Work Smarter, Not Harder: How to Prioritize When Everything is a Priority


Ah, it's the age-old mantra at work. Work smart, not harder. I'm sure you've heard it before, but actually mastering this adage can prove to be a bit of a moving target. By actually learning to work smarter instead of harder, you can get ahead at work while making your life easier instead of harder.

Learn How to Prioritize

If your job is anything like mine, you have a lot to do in a short amount of time. Paperwork is piling up, reports are due and the boss is breathing down your neck about something he or she asked you to get done weeks ago. When you're feeling overwhelmed, it's time to take a step back to reassess the situation.

Some of the items you need to get done are obviously more time-sensitive than others. For example, when given a choice between working on a presentation my boss needs before leaving on an important business trip in two days or a report that's due in a couple weeks, it's clear which item needs to get done first.


What then, should you do about the items that aren't as clear-cut? There are going to be times when you find yourself with a stack of work and everything seems like a priority. Say you have a finance report that's been sitting on your desk for a week that needs to be reviewed and submitted to your boss and a stack of employee reviews you've been putting off for so long your employees are starting to get restless. Or say timesheets are due in by this evening and your boss walks in and hands you a stack of paperwork that also needs to be done right away.

Create a List

While it might now seem like a good use of time, it can help to take a step back and create a list of everything that needs to get done. Write down everything you need to work on and then arrange the list in the order it needs to be finished. You might find some of the items on the list that seemed like pressing issues aren't as urgent as others. Separate the items that aren't urgent out into a separate list. These items can be done at your leisure after you finish the important stuff.

Assess the Importance of the Task

Some tasks carry a lot more weight than others. Look at how each task benefits the company and others working in the company. Also, look at how it benefits you. What are the repercussions of not finishing the task? If you have an urgent assignment from your boss and a report you told a coworker you'd help them with, it's time to go tell your coworker you aren't going to have time to work on the report until later. Sure, you aren't going to make many friends that way, but at least you'll spare yourself the wrath of your boss.

A good rule of thumb when there isn't a clear-cut choice is to prioritize customer relations and take care of them first. If you have client or vendor work that needs to get done, make sure it gets done on time. Ultimately, these are the groups that keep your company running and you'll be in big trouble if relations sour because of something you did . . . Or didn't do, in this case.

Honesty is the Best Policy

If you're overwhelmed and aren't going to have time to finish your assigned work, it's time to tell somebody. It happens. Your bosses may not be happy about it, but they'll be happier that you told them early, as opposed to waiting until deadlines are staring you, and them, for that matter, in the face. Think about it. Would you rather be told an assignment may not get finished on time a week in advance or hours before the assignment is due and you're supposed to present it at a company meeting?

Another aspect of being honest is learning to say no. If you're too nice a nice person, you may allow yourself to become the person onto which everyone in the office piles the work they don't feel like doing. Instead of having to worry about your job, you'll be left worrying about your job and the jobs of your coworkers as well. Start telling them no and watch as your workload gets lighter.

Don't Overdo It

Part of learning to work smarter, not harder is learning not to over-do your assignments. Everyone wants to impress their boss, which may lead you to go above and beyond what's actually required of you. While this may be fine when you have the time, it could be contributing to the stack of work that's starting to pile up.

Don't get so caught up in the minute details you lose sight of the big picture. If the boss asks for a simple spreadsheet, there's no reason to give him a detailed spreadsheet with charts, graphs and all sorts of bells and whistles he didn't ask for. All you're doing is making more work for yourself and placing roadblocks in your way that could prevent you from finishing other projects.

When All Else Fails, Ask

When you aren't sure, clarify. If a task is going to be too much to complete on time, be honest about it. You might find some of the tasks you thought were urgent aren't as important to your boss as you thought they were. You might also find your boss didn't realize the amount of work being piled on you and may be willing to delegate some of it to others who don't have as much work.

Don't be afraid to ask for help. It might just be the lifeline you need to ensure you finish everything on time.