Managing Multiple Priorities: A How-To-Guide for Keeping Your Sanity


There are specific skills and steps that you can learn to effectively manage multiple priorities – and to actually assess which activities you need to work on first – then next in order to tame your daily and weekly schedule. I’ve tried to organize the best time management advice I can find into one place and to make it “research administrator-friendly.”

Assessing Urgency and Importance

Ask a colleague who is feeling overwhelmed about their workload and its common to hear the phrase “I’m putting out fires left and right” or “they want everything done right this minute.” These are reflections of the perceived urgency of a situation (which may or may not have actual deadlines attached to them). I’m actually working on a project right now that has a lot of importance attached to it, but the faculty member has not deemed it very urgent, because he is not getting back to me with a key piece of information that is required for me to handle the project. The bottom line is that we tend to feel less able to manage our work when we have fewer pieces of information with regard to urgency and importance. When we ask more questions about this, we can better manage our workload.

Key Questions:

  1. What is the deadline for this project?
  2. Who are the key stakeholders?
  3. What are the resources attached to this project (budget, possible award, etc)?
  4. Is there a compliance or regulatory impact to this project?

This is where my Four D rating system comes in! See previous post I WANT IT NOW – Managing When Everything Is An Emergency.

So the question is, what do we do with this information? I tell my colleagues all the time it’s possible to put out more than one fire at a time, or handle more than one emergency (ER’s do this with a triage system not unlike the chart to the right).

Think of this as developing a triage system for your work, with the help of your boss and your colleagues.


1. Get organized by using a to do list or an app that helps you manage your time. Your system should help you understand what you have to do, how long it takes you to do each item on your list and help you rate each item on a priority scale in order to be the most helpful.

TIP: I have personally spent a ton of hours assessing apps for time management, and I’ve fallen in love with Toodledo. It’s head and shoulders above all other apps I’ve tried, including Remember the Milk, which is one that techies seem to love. (Remember the Milk doesn’t work on my iPad, but I’m sure its great). Toodledo tells me which priority items I need to be spending time on. It’s fabulous and I think it’s making me more productive.

2. Break down projects into tasks, and set milestones for progress (with deadlines!) Make sure you’re working under an absolute deadline.

3. Realistically estimate how long it will take you to perform your work and manage expectations with regard to outcomes – communicate with your stakeholders often and make sure they understand how you’re doing on your work. (Ask your colleagues if you’re not sure how long it takes to do a particular task.)

4. Anticipate barriers to progress when you are planning your work and promptly deal with them when they arise. (Your manager is your best ally.)

5. Schedule time to work on your projects and manage distractions. Maximize the time that you do your best work – if you are a morning person – schedule meetings for the afternoon, or vice versa.

6. Take breaks. Don’t plow through work just because you’re stressed or under a deadline.

7. Have co-workers review your work product to ensure accuracy and attention to detail.

8. Do one thing at a time. Research has shown that cognitive ability and accuracy declines when you multitask. Don’t do it or minimize switching back and forth between projects when you’re doing something really important.

9. When you have questions or need help with managing priorities, ask for help. Your manager can help you assess your workload and help you understand which projects need attention and how to swim through a murky mess.

10. While there may be circumstances where we all need to put in late hours occasionally (when proposals are due), it’s important to work a regular work schedule and take vacations.

With a bit of planning and practice, it’s possible to keep your sanity in a very busy and fast-paced environment.

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