How To Manage Competing Deadlines, Priorities, & Stay Sane

Sheena McGinley, May 27, 2024

How to manage competing deadlines and priorities

Picture it. You’re enjoying a Sunday evening. Then, a familiar fear creeps into the pit of your stomach... Try as you might to enjoy the dwindling weekend, there’s that little niggle. Looming deadlines, perhaps. Maybe an overly packed schedule, or competing projects. Either way, they’re all vying for your attention which doesn’t make for a good night’s sleep or a productive Monday.

So, whether you’re a project manager who wants to navigate that packed schedule while allocating your teams’ energy accordingly, or an overloaded person trying to organize your work/life balance, behold our top tips to manage all those conflicting priorities.

In this blog post, we will:

  • Define priorities (when everything on the list is a priority)
  • Outline why effective prioritization is so important
  • Provide strategies to help you to navigate the conflicting priorities

What are deadlines and competing priorities?

Simply put, the definition of deadlines differs in every industry. Having worked in the newspaper industry for almost two decades, I know the importance of deadlines. When your editor gives you a deadline for print, that’s it – there are no extensions.

The resulting stress can be both debilitating and exhilarating in equal measure. Either you crumble under the pressure or you use it for fuel.

Take my Monday ritual for instance:

  • Pitch a flurry of articles by 10am.
  • By midday, my editor would tell me which story she wanted.
  • At 4pm, I would send over a fully researched, written, edited, and fact-checked 1,800-word article (with quotes from reliable sources) in order for it to make it into the paper the following day.

For anyone thinking “Meh, that sounds doable”, I also had to factor in two school pick-ups between 1pm and 2pm and keep those infants alive until their father got home 😕

In short, I know all about juggling conflicting demands – while trying to stay sane in the process. Granted, all deadlines differ in time, scope, and scale, but the ethos behind managing priorities is pretty universal.

So many things to do

For example, in a company setting, competing priorities arise when team goals clash or deadlines overlap, causing a strain on resources. These conflicting demands can seem challenging, particularly when they involve different departments and/or stakeholders. For instance, trying to align the priorities of the Business Development and legal departments can seem almost impossible.

There is a plus side, however; it should motivate leaders to strategically allocate resources while bringing clarity to the situation overall. Speaking of which…

The importance of managing competing deadlines and priorities

A clear system for handling competing priorities is paramount. It keeps your team and stakeholders informed, aligned, while having faith in the project's direction.

Behold the benefits of keeping abreast of competing priorities:

  • Alignment: With everyone on the same page regarding goals, this prevents confusion and thus any squandered efforts by you or your team. Even short, regular team meetings can help you stay on track and prevent drifting off priorities.
  • Resource optimization: When you allocate time, people, and budget strategically, you ensure everything is used effectively across projects, and you’ll avoid wasting precious resources on non-critical tasks.
  • Realistic project deadlines: Keeping on top of your priorities results in more feasible deadlines. The resulting timelines – based on impact, stakeholders, and outcomes – will help you prioritize tasks and negotiate more realistic deadlines.
  • Reduced risk: Having the data to identify potential roadblocks from the offset allows you to proactively address them. This minimizes delays (and any nasty surprises).
  • Increased trust & recognition: Clear and consistent communication regarding timelines, resources, and decision-making builds trust while mitigating any misunderstandings. Successfully navigating competing deadlines showcases your tenacity, diligence, and effectiveness. This can lead to well-deserved recognition from colleagues and management, boosting your credibility and that of your teammates.
  • Happy clients: By meeting expectations and delivering high-quality work on time, you strengthen client relationships while fostering that all-important loyalty.
  • Sharper skills: Juggling deadlines is a crash course in organization. It may seem daunting at first, but you'll discover new ways to work efficiently under pressure, making future deadlines seem less daunting.

Now that we’ve established why it’s important to keep abreast of conflicting priorities, let’s get into actionable strategies.

Strategies to manage clashing deadlines and priorities

Below are five proven ways to mitigate multiple deadlines and conflicting priorities. While some might seem obvious, they bear repeating.

  1. Leverage task management software, integrating it into your existing workflow.
  2. Implement a priority ranking system – funneling them into ‘Urgent’ (should have been done already), ‘High’ (require your attention imminently), ‘Normal’ (important, so let them own a portion of your day-to-day), ‘Low’ categories (not immediately required/don’t take long to do).
  3. Visually map out your priorities by using flowcharts. Having this visual reference will be key when guiding you through the process plus identifying any potential bottlenecks along the way.
  4. Employ a Prioritization Matrix (which, fun fact, dates back to President Dwight Eisenhower. He devised it to mitigate the myriad of urgent issues he faced as a US Army general). This framework uses ‘impact’ and ‘effort’ at its axes to rank tasks. You can score each color-coded factor as low (green), medium (orange), or high (red).
  5. Make a Master Task list using The Kanban method, where team members focus on finishing current tasks before tackling new ones.

6 ways to successfully navigate competing deadlines

Urgent deadlines

When you have multiple deadlines hurtling towards you, it’s all too easy to get submerged in the details. Therefore, it’s important to be honest with yourself and others – you can’t ostrich yourself out of impending conflicting deadlines.

Here are six ways to keep your head up and keep your competing deadlines on track.

1. Know your golden hour

Determine when you work most efficiently. For instance, is it very early in the morning? Or, perhaps it’s at night? Once you ascertain when your golden hour is, ensure you set yourself realistic goals to meet within this time of peak productivity. Be it time chunking or another time management technique, there’s an array of analog and/or more tech-orientated options outlined here.

2. Renegotiate if/when needed

If deadlines seem too tight, be honest with yourself/your project manager. Explain your concerns and see if some deadlines can be shifted. While approval isn't guaranteed, even flagging your concerns can ease the pressure.

Moving the dealdine

3. Be realistic

Be frank with yourself and your team about what you can realistically achieve. Once everyone understands your workload, they might be able to adjust expectations or – even better – offer support to help you meet deadlines.

4. Embrace flexibility

Easier said than done in terms of deadlines, but – the simple fact of the matter is – things change! Therefore, be prepared to adapt your approach as situations evolve. This allows you to handle unexpected events without sacrificing quality or workflow.

5. Stay professional

The stress is real but that doesn’t mean you get to launch your toys out of your pram. Maintain a positive and professional attitude throughout. If it seems endless and arduous, it helps to view the workload as an opportunity to further develop your skills. Not only will this reduce stress but also showcases your composure under pressure.

6. Prioritize ruthlessly

Sometimes, cutting tasks is necessary. Analyze your workload and identify less critical tasks you can eliminate. This ensures you focus on the most important projects and deliver high-quality work.

Adopt a 5-step process to tackle increasingly conflicting priorities

Sometimes, it’s nigh impossible to see the forest for the trees. Here, we dig into how to define a priority when everything is deemed a priority. Adopting a five-step process is key to avoid getting bogged down in the details. As for what these essential five steps look like?

Step 1. Yes, you guessed it – collate a list of what your impending deadlines and priorities are.

Step 2. When everything on your list is critical, you must triage. Questions to ask yourself when triaging include:

  • “Can I delegate or outsource anything?”
  • “What needs to be done today versus next quarter?”
  • “What are the possible revenue opportunities versus liabilities?”
  • “Is it in alignment with my/company overall goal?” After all, you can’t pursue every good idea; you need to base your strategy on your company’s core values and overall mission.

Step 3. Let your subconscious take over for a bit. Ever notice how an insight comes to you when you’re not sitting there willing it to arrive? That’s why it’s important after triaging your list of priorities to switch off for a bit. Go for a walk. Cook something. Take a shower. If you move, so will your brain.

Taking a break

Step 4. Now, with fresh eyes and a balmed brain, review your list. Assign weight accordingly, based on the urgency and importance of each task.

Step 5. Breathe life into that list by executing effectively. For starters, observe the 80/20 rule. By identifying the 20% of the priorities that will likely contribute to achieving 80% of the results, you will find the right balance between the following:

  • Maximizing your motivation or that of your employees (also, ensure any success doesn’t negatively impact morale elsewhere in the business)
  • Making your clients happy
  • Delivering your financial targets.

Once you’ve implemented the 80/20 rule, simplify it down to the 50/1 rule. If you apply that down mathematically, that means about 1% of your effort can result in 50% of your output.

For instance, when looking at your list of priorities, ask yourself, “What is the one thing I could do that would make everything else easier or unnecessary?” Then, execute that one thing.

Half the time, the crux of dealing with clashing deadlines and priorities requires brute honesty and sticking to your guns. Once defined, don’t shy away from defending your priorities.

That said, always aim for collaboration over competition. An ideal workplace fosters teamwork, not interdepartmental rivalries. Success hinges on a harmonious environment where colleagues collaborate towards shared goals, support each other, and celebrate victories.

Naturally, different departments will have different priorities, work styles, and urgency levels. This can lead to misalignments in needs and timelines. Often, each department will see their own project as the most pressing! While these clashes are common, acknowledging them is the first step towards resolving them.

Challenges will always arise – that’s why a transparent line of communication, visualized prioritizations, and adaptability are key when mitigating conflicting deadlines and priorities.

Remember these key ways to execute your priorities list:

Key takeaways for navigating priorities
  • The power of project management: Tools like Asana let you create task cards, categorize urgency, and even assign accountability buddies to keep you on track. And if you want to supercharge it with accurate, down to the minute time tracking data, Memtime’s got you covered with a dedicated integration, as well as numerous, out-of-the-box integrations with other project management tools.
  • Categorize, categorize, categorize: Break down your list by category (think "business development" or "customer service") to gain clarity overall. Then, prioritize within each category based on importance and urgency. Top tip: When estimating time, be generous – your future self with thank you. You want to avoid a doom loop of over-promising and under-delivering.
  • Start small: If you're feeling overwhelmed, start by doing the smaller/less time-consuming tasks. Completing these quick wins helps build momentum, which makes tackling larger priorities feel less intimidating. Better yet, if you can delegate these tasks, do so.
  • Happy customers = happy business: When faced with tough choices, prioritize tasks with the greatest positive impact on your customers. After all, a happy customer base is the foundation of any successful business.
  • Time block for maximum impact: Leaders often struggle with competing priorities. Here's a powerful strategy: use a framework like Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to pinpoint your focus. Then, allocate specific time blocks to high-impact tasks for each functional area.

Like we said before; time chunking can be your friend. Especially if you favor your sanity!

Meet the author:

Sheena McGinley - post author

Sheena McGinley

Sheena McGinley is a columnist and features writer for the Irish press since 2008. She’s also a business owner that is conscious of how time tracking can foster progress. She wrote for SaaS companies and businesses that specialize in revenue optimization by implementing processes. She has the unique ability to digest complex topics and make them easy to understand. She shares this precious skill with Memtime readers.

When she's not making words work for people, Sheena can be found taking (very) brisk dips in the Irish Sea.