Lorelei Yang
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Wonky consultant with a passion for words

While interviewing for a new job, the question "How do you prioritize your work?" will likely come up. Giving the right answer to this question is key to ensuring that the interviewer knows you're responsible, able to prioritize your work appropriately and — most importantly — can effectively manage yourself. This step-by-step guide to answering this question will help ensure that you not only do so correctly but also use your answer to better position yourself to get the job.

What the interviewer is asking you.

By asking how you prioritize your work, the interview is looking for insight into a few things. First and most importantly, they want to understand how you keep track of your responsibilities. They also want to understand how you draw the distinction between high- and low-priority work. Additionally, they want to know how you keep up with your overall workload, manage competing priorities and plan around time constraints. Finally, they're looking to understand how you shift tasks around as business needs evolve.

With this in mind, a good answer to the question "How do you prioritize your work?" should account for all these factors.

In a similar vein, an interviewer might also ask, "How do you handle your workload and prioritize day-to-day and set tasks?" To answer this question effectively, you should demonstrate that a system for keeping track of recurring responsibilities is part of your overall task-management system.

3 steps to providing the best answer.

1. Start with how you track tasks and deadlines.

To answer this question, start by explaining how you keep track of what you have to do. There's no single right answer to this question — you should simply answer with however you organize your tasks, whether that be through spreadsheets, to-do lists, a specific application, a paper planner or some combination thereof.  As long as it works for you, any method is a good answer here. The essential point is that you need to be able to illustrate that you're able to think about tasks in an organized manner and ensure that you stay on top of all your work. 

Personally, I live and die by my calendar — so I always tell people, "If it isn't on my calendar, it doesn't exist to me." This extends to my to-do list, which is synced to my calendar. With this system, I rely on multiple calendars to keep track of all my deadlines, meetings, appointments and more.

2.  Discuss the tactics you use to manage shifting priorities and filter tasks by importance.

Because shifting priorities and time crunches are realities of life in most offices,  your interviewer should understand how you deal with changes in tasks' relative importance and simply not having enough time to finish everything on your plate. Consequently, it'll serve you well to help your interviewer see how you manage shifting priorities and filter tasks accordingly. 

Personally, I always order my tasks by descending priority level. This means that I start at the top of my to-do list and work my way down it. That way, if I don't finish everything on my list but get through the first few items, I'll be in good shape. If something increases in priority, I move it up a few rungs on my to-do list so it'll get completed earlier. 

To help filter tasks by priority, I categorize them by time sensitivity. Time-sensitive tasks that need to be completed by a certain time are treated as hard deadlines that can't be missed, while less time-sensitive tasks that still have some lead time left are lower in priority.

3. Discuss how you plan days and weeks out in advance.

It's useful for a prospective employer to know that you're aware of the benefits of planning your days (and weeks) out in advance. Speaking about this issue in specifics will help give your interviewer confidence that you're capable of planning work out in advance. 

Personally, I always start my week out by spending some time on Sunday night thinking about the week ahead. I spend some time checking my calendar for the week to see when and where I have meetings, put together a to-do list for everything I need to get done that week with tasks organized in descending order of priority and check last week's to-dos to see if there's anything I didn't complete in the previous week that needs to be pulled into the coming week's list.

Every night during the workweek, I spend a few minutes planning out the next morning before going to bed. I find that this helps me hit the ground running each morning. Without a pre-made to-do list, I sometimes find myself struggling to start my first task of the day in the morning. When I wake up knowing what I have to do, I'm just a little more organized when I start the day, which sets me up for maximum productivity over the course of the day.

What interviewers definitely don’t want to hear

The single worst thing you could do if an interviewer asks how you prioritize your work is to not have an answer to this question. Not having a system for keeping track of and prioritizing your work is likely to be a dealbreaker for many employers. Regardless of the job you're interviewing for, odds are good that a prospective employer will want to know that you can manage your tasks on your own. 

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Lorelei Yang is a New York-based consultant and freelance writer/researcher. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.