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Prioritizing work for multiple clients is like driving a car down a six-lane highway in rush hour traffic. If you are focused and making progress, it can feel like you are driving a sports car. When you aren’t making progress, you wonder what is wrong with your car. You are constantly facing lane changes, accelerations, breaking, and, unfortunately the very occasional fender bender. Hopefully, you never have to face a cataclysmic crash. So how does this analogy relate?

At any given time, the lanes of traffic represent the different things we could be working on that will help us get to our destination. The faster we can speed through the lanes, the sooner we can get there. But, other things get in our way and slow us down. Confusing signage can cause us to get off the highway entirely. And, if we don’t know where we are going, how can we be sure we are on the right road? An essential part of a smart start is to know what road you want to be on and where it’s going.

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Sometimes, in my work with some pretty smart people, I find that “work” doesn’t always fit neatly into the nice little boxes that we’ve set up. Sometimes, I’m hired to help companies do projects, and sometimes, I’m hired to help companies do work. For the latter, I often find that the folks doing the work are juggling open “tickets,” looming deadlines, operational needs, new requests, product development activities, and just plain work. Prioritizing work becomes a challenge! Sometimes, I’m not sure these clients know what highway they are on.

Just as on the highway, the squeaky wheel often gets the grease. Less important work requested by more demanding clients or bosses often gets prioritized over things that might make a bigger difference.

Paying clients who are used to working with one person on a team, whether it is in a product development firm, a law firm, a software development company, an architectural firm, or a marketing firm, often stop thinking about planning ahead and just begin to count on service providers to drop everything they are doing at the drop of a hat. Some service providers often find themselves working 20-hour days, while others in the firm find themselves wishing for work.

Is there a way to smooth out the work so that profits increase, client needs are well met, operational goals are achieved, service providers find whatever work-life balance they want, and the work that is most important gets prioritized? How does a firm that works for multiple clients prioritize work coming from different directions? Here are five tips:

 #1 – Know what the work is and where it is coming from.

That statement sounds so obvious that it feels stupid to begin there. And yet, I’m often amazed when I work with clients that there are hidden pieces of work that some people know about and others don’t. It could be a client request that slid in through the email back door, rather than through ZenDesk. It could be work that contractors are doing for other clients that you know nothing about. It could be operational work that comes from one area of your firm and project work that comes from another.

Ideally, all of your “to-do” items should be captured in one place, but that is often unrealistic in these contracting days. Some of us are balancing multiple project tools for work and life, and that’s just the way it is.

#2 – Understand everyone’s priorities.

We’ve all seen the t-shirt or the wall plaque that says “I Can Only Please One Person A Day. Today Is Not Your Day. Tomorrow Doesn’t Look Good Either.” Knowing all of the priorities and competing demands that face everyone on your team, or in your organization is critical. What’s your process for identifying them and then factoring them into the workload?

Understanding the many and varied stakeholders in your work and life will help you figure out when to ask for help, when to say no, when a project deliverable is at risk, when to propose radically different approaches, when more training or communications are needed, and how to prioritize work.

#3 – Know where your most critical deadlines are.

Not all deadlines were created equal. Some are simply more critical than others. The trick is to be able to quickly identify which deadlines are critical, and manage work on those deadlines first. The next trick is to not let the critical deadlines get in the way of working on items that might create more value.

#4 – Deliver value in each time block.

Use two or three week time blocks and focus on delivering some value to each client within that block of time.

#5 – Use daily standing meetings to promote accountability.

When you start your day by thinking about what success looks like for that day, it can change your life. Ask yourself why your team needs to do everything on your list. You may realize that it doesn’t need to do everything – that about 20% of the items on that list will provide the most results.

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If you are having trouble prioritizing work, you aren’t alone. But in this case, misery doesn’t love company. Try using some of these suggestions and see if they help. And call me if you need something.

Photo License: Los Angeles Traffic – The Newhall Pass by Jeff Turner;; CC BY 2.0 License