In the modern working world, it’s pretty much a given that you’re going to have to deal with constantly shifting priorities. Nobody likes it, but it’s really a consequence of the constantly changing environment that we all have to operate within. But just because it’s expected, doesn’t mean it’s easy. If you’re struggling to navigate ever-changing priorities, I have some tips that may help.
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Prioritization is an essential piece of workload management. After all, you can’t do everything right now (as much as you want to). You have to make decisions. Some things should be done now, and others should be postponed.
The problem happens when we make those prioritization decisions and get to work, only to find that, a little while later, something changes, and we have to backtrack. Our priorities get moved around, whether due to circumstances or seemingly random decisions made by others. Constantly shifting priorities can really hinder your progress and slow your momentum on meaningful work.
So, what can you do to better manage these kinds of situations? Here are some tips.
There are two common things that cause priorities to shift: newly identified problems that need to be solved or newly identified opportunities that need to be leveraged. In the modern world, problems and opportunities can develop in the blink of an eye with little or no warning. For any organization to survive, it must remain nimble enough to respond quickly when these things happen. Holding firm to established priorities simply because of a decision made in the past, isn’t smart. Even if it causes a little disruption, we have to address current circumstances.
Sometimes, the problems and opportunities that cause priorities to shift will be outside of your visibility. Your leaders or managers will just tell you that things have changed, and you’ll have to trust their decisions. They probably don’t like changing course any more than you do, but they know it has to be done.
Push Back Appropriately
Of course, not all shifting priorities are strictly necessary. In fact, sometimes things change because of the fickle whims of a leader who can’t make up their mind. Maybe they’re easily distracted by new ideas, or maybe they simply lost track of things.
If you’re concerned that this is the true cause of shifting priorities, you can always push back appropriately. Inquire as to why a shift is necessary and articulate what will be lost in the process. Perhaps you’ve already devoted dozens of hours to a project that is now being abandoned. It’s worthwhile sharing that information. Sometimes, that awareness will be enough to keep the established priorities in place—or at least enough to not entirely abandon the previous work, but maybe postpone it instead.
Even if it doesn’t change things now, it may serve as an important reminder in the future. When priorities are defined, resources are committed. Changes then have a cost. That should always be a part of the proactive decision-making process.
Keep Communication Flowing
We already established that priority changes have a cost, but let’s expand on that: Changes become more expensive with time. The longer you work on one priority before it’s abandoned for another, the more resources are wasted. Therefore, it’s important to keep communication flowing with decision-makers. If you get a sense that priorities may be shifting, you can slowly start to back off, even before a final decision is made.
You can also play an active role in the process. When priority changes are being discussed, you can help add valuable context by defining the potential consequences. For example, you could say something like: Making this change now may push things back by as much as 4 weeks.
Additionally, the more open the lines of communication are, the more likely you are to understand why things are changing. It’s always easier to accept change when you know the backstory for it.
Manage Your Mindset
To a certain extent, shifting priorities are unavoidable. Instead of treating it like a major upheaval in your plan, stay fluid and adaptable. You may not always know the reasons behind shifting priorities, and many of them may be totally outside your control. But your job is to do the best you can, given the circumstances. Don’t carve your plans in stone and remember that none of this is personal. No one is trying to ruin your day or waste or your time.
If you’re interested in learning more about change management, problem solving and decision making, prioritizing and other advanced professional development topics, consider joining one of my upcoming Learning Labs. Learn more here.