Have you ever wondered how to handle competing deadlines at work?
If so, you’re not alone – having multiple projects due at the same time isn’t uncommon but figuring out how to get it all done can be tough.
I quickly encountered this problem during my very first job after college. I was serving as a paralegal for a large law firm in DC, which meant I worked for several “teams” of lawyers… none of whom communicated with each other.
(This meant I could have three big deadlines for three separate teams all on the same day… and I didn’t have a single “boss” I could talk with to help me sort out which project to do first.)
It was… stressful.
Over time, I developed a few strategies that helped me figure out exactly what to do when the dilemma of competing deadlines came knocking—and I’m going to spill them all below.
Let’s dive right in.
Strategy 1: Work ahead
As much as possible, try to get your projects completed ahead of schedule. This not only positions you as someone who can be trusted, but it also enables you to avoid the “competing deadlines” issue that often arises when last minute projects pop up because you’ve proactively created extra time in your schedule to handle them.
Strategy 2: Talk to your boss
If you know there’s no way you can complete both projects in time, talk to your boss and ask him or her what you should focus on first.
But here’s the key: When you talk to your boss, come prepared with a plan of action. This shows that you’re thinking strategically about the best way to get everything done.
Here’s a little example:
Don’t say: Hey David, I have a spreadsheet project due for Susie at 5pm and John just asked me to get a binder together for by 5pm… and I just can’t do both in time – what do I do?”
Do say: Hi David, I just wanted to check in with you on two projects I have due today. Susie asked me to complete a spreadsheet for her by 5pm and John just pinged me to get a binder together by 5pm as well. I know Susie needs the spreadsheet to prep for her presentation tomorrow, so my thought is to get that to her ASAP and then start working on the binder for John. I think I can have that done by 6:30 – is that ok or do you need me to reach out to colleagues for backup?
Strategy 3: Communicate new deadlines clearly
If you know you’ll miss a deadline, make sure to reach out ahead of time and communicate the reason why you’ll miss it and your new plan (and deadline) for getting the work done.
Here’s another example for you, based off the conversation above:
Assuming David gave you the go-ahead to get John his binder by 6:30, reach out to John right away with an email like this:
I’m just quickly touching base on the binder project. I’m under a deadline for a spreadsheet Susie needs for her presentation tomorrow, and I’m doing everything I can to get that done as quickly as possible so I can start prepping your binder. I expect that I should be able to have it completed no later than 6:30—I spoke with David and he said this was fine, but I also wanted to communicate this to you.
If you have any questions, just let me know.
Thanks so much,
Bonus Secret: Communication earns respect.
Keeping everyone informed about where you are in a project and when you expect to finish it is so important. It builds trust and shows that you care about your work and the work of others. You might not always be able to meet a deadline, but if you can communicate ahead of time with a plan and a commitment to get the work done, you’ll be far ahead of your peers.
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