This post’s key takeaways:
- Time is not a limiting factor; the way you structure your priorities are
- When talking to your manager about workload, shift the focus from one of ‘time’ to one of ‘priority’
- To be most effective, use a value-based prioritization approach to cordon off your workload; specific comments on how to do this are below
- Download a template project tracker to start developing your own value-based prioritization approach
You’re overworked. Overwhelmed. Rushing to meet deadline after deadline. And then, just when you’ve almost hit your tipping point, your boss comes by—with a new project to pass along. If he or she has an iota of emotional intelligence, they might ask how you’re doing first, but if they don’t, they’ll jump right into the details instead. You stare, nod and do your best to manage your facial expressions. You’re half-listening, half giving in to a full internal monologue laced with some choice phrases, when the words you dread cut through and bring you back to attention: “…so, when can you have that ready?”
Instinctively, you do one of three things:
- Nod, smile and confidently provide a self-imposed, impossible deadline;
- Pause, survey your mental to-do list and give a somewhat more realistic deadline; or,
- Launch into a full download of how much you have on your plate, how busy you are, and (insert preemptive cringe here) how you don’t have enough TIME to get all of *this* done.
Time and time again, we put all of the blame on time—we let it limit us, control us and define what we’re able to accomplish. Time, in its innate cruelty, keeps counting down without care for our deadlines and due dates, and that is something we mortals do not have the ability to oppress.
Focus on Priorities, not Time
Except, there’s just one problem: in most cases, time is not the limiting factor—your priorities are.
Time is a concept… and while it’s true that we monitor progress against it, it’s also true that you have the ability to manage it by having a continuous focus on two very important things:
- Your priorities; and,
- Your manager’s expectations
Before we go further, let’s get back to the question at hand. The next time your boss throws something your way and asks for an estimate of when you can have it done, pause, and then do the following:
- Ask clarifying questions. Make sure you understand exactly what the task is, and if it’s appropriate to probe, how it fits into the short- and/or long-term objectives that are a part of your remit (be respectful in how you approach that second part.)
- Once you feel good about that, say something like this: “Sure thing/Sounds great/Totally on board. How should we prioritize this within my current project list?”
When you shift your response from a focus on time to a focus on priority, you demonstrate that you are thinking rationally (not emotionally,) that you are strategic (not purely tactical,) and most importantly, that you are focused on driving value for yourself, your manager and the broader organization. So while your manager’s question might make you feel incredulous on the inside, you must play it cool on the outside.
Every interaction you have with your manager is an opportunity to grow your corporate capital, and as such, it’s important to note the nuance of how ‘we’ and ‘my’ are juxtaposed in the second bullet above. By including your manager in the proverbial ‘we,’ you communicate that while you defer to your manager for final call, you also have an opinion on how prioritization should occur. Using ‘my’ when talking about your project list conveys a message of singular ownership and accountability when it comes to the successful execution of the project list. That’s the stuff that makes a manager feel good.
Prioritize Based on the Value each Project Brings
As these things typically go, there’s a major caveat to approaching your work from a priority-based perspective. You must actually be actively prioritizing your work using a value-based approach!
I’ve seen a variety of styles when it comes to managing workload, with the following being the most common:
- FIFO (First In, First Out) – in this style, the employee adds new requests to the bottom of the list, and gets to the next one when the last one is completed
- LIFO (Last In, First Out) – this approach can quickly devolve into fire drill mode, so the newest request gets the highest priority because the requestor is either claiming urgency (the sky is falling) or pulling rank (do you know who I am?)
- Good Soldier – employees who utilize this method defer all prioritization to their manager; in some functions/roles, this may be absolutely appropriate, but as you rise in the ranks, be aware that operating in this way (just tell me what to do and I’ll get it done) is often seen as a negative
What is not typically common, in my experience, is a value-based prioritization approach. If employed correctly, the employee that prioritizes based on value applies an understanding of the organization’s strategic objectives, as well as a keen sense of level of effort required to execute, when deciding how to prioritize their workload.
The best way to illustrate this type of prioritization is to use this basic, but effective, project tracker template. Take two seconds to fill out a row every time you bring a new project into your fold, and it will not only keep you organized, but make you empowered.
How? While potentially tedious, using a project tracker allows you to operate from a position of reality, instead of conjecture, the next time your manager approaches you with a new task or project. Instead of talking in theoreticals about your existing workload or areas of focus (the things that are taking up all of that dog gone time,) you’ll be able to talk in specifics and represent your situation with facts.
Having a value-based project tracker also enrolls your manager into being more engaged with your workload. If you have a ‘drive by, just do it’ manager, ie he/she doesn’t seem to care or know much about what you’re working on as long as you get their stuff done, consider setting up time either bi-weekly or monthly to go through your tracker with them. If your manager is engaged, then chances are more likely that they’ll be more aware and judicious about how your time is being requested and spent.
A word of caution to people managers reading this post. I am so not a fan of being a micro-manager, and if you decide to make a template like this required for all of your employees, you’re likely running the risk of doing just that. Employees who voluntarily use a template like this are doing so because they see value in it, but if they’re forced to do so, it will become a box checking exercise that is dreaded.
However, if you have an employee who is frazzled, struggling to build relationships with internal customers/counterparts or is having a hard time driving projects to completion, a template like this can be both a coaching tool and a way to get you closer to their daily struggles. Many of your employees will neither need nor flourish under this style of management, so be aware of who can really benefit and deploy judiciously.
Bottom line for the employee audience: how you spend your time is essentially a selection of choices, which you make based on an assignment of priority. To be clear, there will be times when forces outside of your control shake the apple cart and give a less valuable project higher priority. That’s reality. But if you stay focused on the most value producing projects to the best of your ability, you will not only help your organization, but you will also help yourself. The corporate capital you’ll earn from doing so is corporate capital you’ll be able to cash in later in the form of more responsibility, a larger seat at the table or your next promotion.
If you like this post, don’t like it, can think of 1-2 ways I could have made it better or just have questions, leave a comment below.