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You probably know the big stuff you’re supposed to be getting done. But what’s often less clear is how to accomplish your work priorities when there are all sorts of other, urgent (or seemingly urgent) demands on your time. This comes down to a question of how to prioritize.

I get asked some version of this question a lot:

I’m part of a team that has worked hard to define our priorities, schedule projects and allocate resources. But our internal customers constantly come up with last-minute “emergencies” that they feel need immediate attention, and this blows our planning efforts out of the water. Do you have any suggestions on how we can get control of our workflow and still be responsive to internal customers?

This might describe you if you are on a marketing team that needs to support sales, or a human resources team that feels your door should always be open. In fact, we all have interruptions from others who need us, even when we have important work that needs to get done. So how to prioritize competing demands is a common problem.

There is no one right answer because every situation is different, but here are some strategies that should help.

Plan for emergencies

Very often, we’re unrealistic about how much we can fit into our schedule. If your week is already packed with meetings and other commitments, everything will quickly get thrown off kilter if a few urgent needs pop up. Before you know it, you’re consistently working evenings and weekends to stay on top of it all, which just isn’t sustainable.

Instead, build some “breathing room” into your schedule so that you can better handle any emergencies that surface. Don’t schedule back-to-back meetings for yourself, and set your project timelines so that you can still make deadlines even if you have to pause work to “put out some fires.” We tend to think of these issues as impossible to predict because they reflect other people’s needs. But the truth is, it’s safe to assume that this will happen to you at least a few times per week. Now you can plan for them. And if those “emergencies” never happen, then you get some bonus time to be proactive and accomplish other tasks.

Don’t be afraid to push back

Remember, when people learn something that works for them, they will keep doing it. If the sales reps know that your marketing department will always drop everything to accommodate them, they have no incentive to plan better. This means you’ll need to look for opportunities to gently push back so you can keep your own work priorities on track. Tactics include:

  • Saying “no.” Sometimes you have to lay down the law to protect the higher good. The sales reps might complain in the moment, but they would have a much bigger problem if their leads dry up because the marketing team couldn’t devote enough time to its real mission.
  • Help them help themselves. You probably get the same kinds of requests over and over. Make a folder on a shared drive that contains resources frequently needed by the sales team, along with some document templates that your designer creates. Now the sales team can help themselves to what they need with just some quick cut-and-paste. The next time a sales rep says, “Can you create a handout for this event I’m hosting?” you can give this response: “Yes, we could get that done — later this week. And if you’d like to use the document we created last month as a template, you should be able to make your own quickly.”

Have a handle on your work

Many people only have a loose understanding of what’s really on their plate at any moment. Their tasks and responsibilities are scattered among notes apps, calendar appointments, flagged emails, paper lists, dry erase boards, etc.  Without a solid grasp of everything that’s on your plate, how can you ever hope to prioritize effectively? Take the time to keep everything you need to do in one place: a good to do list app. Then when other people’s issues come up, you can compare those with what you had planned, and make informed decisions about which is most important. Even better, this gives you the opportunity to “manage up,” by saying, “Here’s what I understood were priorities today. I’m happy to help you, but can you tell me which of these other items I should delay in order to get that done?” This helps the team from getting derailed by encouraging on-going agreements about how to prioritize.

Accomplishing your own work priorities when others hit you with constant demands takes clarity and intention. Learn more strategies for how to prioritize in my books, Personal Productivity Secrets and Work Without Walls. You can start reading either or both for free, here.