How to Succeed When Deadlines and Priorities Constantly Change

Mar 25, 2014
8 Min Read

It can be tough to work in an environment where deadlines and priorities are constantly changing – but it’s also the reality of many offices. We asked our four career experts how you can succeed in this environment, and here’s what they had to say.

Alison Green says:

The first, and maybe most important, thing to do is to readjust your expectations. If this is the way your office works, it will do you no good to constantly be getting frustrated when deadlines change and priorities get rejiggered. You want to look at this as part of the package with your job, expect it to occur, and not let it frazzle you when it does.

Beyond that, build that expectation into the schedules you set yourself. If you know that deadlines could shift on a moment’s notice, plunging your perfectly laid out work plans into chaos, account for that in your planning. That could mean things like scheduling work to be finished earlier than you otherwise would have or getting someone’s sign-off earlier in the process.

Additionally, check in with your manager regularly about your priorities. It’s frustrating to focus on Project A all week, only to find out on Thursday that your manager knew on Tuesday that Project B was going to take priority. So if you’re finding that you’re not getting updates about changes as quickly as you should, put the onus on yourself to touch base frequently to share what you’re working on and how you’re prioritizing and find out if anything should change.

And it’s also okay to decide that this kind of constantly-changing environment isn’t the right fit for you. Some people thrive in this kind of context and some slowly go crazy. It’s okay to admit if it’s not for you.

Anita Bruzzese says:

When change happens, you often go through an initial shock and eventually work your way through other feelings that can include denial, anger and eventual acceptance. But when you’re always going through change, you may start to feel you’re on an emotional rollercoaster.

I think one of the keys is getting support. Are there others in the workplace who seem to get through these changes more easily? It’s a good idea to observe how they get the work done, and even take them out to lunch and ask for input on how you can adopt some of their strategies. Knowing you have someone to ask when the going gets rough can help you battle the negative feelings and move more quickly into figuring out how to get the work done.

Also, sometimes work can be very repetitive. Even though there are new deadlines and priorities, you should step back and assess whether you’re trying to re-invent the wheel every time. Are there common elements among the projects that could be automated? Or some technology that would speed the process or help you adapt to changing needs? Again, tapping into other resources such as an IT person may help you learn shortcuts.

Don’t isolate yourself. Talk to a mentor, co-worker or the boss to get feedback on how you can meet these challenges.

Alexandra Levit says:

I think that anyone who claims to like an environment where priorities and deadlines are constantly shifting is lying. Human beings are simply not fans of change, and there's nothing more frustrating than being forced to pivot after you've figured out a solid plan of action. However, the way you cope with a turbulent culture says a great deal about your potential, as adaptability is considered to be one of the most critical skills to possess in the 21st century business world.

The first key to your success is not to take inefficiency to heart. Companies are huge machines, and there's a lot going on behind the scenes that you may not know about. Even if a decision seems to make little sense, it shouldn't be treated as a personal affront. The last thing you want to do is to visibly demonstrate anger, defensiveness, or general displeasure as the higher-ups will be watching. Whether your pet project has been canceled or you now have one less month to complete it, it's important that you are perceived as flexible, capable, and supportive of the company’s direction.

This is admittedly hard to do, so I use the "it is what it is" strategy. This means that you accept that abrupt and even silly changes are sometimes inevitable in the business world, and that you stop thinking in terms of shoulds (i.e. "my company should not do this but should do that"). If you know the drill and it's likely that a particular assignment will not go smoothly, consider how you will cope with the worst case scenario. Once that’s done, recognize that the situation is out of your control and forget about it for the time being.

In an environment like this, your work might not be 100 percent as amazing as it could be, and this is a tough pill for overachievers to swallow. Just remember that your goal should be to show that you can roll with the punches. In terms of your long-term success, attitude will trump results.

Eva Rykrsmith says:

Modern businesses are complex and ever changing; this means that professional roles and the “good jobs” of the future must reflect that reality. Adaptability and agility are two requirements for success in this type of environment. This includes learning how to deal with ambiguity, how to work through uncertainty, and how to anticipate and plan for a shifting landscape. The key behaviors that support this are: keeping organized to avoid chaos, focusing on the priority, over-communicating to ensure alignment, and perhaps most important of all—managing your stress level.

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