tips for balancing things urgent for someone else but not for you

someone i’m productivity coaching recently asked a really good question. in regards to how to handle urgent vs important things, essentially, the question was about how to handle when the urgency level doesn’t match between the two people. and more specifically, how do you handle situations when things are urgent for someone else, but not for you?

i’ve got four specific tips to that point, but i want to say first that this problem is ubiquitous. i have never known anyone with a job (any job) to not have to deal with this at one point or another.

so the four tips:

ask just just how urgent the thing is

just taking the time to check with someone about how urgent something is can be incredibly helpful. sometimes, the request isn’t actually that urgent and being asked the question will surface that for the requester. sometimes, the request is actually urgent and knowing that can help it feel better to drop everything and handle it. everyone has to deal with emergencies because the world is a crazy place. but being able to tell when something actually is an emergency and when it’s just perceived as one but isn’t one is hugely important.

gently and respectfully remind them that you’re also accountable to other people (if you are)

sometimes people request things without fully thinking through other things you might be working on. this technique often works when handling competing demands on your time from different people in similar positions. for example, when dealing with students, it can be helpful to respond to a request with something like this:

hey, i appreciate that you’re reaching out for help and feedback on your assignment. i’m working with six other students who reached out earlier this week and i’m not sure that i can get back to you by the deadline. [insert how they could maybe get help from another student or reach out earlier next time…]

sometimes you just have to say no

sometimes the best thing to do is to just say no. there are many reasons for this (some of which i’ve laid out before), but one important one is systemic. when people around you know that they can come to you last minute with requests and you’ll drop what you’re doing to accommodate them, they treat you and your capacity as on-demand. this means they don’t learn to plan their work such that it doesn’t come to you last minute. saying no encourages people around you to know that if they want your time, they need to plan for it.

over time, build the capacity of the system to handle emergencies

the final part of the response in the above section is exactly what this tip is about.

laying out ground rules for how someone can successfully get your time and energy can be incredibly helpful. example:

hey simon, i’ve noticed that often catering orders coming from you are very close to the time of the events. sometimes i’m in the middle of something and can’t stop what i’m doing to place them. it would be much easier for me to place the orders if you could get them to me 24 hours or more from the time of the event. can you do that to help me out?

things like this build the capacity of the system to handle situations in such a way that keeps those things from becoming emergencies. in the long run, this is good for everyone in the system and the system itself.