Career Tools: Managing Multiple Priorities

Class offers tips for getting work done when everything's due at once

Part of the Career Tools Series
Employees at Duke can take a $99 class that teaches techniques for organizing time and priorities.
Employees at Duke can take a $99 class that teaches techniques for organizing time and priorities.

Tracyene Charles, a library assistant at Perkins Library, sometimes finds herself balancing three or four competing projects at once.

"I have one supervisor, one boss, and four other people who have input on how I spend my time," she said. "Sometimes, everything seems to come due at once."

Sound familiar?

If you find yourself juggling multiple projects at the same time, one of Duke's professional development classes may offer a roadmap for managing deadlines.

"Managing Multiple Priorities" is a daylong, $99 course that provides a variety of tactics for allotting time and priorities.

"Employees want to know how to make life easier, please their bosses and get the work done," said Kathryn Helene, an instructor with Duke's Learning and Organization Development, who teaches the class. "The best way to do that is to learn to control the work, rather than letting it control you."

During a recent class with 16 participants, Helene provided an overview of tactics, including developing a planning system and tactfully communicating needs. Here's a sampling of some tips:

Divide time wisely

To help class participants consider how they spend time, Helene used a graphic popularized by Stephen Covey, author of "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." Participants divided a paper into four quadrants and placed tasks from a typical day within the areas: 

1.      Work that is important and urgent

2.      Work that is important but not urgent

3.      Work that is urgent but not as important

4.      Work that is neither urgent nor that important

In completing this exercise, Charles, the library assistant at Perkins Library, discovered she had three tasks in the first quadrant, but only one of them belonged there.

"I don't mind working under pressure, but it causes a lot of stress for the people I work with," she said. "Most of my work, such as ordering supplies or processing books, should be in Quadrant 2 - important but not urgent."

Helene said the ideal is to spend 80 percent of time on tasks that are important but not yet urgent. "Don't automatically start working on a new task the moment it is handed to you," she said. "Think about where it belongs."

Create a planning system

Helene told the class about her "to do" system of multi-colored Post-it notes on notebooks, her telephone and steering wheel. She advised participants to find a way of capturing tasks that suits them. Paper or online calendars, notepads or smartphones are all ways to maintain to-do lists, she said.

"The key is to find a system that works for you and stick to it," she said.

Charles left the class determined to make a weekly, monthly and yearly schedule of tasks and post them on a calendar.

"If the tasks are on my calendar, where I can see them, it will be harder for me to procrastinate," she said. "And I'm also going to ask a colleague to remind me about the calendar to provide extra motivation to stick with it."

Concentrate on one task at a time

When too many tasks end up as both urgent and important, focus on one item at a time, but break the task into smaller chunks with reasonable stopping points.

"Multi-tasking is a myth," Helene said. "When you rapidly switch attention from one project to another, you lose energy, concentration and focus."

Working on one project until you reach a logical stopping point gives a sense of accomplishment and makes it easier to pick the task up again after an interruption, she said.

This advice resonated with Katherine McKinney, who serves as an assistant business manager and program assistant for the Global Education Office for Undergraduates.

"When someone calls from one of our international locations and requests a money transfer, I can't push it off until later," McKinney said. "But since I took the class, I'm getting better about getting directly back to a project after an interruption."

McKinney will have a natural opportunity to put the tactics she learned in the class to work over the next month while her office in Smith Warehouse is renovated.

"I'm having to pack up everything and move to a new space, so it's a good time to create new habits," she said. "That's what this is all about. Good habits."