Time management is crucial to perform well at any job, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise if an interviewer asks, “How do you prioritize your work?”
“What the employer is looking for with the question ‘How do you prioritize work?’ is to see if you know the difference between the urgent and the important,” says career coach Theresa Merrill. “They are not the same. A good answer addresses the need to distinguish between the two.”
It’s best to give real-life examples to show the interviewer you’re not just talking about a generic strategy, but you’ve actually practiced this in the workplace. Here are a few key elements to include in your answer when you’re asked how you prioritize work.
Start With: How You Map Out Your Day
Whether you’re a fan of to-do lists or swear by spreadsheets, be specific about how you manage your daily workload. Your potential employer wants to know they can count on you to get work done without someone standing over your shoulder.
Everyone has a different method of managing their workload, so it doesn’t matter if yours is boring, or even a little quirky. The key is to be as detailed and thorough as possible. Potential employers want to know you’re organized and put real thought into your daily routine.
An example of this could be:
“I’d be lost without my daily to-do list! At the beginning of each workday, I write out tasks to complete, and list them from highest to lowest priority. This helps with my workflow and keeps me on track with what needs to get done for the day.”
Next Add: How You Approach Shifting Priorities
It’s common at work to start one project, only to find out halfway through that you need to shift gears and focus elsewhere. Sometimes it’s an emergency or something truly urgent that you have to drop everything for; other times it’s just a task your boss hands to you at the last minute. Yes, it’s annoying, but it comes with the territory at most jobs.
So after you share your tried-and-true method for prioritizing work, also mention how you typically handle a situation when changes occur. This helps to show you’re mindful of high-level company priorities. The most detailed spreadsheet or to-do list means nothing if it’s completely unrelated to what your department is trying to accomplish.
To get this point across, you might say:
“My to-do list helps me maintain a steady workflow, but I also realize priorities change unexpectedly. With that in mind, I try not to overload my list with too many tasks, to make room for any necessary adjustments.
“On one particular day recently, I had planned to spend most of my time making phone calls to advertising agencies to get price quotes for an upcoming campaign. Then I did a quick check-in with my manager. She mentioned she needed help putting together a presentation ASAP for a major potential client.
“I moved the other task to the end of the week and spent the next few hours updating the presentation. While there was flexibility in getting quotes for the campaign, the presentation was much more time-sensitive—and it was also way more important to make a good first impression for the potential client.”
Finish With: How You Manage a Healthy Work-Life Balance
You might think it’s impressive to brag about your multitasking skills or ability to knock out 20 items on your to-do list. However, there are only so many hours in a day and you probably won’t complete every single thing you set out to do.
The idea in answering how you prioritize work is to set realistic expectations for yourself and your potential employer. You don’t want to tell them you’re willing to work 14-hour days to get everything done (and a good boss shouldn’t want to hear that kind of answer). Merrill says hiring managers want to see if a candidate can determine what needs to get done, and also assert themselves if the timeline isn’t doable.
“What you don’t want to say is [you’re] able to handle a large workload and would just work harder, longer, and do whatever it takes to get the work done,” Merrill says. “Not only is that not efficient, it’s not effective.”
Rather than trying to give the impression you can do it all, say something like:
“I make it a point to keep lines of communication open with my manager and co-workers. If I’m working on a task that will take a while to complete, I try to give a heads-up to my team as soon as possible. If my workload gets to be unmanageable, I check in with my boss about which items can drop to the bottom of the priority list, and then I try to reset expectations about different deadlines.”
There are several layers in responding to “How do you prioritize your work?” Keep these key points in mind to show a potential employer that you know how to juggle company priorities, efficiency, and work-life balance.