Constantly shifting priorities can make an employee frustrated and confused
At the beginning of the fiscal year, I sat down with my manager to go over my objectives for the year. The previous year, I had taken on a lot more product responsibility while other teammates were busy with project work. I got no credit for doing so, but I felt I had to. So when it came time for this year’s objectives, I made it a point to say I wanted to work on a project that interests me. My manager agreed, so we divided up my time into the required buckets, and I felt I had a good grasp on how the year would go.
Before the first quarter was over, a huge project came down the pipeline that sidetracked everything, and I was ordered to stop what I was doing and focus on it. As this was a high profile project with lots of senior management visibility, I was excited. We redid my objectives, shuffling some other things around based on these new priorities. This project started consuming a lot of time, and I questioned whether 30% of my time was an accurate assessment.
Queue to a few weeks ago, when that project was shelved suddenly. I was left with little to do, and not much of any substance. All of a sudden, a completely different project fell into my lap. And once again, my objectives had to be completely changed.
This constant hurry up and wait can get old very fast. I went from a slow and steady approach to my work, to speeding up quickly on one project, to suddenly powering down and stopping in my tracks, to again ramping up on a completely different project and moving full steam ahead. It’s a lot to deal with, and you have to be able to pivot quickly.
Why it sucks…
It sucks because it can be hard to focus. When you never know if your “super important project” will end up lasting more than a month or so, it’s hard to find the motivation to really get after it. It sucks because constant starting and stopping can be bad for your mental health. Much like a cars engine, stop-and-go can wear down parts quickly. It’s the same at work. Your mind can get numbed to the effect after a short while, and you’ll find it difficult to fully commit your energies to that project.
It also sucks because, at the end of the day, what do you have to show for it? I did great work on that first sudden project. But does it ultimately matter because the project was shelved? Who knows. At most, it’ll just be 10% of my total objectives. That won’t exactly move the needle come annual review time. If this project also gets cancelled, I’ll have two quarters worth of work that went nowhere. Is that my fault? Not really. But it affects my review nonetheless.
How to handle it
The best way to handle it is to take it one day at a time, try to keep the big picture in mind and celebrate any accomplishments you can. Use your downtime to focus on as much other work as you can, so the next hurry-up period can be totally devoted to that project. I used a great deal of my downtime to finish up some reporting and collateral tasks that would have taken up too much time had I had another project to work on. You can also use the wait time to catch your breath, reset your bearings and think about other things. Use some of it for career development tasks, something we could all stand to do.
The point is, you’ll find yourself ramping up and slowing down often in any complex organization. Even fast food workers. Starting at 11:30AM, McDonalds is slammed and workers are moving furiously to take orders and get food out. By 2PM, things have slowed to a crawl. If you take a late lunch, you’ll see workers cleaning up after the lunchtime rush and getting ready for the dinner rush. It’s the same in any business, so use your time wisely and try to keep your wits about you.