how to succeed when deadlines and priorities constantly change

A reader writes:

I work for a company that has had one steady constant — change. How do you ensure you continue to get work done and are as efficient as possible when your team mates, responsibilities, and structure are constantly in flux?

It helps to set up your expectations correctly in advance. Part of what usually makes constant change so stressful is that you’re planning for one thing but then suddenly a different thing is happening, and you’re struggling to adjust. So instead, plan for change to happen – assume that things will change, expect it, and position your mind accordingly. For instance, when planning projects, factor into the schedule (and your own thinking) that the timeline may change, different people may become involved, and even the desired outcomes themselves may shift. You might, for example, include additional time for sign-offs and – knowing that details might change — incorporate additional times to check in with decision-makers about the project. In other words, be realistic about the environment you’re working in and don’t expect stability when you’re working in chaos.

At the same time, don’t allow changes to “just happen”; make sure that you’re distinguishing between distractions and true deliberate changes in direction that warrant adjusting priorities and ways of operating.

But ultimately, it’s important to ask yourself whether this is an environment you want to work in. Some people thrive in this type of atmosphere, while others hate it. If you’ll never be comfortable working like this and you’re not in a position to change the environment, it might be worth recognizing that this role isn’t an ideal fit for you.

{ 33 comments… read them below }

  1. Ruffingit*

    And it’s also okay to decide that this kind of constantly-changing environment isn’t the right fit for you. Some people thrive in this kind of context and some slowly go crazy. It’s okay to admit if it’s not for you.

    THIS!! SO MUCH THIS! It’s amazing how many people will complain for YEARS about this kind of work environment and I always think “Then get out of it. It’s not the place for you.” I’m more of an orderly and structured person and I need a workplace that reflects that. I wouldn’t stay for years and complain that entire time in a place where things were constantly changing. Know thyself and take jobs accordingly.

    1. ChristineSW*

      I’m curious as to what types of jobs/fields would I be more likely to find less chaotic, ever-changing environments? I certainly like variety, but jobs where I feel like I’m going in 20 different directions are extremely challenging.

      1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

        My experience has been that it varies widely within a given field (at least within mine). It’s more about the culture of a particular organization.

        1. Ruffingit*

          Yes, exactly. There are many jobs where chaos and a lot of changes are a part of it, but it’s controlled chaos and there’s an appropriate plan in place for dealing with the chaos and the changes. That makes things easier. In some work cultures though, there’s never a plan for the chaos and the changes, it’s just fly by the seat of your pants all the time, maybe we’ll miss that deadline, maybe not, stress out and freak out, OK calm down it’s all good and…here we go again!

          I’m just not a fan of the latter.

        2. periwinkle*

          Heck, it varies widely within a company, or even a department. There are three of us in this workgroup with the same essential job function. One handles routine revisions (of which there are a multitude). Another manages new projects that need a ton of structure. I’m the one who gets the crazy projects of the “I’m not sure what they want, they’re not sure what they want – so you figure it out” variety. Each of us thrives in our work microclimate.

          It’s another instance of needing to interview the hiring manager while she’s interviewing you. What does this specific position require, and what are her expectations of the person in it?

      2. R*

        In my experience, pharmaceutical development has deadlines and goals on a monthly to yearly basis while pharmaceutical discovery has deadlines and goals on a weekly to monthly basis. The needs of the different departments lead to discovery having much more daily changes than development.
        The scientists who thrive in discovery don’t tend to do as well in development and vice versa.

      3. Jennifer*

        I don’t know what fields AREN’T like this these days, though. Everything is this kind of work environment now due to technology, low staff, and instantaneous expectations. It’s one thing to say “this is not for me,” but if there’s nothing else out there except for jobs like that, you pretty much end up having to suck it up.

        1. Ruffingit*

          Believe me when I say that I know there are tons of bad work environments out there. I’ve worked in several of them and it was really hard. It’s rough trying to get another job (been there too), but everything is not this kind of work environment. There are places you can work where this isn’t the case. Are those jobs easy to find? No, I’m not saying that.

          There are a lot of dysfunctional, crappy workplaces out there, but that isn’t everywhere. It can sure take A LOT of looking to find the good ones, but they do exist. For some people, depending on the field, it may be a matter of the lesser of evils. They may have to find a job that isn’t AS bad because their field is one where it’s hard to find a good, functional working environment. Sometimes “not as bad as before” is as good as it gets. But sometimes you can find good, healthy workplaces too.

          I’m keeping the faith myself on that because I do personally know people in various fields who enjoy their jobs and who work in functional environments. It can happen :)

    2. Leslie Yep*

      In the same vein, it’s important to acknowledge that not thriving in these kinds of situations is also not a moral failing or a performance issue, necessarily. In workplaces like this, which mine is for sure, I think a lot of people stick around even though they’re unhappy with it because they feel [are made to feel?] like if only they tried a little harder to like falling without a net, they’d be okay. Especially if it’s your first job or you’ve always worked in our industry, I can very easily see how you would just assume that this is what work is like, and you’re just bad at it. Why would one assume leaving is going to solve the problem, in those circumstances?

      1. Ruffingit*

        You’re right that no one should be made to feel it’s a personal failing if they’re unable to thrive in an environment that just doesn’t work for them. This is where life experience and a good mentor can make a world of difference. This is where a more experienced co-worker sees someone struggling to manage the environment will take that person to work and talk it through with them and let them know that it’s OK if they don’t want to/cannot work in such an environment. Unfortunately, that sort of helpful guidance doesn’t happen for everyone, but having been on the side of “This stinks, I don’t want to do this work” I now try to be the helpful person in my jobs for everything from “I know they sort of throw you to the wolves when you first come here so here’s how we do documentation, scheduling, etc” to “Looks like you’re having a rough day, do you want to talk about it?”

      2. Jennifer*

        Or you just cannot get another job. Or it took you years to get this one and just because you’re unhappy in it doesn’t mean that you really have the option to get another job.

    3. Audrey*

      It’s amazing how many people will complain for YEARS about this kind of work environment

      Some people just really enjoy complaining. If there was nothing to complain about, they’d have to make something up.

      1. Audrey*

        That sounded snippy, and I didn’t mean that. I work in an environment where the goal posts get moved. One colleague is forever saying, “Oh, this place!” but I know she loves her work and she does it very well. She just loves to complain about it.

    4. Anonymous*

      Yes! I am learning that this is not the type of environment for you. My company is a startup – they say they’re “agile” but I think they’re schizophrenic!

  2. BadPlanning*

    I’ve become a lot better at not letting changing goals bother me — at least not too much. Sometimes I am still disappointed, but I don’t dwell on it as much.

    Since our “most important” can change daily, I am now good at saying, “Yes, I could work on that, is it more important than Thing1 that I am currently working on?” when presented with a New Must Have. And the discussing the risks of dropping Thing1. Sometimes Thing1 stays my top priority or sometimes it gets swapped.

  3. Celeste*

    It’s not so horrible when you know it’s only going to be for a finite crunch time, like weeks or months, and then things should be mostly normal, even if busy. But if it’s just going to be the way things are in a new world order, I completely agree that not everybody can live like that. I’m sure I couldn’t do it.

  4. Anon #3517*

    Or, the next time your manager asks about your progress with Project A, you can respond, “Oh, I’m sorry, my deadlines and priorities constantly change. I’ve decided to work on Project B instead.” See how they like it.

    1. BeenThere*

      I would love to do that.

      They was my jobs goes is I have a set of programming tasks to do over a four month period. While I expect some changes over that time period what usually happens is a month before we go into testing they actually figure out what they want and change everything. One week before testing they will add ten new requests and during testing they’ll decide to change the UI five times.

      Yes I’m looking for a new job :)

  5. AH*

    I worked at a company where priorities changed by the day, sometimes even the hour. One day, they announced at a meeting that there wouldn’t be any raises and instead instituted a “bonus program” where we would set specific goals at the beginning of the year and if we met them, we’d get a bonus. It was hard for us not to laugh! Needless to say, no one got bonuses and people started leaving the company in droves.

  6. Sunflower*

    I don’t have a huge problem with deadlines and priorities changing a lot as long as it’s explained and makes sense. If someone can say to me ‘hey we need to change x because of y’ it makes it much more tolerable to deal with than just ‘drop what you’re doing and do this’. You’d be shocked at how many people don’t clue you in on what’s going on in the bigger picture

    In my past jobs, I’ve thrived when things are constantly changing. At my current job though, the president decides what he feels like doing today and that is moved to the top of the pile and it needs to be done in 5 minutes. My job requires me to go through a lot of third-party outlets and it’s not as easy as ‘oh just do this instead’. That’s pretty much how I decided it wasn’t the work that I needed to change, just the company…

    1. Trillian*

      It really does depend how it’s handled.

      If it’s handled well, then higher-ups will think through any changes of direction, communicate the need, own their decisions, and have their peoples’ back when the criticisms come about other projects pushed aside, or rough edges in deliverables.

      If it’s handled badly, changes seem to come on a whim, aren’t communicated well, and people are left to take regular hits to their relationships and reputation because they can’t deliver or they haven’t had time to polish their work.

  7. Lora*

    Some days, I feel like I am the only manager in the whole world who thinks that constant major changes are really just a sign of lack of planning and management skills.

    Managers, it is TOTALLY possible to make a change not feel very change-y. 1. Have a platform system/product/service that does not change, at least not significantly. Have some sort of predictable pattern to it. 2. Warn people a solid year in advance what projects are coming down the pipe 3. Make sure everyone knows what stage the group/company is at 4. Make sure everyone knows what their part in the whole rigamarole is 5. Throw a party to thank everyone at the conclusion of a campaign/season/new product launch.

    Example: Fashion industry. It changes ALL THE TIME on absolute whims of random famous people. However, everyone knows what the seasonal “looks” are, basically (sandals and shorts in spring/summer, pants and sweaters in fall/winter); everyone knows when Fashion Week in NYC, Paris, etc. are coming, and know when to expect a big push; everyone knows when the new catalogs are coming out; everyone knows what will go into preparing for these events–finding fabric manufacturers, finding textile workers, design studio sketches, mock-ups, re-works of the mock-ups, photography, printing schedules for catalogs and magazines, PR contacts, etc. Yeah, it’s going to change all the time, but their actual roles are going to be more or less the same, just in pink instead of teal or whatever.

    Used to work for a Big Pharma that planned out their development work three years ahead. A competing company about 17 miles down the road couldn’t plan more than three days ahead without something going all cattywumpus. One had low single-digit annual turnover and was able to hire top-quality staff from all over the world. The other had 30% annual turnover and got the smackdown from the FDA repeatedly for incompetence and under-staffing.

    1. Zelos*

      Some of it is just industry, though.

      I used to work in a lab where the work was very seasonal. Clients do more fieldwork during certain times of the year. During rush season, multiple rush orders in the same day was expected–if you had a two hour timespan where you didn’t get a new email alerting you of a rush order you thanked your lucky stars. Priorities were changing all the time, because the next thing to come in the door can be a 2-day rush, a 1-day rush, a regular 5-day order, or a we-needed-this-yesterday-get-this-out-ASAP.

      I remember once I was working (overtime, at 6PM I think) and my supervisor came over, with this exchange:

      Him: “Drop everything you’re doing! Rush order that just came in due tomorrow.” *
      Me: “…but these are due tomorrow.”
      Him: “Okay, drop everything that’s not due tomorrow and only do the ones that are. Add these *hands me list* to the batch.”
      Me: “…ALL OF THESE are due tomorrow.”
      Him: “…”
      Me: *sigh* “I’ll figure something out.” (Translation: even more OT.)

      *These orders have to be done in batches of a set number; we couldn’t just willy-nilly add a few stragglers even if we wanted to…it’s limited by machine capacity and by personnel availability.

    2. Us, Too*

      I think this is highly industry-specific. In my field (technology), having a system/product/service that does not change significantly is going to be the death knoll of that product. If everyone did this, the iPhone wouldn’t exist because it’s a pretty big leap to go from a standard cell phone to one that does all the things a smartphone does.

      I do agree that excellent change management is important. I just don’t think all industries/areas have the benefit of having full visibility into every major project that is coming in that year. I bet Target has a huge project right now around their security breach, but I seriously doubt that they told everyone in advance about it. ;)

      1. Lora*

        Which is my point, really:

        Zelos knew that clients did field work at (time). A good manager says, “I need to make sure I’m staffed up and don’t over-promise to clients around this time, so let’s put (scheduling method) in place to be sure we can meet clients’ expectations without killing ourselves.”

        The Senate investigation into the Target breach showed that security warnings were routinely ignored. They didn’t isolate more sensitive assets from the rest of the network, and they handed the keys to the kingdom to a very non-secure third party vendor. So, bad management.

        1. Zelos*

          To be entirely fair to that ExJob, sometimes the rush work came from accidents (random oil spill from somewhere, which no one could have predicted). But there’s a large part that was just seasonal, so I concur fully about the staffing part (somehow, that place never has enough people no matter how many people they hire…)

        2. Angela S.*

          With the issue of staffing, I think you also have to factor into how much overtime your staff is willing to put into.

          At my current job (which I’m looking forward to leave after I could land on a new one), my boss just expects that we would stay late if something comes up. The problem is that something does come up on a regular basis. I feel that I work overtime almost every day. If I had known about this, I might have asked for a higher salary before accepting the job offer, or I might refuse the offer outright. It just never came up during the discussion during the job interview, and I thought overtime would just occur during a particular time of the year. Now, I feel so stressed out about the workload because a) I would rather not work overtime all the time; b) I have a life outside work, namely, I’m training for running a half marathon and yet because of work I’m not eating properly and I don’t put enough time into training.

          I’m sure that some people are more than willing to work 50 or 60 hours a week. I really think that when an employer is hiring, the candidate should be told in advance whether a particular position would give the employee no life outside work. And then, let the candidate decide if that is the right job for him or her.

  8. KrisL*

    My way of dealing with change is to keep things organized as much as possible. It may take a couple of minutes to write down a few notes explaining where I am, but if it takes me a couple of weeks before I can get back to a project, it’s worth it.

  9. Vicki*

    At one (software/hardware) company where I worked, one of the engineers raised his hand in a meeting and asked: “So, what I hear you saying is that these 5 things are all top priority?”

    And the manager said “Yes.”

    1. Windchime*

      We used to have a form that people would fill out when they wanted some programming done. The user would prioritize it from 1 (need it right now!!!!!) to 4 (do it when you get around to it). We had tons of “1”s, so people learned that if they wanted something at all, to make it a priority 1 so that it would go near the top of the list. When everything is a 1, nothing is a 1.

    2. Sissa*

      I would like to post a picture of our project whiteboard. Everything is a priority one, the only thing sorting the order of said projects is the deadline. How I meet those deadlines is wholly up to me -except when it’s not, like when someone else screws up and throws my beautifully planned schedule way off.

    3. Katieinthemountains*

      Yep, got one of those bosses. He couldn’t tell me whether I should be doing fieldwork in this county or that county first of the week. I couldn’t do both given travel time and hours of daylight. I asked twice, then went and made my own decision.

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