Ask LH: How Can I Prioritise When There’s So Many Competing Tasks?

Dear Lifehacker, I work in a workplace, environment and job role that is rife with distraction in the form of interruption. It is almost literally part and parcel of my job description, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. There isn’t really an opportunity to avoid distraction or tune out everything else than the one task at hand, because there is barely ever only one task at hand.

I’ve followed Lifehacker for a while now and have enjoyed making use of a lot of the advice. A recurring topic is the effect of focus on productivity and many ways of trying to achieve good focus in the workplace and at home. These are good pieces of advice, but they mostly deal with distraction from tasks that come from the self, our own wandering minds. That doesn’t work so well in my situation.

The three types of work I need to accomplish are time-sensitive data entry; ad-hoc time sensitive user and system support; and coding, research and testing. Clearly coding and testing are areas where I could use a focused environment the most, but that’s at odds with providing time-sensitive support and data entry.

My question is this: What techniques can you suggest for coping with a situation like this? The main issue is when I am working on one thing and I get asked to do something else urgently, the problem is getting back into what I was originally doing. At times I can be several tasks “deep”, being called on to do one thing after another until it become difficult to keep track of what was what.

I currently use the rule of threes. If I am doing a task and get called on for another, I just wing it. If there is a third task interruption, then I grab pen and paper and takes notes on what I was doing and where I was up to for each task, and add to it for any further task until I get back to the original task. It’s not bad but I think it could be better. Any advice? Thanks, 66biscuits

Dear 66biscuits,

I don’t envy you that workload — balancing immediate with longer-term tasks is something we all grapple with from time to time, but that sounds like a particularly difficult mix to manage. I imagine that some of our other technically-employed readers will be able to offer some useful thoughts based on their own experience (and we’d love to hear those ideas in the comments). However, a couple of things do immediately spring to mind.

Your basic approach seems pretty sound. My first suggestion would be to make the process of taking notes on what you were doing previously something you do every single time there’s an interruption, not just when you get to the third competing task. Right now, you’re essentially running two competing organisational systems: “I can remember this” and “I need to write this down to make sure I remember”. Having just a single approach means that you’re not ever going to be left wondering if you’ve worked your way back to the original task. It also gives you a detailed record of what goes on, which can be useful if you want to negotiate with management about making your workload realistic.

One potential challenge with that approach is that some people will be impatient if you hold off their “urgent” request while making notes on what you’re currently doing. However, that’s a reality that your colleagues need to deal with: if you are required to perform multiple tasks, there’s no way they can all get done simultaneously, and keeping track of them is just as essential to your job as solving your colleague’s problems.

While workplace politics can make this challenging, it’s also important to recognise that sometimes you’ll need to say no. That doesn’t necessarily mean saying “No, it will never happen”, but it can mean saying “No, I can’t do this immediately”. You mention that many of the tasks you do are time-sensitive, but obviously there are limits, and a point will appear where time-sensitive task A has to make way to even-more-time-sensitive task B. Making that apparent to people when they ask (rather than just juggling the tasks yourselves) can sometimes improve the situation.

Anyway, that’s my brief take: other time and priority suggestions would be welcome in the comments.


Evolve is a weekly column at Lifehacker looking at trends and technologies IT workers need to know about to stay employed and improve their careers. Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send an email to [email protected], and include ‘Ask Lifehacker’ in the subject line.


  • I feel 66biscuits’ pain. I work in a very similar environment as a sysadmin. Unfortunately, interruption and conflicting priorities is just an accepted part of the job. I’ve read numerous articles on time management and have spent countless hours trying to find something that works for me.

    The best approach I have found so far is just to take notes about myself. As I’m working, I take notes about what I’m doing, what I’m thinking, and what I plan on doing. Nothing too verbose, just every time I think of something significant, it gets noted down. This slows work down, to a minor extent, but allows me to resume what I was doing after a distraction easily. At any point I have a good log of what I was doing and what I was planning on doing.

    In conjunction with Evernote/OneNote and TooManyTabs (Chrome extension) I have developed a segmented workspace that allows me to switch between what I’m doing with ease. One moment I’ll be working on the mail server. I may have 10 or 15 Microsoft Technet articles and a few remote desktop windows open..the next minute I’m fixing group policy on a laptop. By following this method I’m able to switch between workspaces, and in turn mindsets, with ease.

  • Writing down what you’re doing – or have just been doing – is a very good technique. Even if you don’t have distractions, you end up with a record of what you’ve worked on for the past day/week/month.

    In my work environment, I will occasionally be asked to assist a colleague (generally to avoid them getting stuck on whatever they’re doing) and keeping an open text file on the desktop for writing down task notes is quite useful.

    I also find it very useful when it comes to doing our weekly status reports – I can report not only on the tasks I did that were on my personal schedule, but also on the impromptu bits of work I did to assist my colleagues.

  • Be a bit careful of taking notes when dealing with people issues.

    I rang my boss many years ago and tried to talk to him about something that was really bugging me. He was busy and so we only spoke briefly, but I thought he listened. Later that day I asked if he had thought about what I asked him about, and he said; “Oh, sorry, I just took notes and didn’t think at all about it. I was going to read that later.” I can’t remember many times being more cheesed off than that.

  • This echoes my own problems at work precisely. I find that being distracted while I’m coding is catastrophic. After restoring a server to working order, I go back to the code I’ve written and it looks like the rantings of a madman. It takes a good while (and a leap of faith) to get your head back into the code to any useful degree.

    I wish I could offer some kind of solution other than not being available to anyone when you’re in developer mode!

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