How to Prioritize in Emergency-Driven Jobs

Some jobs, by their nature, are emergency-driven. Everything is important and needs to be done ASAP. Here’s how to decide what to do next.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #232

A member of the Get-it-Done Guy Facebook community was despondent. She wrote in:

“I work in professional communications. Everything is top priority the moment it comes in. How can I prioritize my day?”

Reporters have also written in with the same question, as have customer service people. They all are jobs where you’re juggling a dozen projects, while some evil nemesis is throwing new balls into the mix every few minutes.

In some spiritual practices, they say the world is just a product of your thinking. I disagree. You may think you can fly, but if you jump off the top of a 10-story building, you will be disappointed to find that out gravity exists regardless of your thoughts. On the bright side, however, you’ll only be disappointed for a few seconds.

In the real world, if you take a job where priorities change from minute to minute, there is no way you can manage your time except minute-to-minute. Your job is emergency-driven, and that won’t change. You can always get a new job—fast food workers are in huge demand—but if you choose to stay with your current one, you need to learn to live with emergencies.

Emergency Rooms Use Triage

Who lives with emergencies every day? Hospital emergency rooms, of course. I’ve never been to one, but I watch Nurse Jackie, so I feel like I have a really good, accurate idea of what goes on there. Emergency rooms use triage. When a patient comes in, someone does a quick evaluation and decides who gets in now, who waits around for an hour, and who gets to set up a tent for a few months before they get seen.

You need to triage incoming stuff, so you know whether to make it your new top priority, ignore it entirely, or somewhere in between.

Set Up Boundaries, If Possible

First, set up minimum boundaries. Journalism or communications takes thought. Thought takes focus. Focus takes no interruptions.

Decide how big your focus chunks need to be, then schedule regular times when you answer your phone, check your voicemail, and check your email for new emergencies. Check once or twice an hour for five minutes. Between checking, however, close down email and turn off your phone. You need at least some time to focus or you’ll never do a good job.

Set Up Boundary Overrides

Tell your boss you’re doing this so you can produce high-quality work and still be as responsive as possible. Work with your boss to choose the best inbox-checking frequency.

Your boss, of course, will say “I want you to do high-quality focus work and be available instantly all the time. Your boss has pointy hair. Fortunately, your Blackberry, iPhone, or Android lets you set up custom ringtones. Set a custom ringtone for your boss. Say, “If it’s a real emergency, call and I’ll pick up.” When you’re in your focus time, only answer if it’s your boss calling. Say, “Hi, boss. You just tanked my productivity, reduced my quality level, and may be causing me to miss the deadline for what I’m working on now. This better be good or you owe me, big-time. What’s up?” Soon, either your boss will only interrupt you for top priority things, or you’ll have to find a new job. Maybe something in a library. The most awesome Get-it-Done Guy listeners Michael Steffans, Scot Colford, and Michael Colford—who all work in libraries—assure me they are peaceful places whose only emergencies are of the literary variety.

Triage Using Both Upside and Downside

When a new item comes in, use triage to decide where in your work lineup it belongs. Consider two things:

  1. How do the benefits of dealing with this item compare with the benefits of dealing with the other items on your plate?

  2. How does the pain of letting this item drop compare with the pain of letting other items drop?

If Ignoring It Will Get You Fired, Take It

If ignoring this item will get you fired, do it and do it now. Discuss with your boss—during calm times of course—which things fall into the I’ll-get-fired category. A journalist who drops a story about a kitten stuck in a tree won’t get fired. If the kitten turns out to be a shape-shifting space alien who later reveals he’s here to enslave the human race, the journalist will get fired (of course by that point, that won’t be his biggest problem).

Prioritize According to Damage Control

Now make a quick list of all the projects you’re currently working on. Score each one according to how bad it will be if it doesn’t get done. One means you can drop this with few consequences. Ten means it would be very, very bad to let this fall through the cracks.

The trick is to triage your incoming responsibilities and re-prioritize on the fly.

Let say your projects are: take dog for a walk, finish marketing report, and write memo on company charity day. If you don’t take the dog for a walk, it could have dire and smelly consequences that you’ll have to clean up. It gets a 10. If you don’t finish your marketing report, deadlines could slip. That gets a 7. If you don’t write the charity memo, it just means someone else will have to write it. The potential damage is low. Maybe a 2.

Prioritize According to Benefit

Next, rate each project according to how powerful the benefit is if you finish it successfully. Walking the dog has no great benefit, though it could be relaxing. It gets a 3. The marketing report could get you promoted if it’s well-written. It gets an 8. The company charity report will do good things for the world. Unfortunately, you’re far more concerned with yourself than the world, so it only gets a 6 on the scale.

Use Your Rankings to Prioritize in the Moment

Any projects that have both high possible damage control and high benefits are your top priorities. They get your immediate time and attention.

Projects that have high damage control and low benefit come next. Psychologists tell us that humans care about avoiding harm more than we care about embracing goodness. That means that if anything goes wrong, they’ll notice, and, of course, blame you, even if it was their fault. By taking care of high damage items next, you’ll avoid looking bad after-the-fact.

Projects with low damage control but high benefit are third. These are the things that really make you look like a winner. Since you’ve handled all the high-damage items by now, people’s minds are clear enough to recognize that you’re responsible for doing great things.

Sometimes something is so high-benefit that you’re willing to neglect other projects, even though that will cause damage. For example, if you’re a journalist and believe you’re pursuing a story that will win a Pulitzer, you may decide to neglect a high-profile story about a famous person and the brand of strained beets their newborn child eats. You’ll look like you’re totally out of the loop—missing the strained beets story is high-damage-if-you-don’t-do-it—but winning that Pulitzer will make up for it and then some.

Consider carefully and double-check with your boss before neglecting a high-damage-control project in favor of a high-benefit project.

Projects with low damage and low benefit should be dropped altogether.

A job handling emergencies doesn’t lend itself to easy scheduling. The trick is to triage your incoming responsibilities and re-prioritize on the fly. Reset your priorities around how much later damage they save, and how much future benefit they provide.

This is Stever Robbins. If you have other ideas how to bring sanity to emergency-driven jobs, please send them in! You can also email questions to getitdone@quickanddirtytips.com

I help people who initiate projects identify and manage the risks so they have a greater chance of success. If you want to know more, visit http://www.SteverRobbins.com.

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!

Image courtesy of Shutterstock


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.