Prioritizing your time is crucial in any career. What hiring managers are looking for when they ask this question is to see if you know the difference between the urgent and important. Keep in mind that those aren’t the same thing. A good answer would show that you know the difference between the two. The ideal answers would be real-life examples based on what you do. Here’s what you need to consider:
Share Your Daily Priorities
Whether you’re into spreadsheets, to-do lists, bubble sort technique, or any other organization method, let the interviewer know how you work. You will actually need a system to prioritize your time, but what kind of system can be tailored to your needs. Be specific, since they will need to know how to work with you in the future and if your system will work with the culture and coworkers around you. Be sure to let them know that you take on the priorities from highest to lowest, no matter what you do!
Example: At the beginning of each week, I make a list of what the top priorities are for the week. This is determined by the deadline and how much effort each deadline will require. I also make a second list of what needs to get done each day, so by the end of each day I know if the deadlines will be reached or not. I find this second list is a great way to see if any needs should be adjusted before the end of the week. This second list has also been useful when an emergency issue comes up and requires me to stop and pivot because then I can adjust for the rest of the week.
Explain How You Determine What is an Immediate Priority
When explaining how to prioritize your time, it’s essential that you remember to explain how you determine what is most important. You need to address how you rank each work project, because not every hiring manager is going to be aware of which fires need to be put out first. Whether it’s client work vs. internal work or emails before training manuals, you need to be able to explain which part of your work needs to be done immediately and which part is further down the list. Since the hiring manager is essentially asking how you assess each project’s value, you need to have a clear and concise answer.
Explain the Timeline of Each Project
It’s not enough to show what order each project would go in, but also to explain how long it will most likely take you. If a particular client demands half of your workday and that client is considered essential, you need to explain that. Often hiring managers or management will not estimate accurately how much time each project requires. This is where your feedback makes a difference, so don’t miss your chance to explain your behavior.
Show That You’re Adaptable
It’s common to start one work project, only to find that you need to switch to something else. Either it’s an emergency, a last-minute client request, or something entirely different, but it’s a common occurrence at many companies. You need to show that you can adapt to anything that comes up because while to-do lists are easy enough to write, the truly irreplaceable employee is the one who can adapt to anything. This is why the second part of your answer should include something along these lines:
- not overwhelming your workload so you can make adjustments for anything unexpected
- communicating with others on the team if any tasks have to become a lower priority
- a real example of when you’ve had to adjust your workload due to a time-sensitive priority
Explain When Priorities Shift
If you’ve ever delegated your work to someone else, you need to say so. Perhaps a particular client required more of you than your schedule allowed, so you cut something out. You need to say why something would be delegated, cut, or postponed. This explanation of your decision-making can be the difference between you getting a promotion or not. It’s okay that not everything can be done immediately. The important part is that you’re able to communicate when that’s an issue. It’s important that you explain how you would communicate any issues because no employee of any status wants to be surprised with a last-minute issue.
Prioritizing Your Time and Your Work-Life Balance
It’s essential that you don’t promise any employer more than you’re willing to deliver. First, because you won’t be able to deliver those kinds of results long term, and secondly because any employer who expects you to constantly burn out isn’t a place you want to work. Instead of insisting that you can work miracles, make a point of saying how you will communicate with other team members. Any experienced manager will know that getting the largest workload done in the smallest amount of time isn’t always feasible.
Example About Balancing Work and Life: When I’m at work, I minimize all personal distractions and keep my focus on my work. I find that making a to-do list, keeping my desk cleared of clutter, and turning off my cell-phone makes all the difference. When I’m away from work, I enjoy being able to 100% fully focus on my family and hobbies. That complete focus allows me to really enjoy my life while also being productive at work, and keep the two separate.
Prioritizing Your Time and Stress
If you’re interviewing for a higher position, being asked about priorities leads to questions of stress. They’re asking how you prioritize work in such a way that everything gets done without burning out.
An ideal answer would include a situation when you prevented unnecessary stress by reaching a goal on time or handling a disruption.
Example About Dealing With Last Minute Changes: In my previous role, we had a client that had an urgent issue that couldn’t wait until the next day. I already had a full day’s amount of work planned, so setting that aside was stressful. I took a few minutes to determine what could wait until the next day. After that step, I then contact the team to see what each person could do to help with the urgent issue. After each part was delegated out, we were able to address the client’s issue and still start some of our original projects. Approaching an issue like this helps me avoid stress as much as possible.
Connect Your Answer to the Job Requirements
No matter what job you’re applying to, you can always connect your answer to why prioritizing your time is essential. Explain why it’s important. It could be getting a product to a customer quickly, completing a project, or communicating as part of a team. Make sure to stress why you know it’s important to meet those goals in this future position.
It’s important to explain yourself clearly and concisely with this question. There are three layers to answering the question of “How do you prioritize your work?” so keep in mind: priorities, adaptability, and work-life balance. Be sure to include a story of when something changed your schedule and how you adapted. Prioritizing your time is essential at any position. Prepare for this interview by contemplating how you work and handle concerns. How do you pivot during a crisis? How do you start your day? What systems work best for you?
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