situation. Some of them might be placed under themes such as disrespect, poor management, or insecurities in the workplace. But few come close to the bitter truth: your plans have been messed with without your consultation. 

Now you have to deprioritize your initial prioritization. The problem is not getting the new thing(s) done, is it? The problem is fitting getting this new thing(s) done into the current prioritization you’re running on. The realization of that is where the slightly raised blood pressure comes from, right?

You take a look at your to-do list, and you know it’s not about being unable to meet deadlines at work. No, it’s about re-thinking tasks you’ve already thought about. You’ve got some things you’ve crossed out, some you’ve barely started, and then you only have the mental roadmap for a few other projects. 

But with all these, you’re somehow invested. It’s a walk in the park to deprioritize tasks you’re indifferent to completely. It’s once you’ve put in some sweat and tears that the huffing and puffing start.

The thing is, shifting priorities at work is something you will keep running into as long as you do some type of work. It’d be great to be able to catch yourself (or others) prioritizing the wrong tasks early, to quickly readjust your focus, and to stop giving yourself (or others) hell while you do it. So, let’s cut to the chase.

Signs it’s time to review your to-do list fast

Realizing you’ve been working on the thing that needed your attention the least usually comes pretty late in the game, huh? Maybe right about when you ask Google what affects productivity in the workplace. You’re pretty deep into it at that point. 

You’ve got your list of tasks. You’ve got it split into high priorities and low priorities. Right. So, where did you go wrong? How did low prio tasks end up on the other side of the fence claiming your attention and work hours?

Here are some guesses about what went south:

1. You chose urgent over value. If one deadline is closer than the other, it might have been enough reason for you to make a high priority out of it. If all that’s top prio on your to-do list has a looming deadline, and all the tasks with comfortable deadlines are categorized as lower prio, that’s a red flag.

2. You have no plan(s) for changing plan(s). Well, I can’t anticipate what’s going to pop up. I heard that, and that’s not really relevant. It’d be useful, however, to take a few minutes after you’ve put together your to-do list and mentally cover the who, what, when, and how just in case you’re not going to be able to do it the way you’ve initially envisioned. Contingency, as Batman would have it.

3. Poorly defined outcomes. It’s a sign of immature practice to just write up some goals because that’s what you’re supposed to do. Company or individual. Having a clear and relevant picture of what you’re working towards will save you from wasting precious time. We’re talking ultimate, core goals here, not task goals or project goals. 

On top of all these, that one coworker or worse, manager (😱🤦‍♀️) keeps meeting your workload concerns with lousy comments about just how easy of an option giving up is. 

Of course, they offer no actual evidence to support their distorted Internet quote. In fact, by bringing phrases like “giving up” in, they frame the issue worse than it was to begin with. 

These kinds of chats do not help with making deprioritization an easier process, so avoid them altogether. 

They say to be a team player and raise issues for discussion. 

I say be a team player and raise issues for discussion with the smart people only. Creating more problems while trying to fix another problem is the last thing you want.

Adapting to shifting priorities

Woman next to rotating wheels.

Here’s what you need to do:

First, you get it through your head that your to-do list is not written in stone. You can tweak, cross out, re-order. Whatever needs to be done for it to be helpful to you. 

If it’s of no service to you, why keep it the way it is? Your to-do list is a tool. You have agency over it, not the other way around. Get into that line of thinking. 

Secondly. Either one of the following or both:

1. Set check-ins with the project manager

Yes, it’s important to keep your head in the game to get things done. It’s even more beneficial to shift perspective, step out of the daily grind, and critically assess the progress. 

Depending on the length of the project, weekly or monthly check-ins are something to consider. Set a time to question your every move and take action accordingly. If you don’t, your subconscious mind will more than likely do it for you the chaotic way. 

No one is breathing down your neck and it has nothing to do with you being unable to meet deadlines at work. But simply: finding out you were going in the wrong direction when you are 30% done is undeniably better than finding out as you are approaching completion.

2. Deconstruct the task

Maybe you don’t need to lose the whole task you had as a top prio. Maybe there’s a part of it that can be put on hold with no immediate grave consequences. 

To be fair, this is exactly how you are supposed to handle those “urgent” tasks also. Most of the time, it’s just part of them that’s urgent, but we get overwhelmed because we perceive it as having to deal with the entirety of the situation. Whatever that may be. 

You don’t have to feel pressured to come up with a solution for a client 5 minutes after you’ve read their email. Caps on text or not. You can simply deal with what you perceive as the “urgent” part of the issue – their “tone”/ impatience. 

Write them a polite email in which you tell them… basically the truth. Which is that the problem is more complex and you will be back with a detailed answer after you’ve looked into it properly.

Done. No way they think you’re blissfully ignoring them after that and you can get on with what you had planned for the day without stressing about unwanted escalations.

The best thing you can do to get on the level of productivity you envision yourself to be at is to be honest with yourself. The energy and attention span you have today are not the same you’ll have tomorrow or the day after that. So, think your time through with that in mind. 

It’s a fact we all silently push in the background of the productivity conversation. Who would tell their client that they gave any less than 100% working on their project? No one I can think of. And yet it applies to all of us.

Opinion and Commentary

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