The Urgent vs. The Interesting: Managing Priorities in the Workplace, written by Allison McWilliams for the Huffington Post, June 13, 2017.

One of the hardest, yet one of the most important, professional lessons to learn is how to manage priorities in the workplace. Particularly when you are just starting out and do not have control over how you spend your time or what your work assignments will be (and even as you gain experience this may still be the case), it can be challenging to determine what counts as urgent, what’s important, and what’s merely interesting. Add into that mix the real probability that you are receiving tasks and projects from different people who may not agree on what those things are, and there is real possibility of not meeting expectations and letting other people down.

Indeed, no matter how warm and welcoming and supportive your work environment, at times any job can feel a bit like a scene from A Devil Wears Prada, like nothing you do is right or will make the higher-ups happy. And while there is much to loathe and disparage about the character of Miranda Priestly and the way she treats her staff, I particularly like this scene for the truth that it contains: each one of has the ability and the responsibility to take ownership for our own lives and work.

What does that mean? Instead of taking on an “oh poor me” mindset and complaining about how your manager treats you, think about what you can change in your own behavior that might lead to better treatment (and, recognize that you always have the choice to leave, as Stanley Tucci’s character points out in this clip).

Learning how to manage your work, and how to manage priorities, is one way that you make yourself stand out from your peers and demonstrate that you are a serious, competent professional deserving of more responsibility. No manager wants to spend his or her time constantly telling someone how to do their job, even the least Miranda Priestly-like among us. So how do you start to do this?

  • Ask for guidance. In the beginning of any new role, or new project, it is perfectly acceptable to seek out guidance. Simple questions like “What is your deadline for this project?”, or “What is your expectation for the finished project?” are reasonable clarifying questions, and demonstrate you have an interest in meeting the other person’s expectations. A colleague of mine used to ask for samples of previous (successful) work to use as a guidepost for the work that she should be doing. Notice, too, that the question is not, “What is your expectation for how I finish this project?” which is asking the other person to tell you how to do your job.
  • Listen and pay attention. Once you have asked these questions once or twice, you should not need to ask them again. Unless you work for a manager who wants to be involved in every step of the process (i.e., a micromanager), you should not need to ask for continual guidance on timelines and expectations. If your manager wants a weekly update on one project, it is likely that he or she will want that same level of communication on future projects. If he or she expects a research project to take no more than a week, then you can assume that will be the case for future, similar projects as well. This doesn’t mean all of your manager’s expectations will be reasonable. But one way that you learn what he or she expects in the future is by paying attention to what has been expected in the past.
  • Prioritize people. If you are receiving assignments from multiple managers, then you need to start to prioritize the people as much as the work. Very few situations exist where everyone is on a level playing field. Some people’s requests for your time will always take precedence over others. Titles help, but it’s not always so clear, particularly as organizations become flatter. Find a trusted mentor or colleague and ask for guidance on distinguishing between these requests. Look for someone who seems to do their work well, stays on top of deadlines, and doesn’t seem stressed by the flow of work. Ask if you can take them to coffee to gain some insight into how they prioritize, and look for ways that you can incorporate some of their strategies into your work.
  • Make your own urgent, important, and interesting lists. As you gain experience and get a sense of expectations and whose work takes priority, start to categorize the work on your to-do list as either urgent (must get done in the next 24-48 hours), important (must get gone in the next week) or interesting (no firm deadline, can get to it when there is time). Once you have done that, you can start to map out a game plan for getting those tasks done, even as additional ones get added to your plate. Every job has ebbs and flows in terms of busy times. After a while you will be able to read the times that allow you to work on those “interesting” projects and not be so beholden to the urgent or important ones.