Prioritizing Your Work: How To Do It And Answer Interview Questions About It

Chris Kolmar
By Chris Kolmar
- Jan. 19, 2021
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When you’re embroiled in the chaos of the workplace and faced with dozens of tasks to tackle in only a few hours, sometimes it’s hard to determine what you should prioritize. Even if everything feels important, it’s not like you can clone yourself and complete three tasks at once.

For these reasons, it’s no wonder workplace prioritization can feel so tricky and overwhelming.

Employers know this and want to know how prospective employees will handle prioritization in the workplace. They’ll often ask the question: “how do you prioritize your work?” in interviews.

They ask this because knowing how you choose to prioritize work will give them valuable information about your personality, stress management, and knowledge of the position or field.

While there are several ways you can go about answering the question, which can depend on the kind of job you’re going for, there are some key approaches to consider.

In this article, you’ll learn tips on how to prioritize your work, as well as how you can translate those tips into answering an employer’s questions in an interview.

Tips for Prioritizing Your Work

Picture this: you just arrived at work, your boss outlines at least five tasks for you to do, and it’s a busy day with a fair amount of chaos. Initially, your mind is racing, and you might assume that every task you’ve been given is equally important.

While this isn’t necessarily incorrect, the truth is that you simply might not have enough time in the day to get everything done. Paradoxically, when everything is prioritized, nothing is.

So what is the best way to prioritize your work? Well, here are a few tips for how you might be able to improve:

  1. Create a master list that orders your tasks from most urgent and important to least urgent and important.

  2. Complete urgent tasks as soon as you clock in, and then assess everything else.

  3. Be aware of your most productive hours at work, and work on important tasks during that time.

  4. Know which tasks you’re good at and which ones you struggle with.

  5. Set daily, weekly and monthly goals.

  6. Use a flowchart to prioritize important tasks.

  7. Research industry rules and regulations so you can better understand the urgency and processes of certain tasks.

  8. Think about the “sunk cost fallacy” (i.e., when you receive new information or realize you’re doing something incorrectly, be willing to change your task or re-prioritize)

  9. Work in a way that will make tomorrow easier for you or your co-workers.

Overall, when you take a deep breath and momentarily analyze all of your tasks, you’ll stand a much better chance of prioritizing them properly.

Why Do Employers Ask About Work Prioritization?

As with any interview question, employers want to determine if you’ll be a good fit for the job. Fortunately, the question of how you prioritize your work will inform them on several important details about you. These include:

  • Time management. If you know how to prioritize your work properly, you’ll be able to meet deadlines and complete all of your assigned tasks during a shift.

    When you tell a potential employer about how you prioritize your work, they’ll be able to see if you have time management skills.

  • Stress management. Having dozens of tasks to address in a fast-paced work environment can really pile on the pressure.

    With that in mind, your confidence in explaining how you prioritize tasks will reassure the potential employer that you can handle high-stress situations and perform under pressure.

  • Organizational skills. The way you address workplace prioritization will reveal how organized you are. Employers want to know if you can maintain an organized work method and workspace.

  • Work-life balance. Your potential employer will want to know how you balance your work with your life outside of work. After all, no company wants to deal with someone who always brings drama or excuses for not getting things done.

  • Industry knowledge. By asking what you prioritize, employers will get an idea of how experienced you are with your field and industry standards.

    Maybe the law requires a certain task to be performed in a specific order, and if you have the proper experience, you would know that.

  • Core values. Overall, by getting an idea of how you prioritize your work, employers will begin to understand your core values and general work ethic. This will give them an idea of how compatible you are with the company’s culture.

Example Answers for the “How do You Prioritize Your Work?” Question

When you know what an employer wants to hear during the interview and are confident in your ability to conform to their standards, you can begin to formulate potential answers.

Remember to provide specific examples and focus on centering those examples around the key details your potential employer is looking for.

For instance, you should highlight any and all of the skills you have mentioned above (time management, stress management, organizational skills, etc.).

Keep in mind that the urgency of certain tasks can vary from industry to industry, but with that said, you can still utilize the samples provided.

  1. Scheduling, charts, and lists. One of the best ways to show time management and organizational skills is to provide examples of how you maintain and use schedules, charts, and lists.

    Maybe you created an hourly schedule to parcel out your time most efficiently when you worked at your previous position. Or perhaps you always listed your tasks in order from most urgent and important to least.

    These kinds of examples will make it evident that you know how to prioritize tasks in the workplace.

    Example:

    “When I worked at Coffee Inc. I often met with my manager at the beginning of a shift and took the time to record an hourly schedule for my tasks.

    My manager would input any other tasks that needed to be completed during that shift, and I’d be sure to bump up the priority of urgent tasks when needed. This time chart allowed me to stay focused and complete all of my tasks in an efficient and timely manner.”

  2. Handling “curveballs.” There’s no question that in-the-moment workplace prioritization can be stressful. That being said, every employer will want to know that you can be quick on your feet when deciding whether or not one task is more urgent than another.

    Be aware of industry standards, as well as state and federal laws, so you can give an example of a time you made the right decision to prioritize one task over another.

    Example:

    “When I worked for my last group home, there was one day when I realized it was time to administer meds while I was preparing dinner. My co-worker, who usually handled the meds at 5 p.m., was sick, so I had been trying to maintain my clients’ normal schedules.

    As I am aware of the legal and medical importance of administering meds at the correct time, I immediately stopped what I was doing and prepared the medications for my clients. I continued dinner afterward, of course, but I made sure to prioritize a more urgent task first.”

  3. Experience with deadlines. No company wants to stress about the possibility that their employees won’t submit work on time.

    Therefore, you can express your prioritization skills by giving examples of your experience meeting deadlines. Discuss how you communicate with team members, as well as how you schedule and divide work.

    Example:

    “When my team and I had to complete a PowerPoint about pesticides and wildlife management, I made sure to prioritize our deadlines. Initially, we all met and discussed when certain pieces of the project would be due.

    I completed my research for a specific date and my PowerPoint slides for another. This allowed me to stay on task and finish my portion of the project a few days early.”

  4. Explain how you work for tomorrow. In many ways, the way in which you “work for tomorrow” will tell your employer a lot about your prioritization and work-life balance.

    For instance, when you complete certain tasks today, instead of procrastinating, you’re more productive and actively helping to improve the workplace for tomorrow.

    Think about it, how many times have you blamed the people working the shift before you for uncompleted tasks?

    Don’t be like that guy on the first shift who never gets anything done. Instead, explain to your potential employer how you refuse to do the bare minimum, and work to improve the workplace for tomorrow.

    Example:

    “When I worked at my previous position, I had been assigned to edit a team member’s notes before moving forward with our project. While I hadn’t been given a solid deadline, I felt it was important to prioritize this work so the project would move forward.

    After all, my team was relying on me, and I wanted to have everything in order for our next meeting. At the meeting, they were all surprised that I’d completed the editing process so quickly and efficiently.”

Additional Tips and Examples

Overall, when you’re answering the question “How do you prioritize your work?” you should try to gauge which examples will be most important and relevant to the company or industry in question.

You can choose to focus on an example of one of the stills mentioned above or try to outline multiple. Either way, do your best to avoid rambling.

Here are two example answers that touch on a few different work prioritization skills without getting too long:

  1. “When I was a manager at Kirby’s Gas Station, I always listed my tasks in order of importance and urgency as soon as I clocked in.

    This method regularly allowed me to complete tasks on time, but when there was an urgent emergency that required my attention, such as a gas spill or customer request, I was sure to stop what I was doing and address that first.

    Overall, I found that because I understood industry standards and the expectations of my role, I was able to properly manage my priorities in the workplace.”

  2. “When I was renovating an older house for a client, I had been trying to open the wall between the kitchen and dining room for them. When I discovered that the wall was load-bearing, I immediately stopped what I was doing and contacted the client.

    They gave me the okay to continue with the project, so I worked a few extra hours that day in order to make my work the next day easier and stick to the client’s deadline.”

When in doubt, stick to showing how your work prioritization represents key skills your potential employer is looking for. When you do that, you can be confident about a successful interview performance.

Never miss an opportunity that’s right for you.
Chris Kolmar

Author

Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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