How Do You Prioritize Your Work? (Interview Question)

How do you prioritize your work - conflicting priorities interview question

Most jobs require you to manage multiple tasks, and you’re going to face competing priorities.

So employers ask interview questions like “How do you prioritize your work?” or “Tell me about a time when you had conflicting priorities at work.”

And if you can’t show the employer that you’ve got a proven system for time management and task management, they’re going to be worried.

(Which could cost you the job offer.)

Coming up, I’ll show you how to answer interview questions about conflicting priorities so you can impress the interviewer and land the job.

What Does “Conflicting Priorities” Mean?

Conflicting priorities are objectives competing for your time and attention that cannot all be done at once. When faced with conflicting priorities, you’re forced to manage your time and rank those tasks in order of importance, addressing some before others.

Employers will often ask an interview question about competing priorities to make sure you’ll be able to handle the most important tasks they assign you and complete projects within their deadlines.

To properly handle conflicting priorities, you’ll need time management skills, communication skills (if working as part of a team), the ability to stay calm while working under stress, and problem solving ability.

Examples of Conflicting Priorities at Work

  • Your direct manager told you that Task A needs to be done immediately, but a Department Head, who works above your boss, pulled you aside and asked if you could help them with Task B.
  • You’ve been given two urgent projects and told both are a top priority but only have time to handle one before the end of the day.
  • A team member quit, you’ve been given their workload in addition to yours at the last minute, and you won’t be able to finish your most critical project while managing their workload.
  • Your manager assigned you an urgent task, but before you’ve finished, asked you to support a different project that’s critical and needs more attention.

Common Interview Questions Regarding Prioritizing

The most common interview questions regarding prioritizing your work are:

  1. How do you prioritize your work?
  2. How do you manage your time and prioritize tasks?
  3. How do you handle multiple tasks and priorities?
  4. Tell me about a time you had to manage conflicting priorities at work

With interview questions 1, 2, and 3, you can answer in the same way, since they’re focused on your general approach to prioritizing tasks throughout your day.

Question 4 is a behavioral interview question. To answer this question, you’ll need to describe a specific time you had conflicting priorities.

But the general idea for what to say to an employer is the same for all four questions:

The best way to answer any question about how you manage conflicting priorities or many tasks/deadlines is to show you stay calm and logical, and most importantly have a system.

If you can show employers you’ve faced competing priorities in the past and have a method for handling them, by giving an example or describing your system, you’ll satisfy the interviewer.

Below, I’ll share examples of how you’d answer interview questions about prioritizing your work.

How Do You Prioritize Your Work? Example Interview Answers

Example Answer 1:

I like to prioritize my work by keeping an Excel spreadsheet of my projects and their deadlines so I can see everything at a glance. Then, I sort and adjust the spreadsheet to prioritize my work based on the importance of a project, how long it’ll take, how urgent it is, and whether I’ll need input from other team members to complete the work. I review this sheet each morning. In my current role, I usually have six to eight projects. I’ve found that by communicating clearly with my team and manager at multiple points throughout each project and then tracking everything in Excel, I’m able to manage all of my tasks and hit each deadline, even if we hit some unexpected challenges or delays. I’ve found that communication is key in all of this, too.

Example Answer 2:

Working in retail customer service, it’s not always possible to handle everything urgent at once, so it’s important to know what the greatest priority is. For example, if a customer drops and breaks a glass jar in the aisle, cleaning that up is urgent because it’s a safety hazard. I’ve taken it upon myself to study and learn what’s most urgent in the job and if I’m not sure, I use my best judgment and then ask my manager after the fact if I acted correctly. Through this, I’m always learning and improving, and this helps me know the right priority to follow next time I’m faced with a similar situation.

Example Answer 3:

Each week, I look at my workload and projects and set a daily schedule to help me prioritize. Usually, I’ll estimate how long a project will take and give it a ranking in terms of how urgent it is based on that. Having a clear priority each day allows me to better manage my workload and juggle multiple tasks without missing deadlines. When necessary, I can prioritize within a day, to ensure that I’m tackling the most important jobs first thing in the morning.

Example Answer 4:

I’ve had to juggle multiple deadlines and projects in my two most recent jobs, so I developed a system that works well for me. I use a calendar and alert system to track my priority list so I can see what’s the most time-sensitive and urgent among my tasks. I also break each project into steps to see which pieces of the work are most urgent or require the most time. That way, I can set a priority each day for larger jobs or projects, which allows me to hit deadlines even on long, complex tasks. Some of the projects I’ve managed in my current role have lasted multiple months and involved 10-20 team members, for example.

Tell Me a Time When You Had to Manage Conflicting Priorities: Examples

Example Answer 1:

In my senior year of college, I had three professors assign large, multi-week projects that were all due the same week. I knew this would be a crippling workload if I saved it for the last minute or didn’t prioritize and plan ahead, so I sat down, broke each project down into smaller tasks and estimated how long each smaller task would take. This showed me which tasks to tackle soonest, and I was able to use this system to get everything turned in on time. It worked, and I finished my senior year with a GPA of 3.8.

Example Answer 2:

As a software developer, I’m typically working on two to three projects at a time, with varying importance and urgency. Each has a different project manager, too, so I’m often given conflicting tasks that are time-sensitive and important. For example, I was recently told by my manager to stop what I was doing and help out on an urgent task for the rest of my workday. He didn’t know that I had been pulled aside to work on another urgent project already, though, by a project manager in another group. So I simply said, “I’m happy to do that, but are you aware that I’ve been pulled in to work on <project name> by <project manager’s name>?” It turns out that my boss didn’t realize this, so this is an example of where clear communication and my ability to stay calm under pressure allowed me to determine the right priority and complete the most urgent tasks first.

Tailor Your Answer to the Company When Possible

Employers ask questions about prioritization because they want to see if you’d be able to prioritize effectively in their position.

In most cases, you’ll have a variety of examples you can share for times you had to manage competing priorities.

But you’ll impress the interviewer most if you can focus on examples and answers that are similar to the work you’d be doing in the job you’re discussing.

For example, imagine your last job was a mix of analytical skills and spreadsheet work, but also interpersonal interaction and teamwork.

If this next job you’ve applied to is almost entirely teamwork-oriented and will have you interacting with clients/customers, then you’ll want to share examples of how you managed conflicting priorities when working with clients/customers.

Showing you’ve been able to prioritize tasks in situations similar to the job you’re discussing will show the interviewer you’re a good fit for their company.

However, if you’re now applying to positions involving more analytical work and solo work in spreadsheets and other tools, you’ll want to discuss how you manage individual work effectively instead.

So look at the job descriptions for positions you’re targeting and notice what important tasks they mention.

Then think back to your past work and create a few examples that involve similar tasks and challenges where you used organization and time management to stay ahead and prioritize.

That will give you better results in your job search.

If you’re able to talk about a time you went above and beyond what’s expected of you, that’s also great because it’s a soft skill that transfers into any new job. 

Mistakes to Avoid

There are a couple of mistakes you should avoid when telling the interviewer how you prioritize work.

First, I recommend you avoid saying anything that will make it sound like you struggle to manage time or tasks.

So your answer should highlight situations where anyone would have been overwhelmed or would have had to juggle multiple tasks.

But if you sound like someone who is always falling behind or feeling overwhelmed at work, then that could cost you job offers.

One more mistake: I recommend leaving personal stories out of your answer.

It’s tempting to talk about work-life balance, and how you prioritize your work when also juggling raising children or any number of other personal and family obligations.

However, your answer will be a lot simpler and less concerning to a potential employer if you focus on talking about how you approach each task at work.

Talk about how you prioritize your work against the other tasks you’ve been assigned so you can hit deadlines.

While that answer method is a bit dry/boring, it’ll avoid saying anything that’s a potential red flag to an employer, and that’s what you need to do when asked this question.

It’s not a question where you need to wow the interviewer. Instead, you’re looking to reassure them that you have a method for prioritization and can handle every task they give you.

Conclusion

For any type of job, employers want to know that you can prioritize work based on what’s urgent and create a workflow to stay focused on what’s needed.

They also like to hear that you communicate with your team and management as a part of prioritizing when necessary.

If you deliver an interview answer that sounds like the sample answers above, you’ll show employers you’re capable of being productive in their environment and of recognizing what’s urgent and important.

To wrap up, go create a few answers based on your own career experiences, especially those that will fit with the jobs you’re interviewing for.

By practicing ahead of time, you’ll feel more confident and be ready to answer interview questions about how you prioritize work.

Related interview questions:

 

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