How Do I Prioritise When Everything Is Top Priority?

Sleeping on the train in the rain

OK, hands up in the room if you work in a peaceful, serene, non-stressful, slow-paced environment?

The kind of place where every data request is politely sent in with all details, criteria and contingency well documented.

Even better, you also get an honest appraisal from the requestor of the real urgency of the request when compared to everything else that is being asked of you right at this very minute?

Don’t be shy now, we’re all friends here. Get those hands up nice and high.

Oh. Right. No-one then.

Probably because such a utopia doesn’t really exist. If you think this is how your place operates, please drop me a note.

I need to hear more. Really.

Meanwhile back in the real world

In reality, it’s more likely that your work reception process and the priority setting discussion that goes with it resembles something a bit like the Battle of the Bastards from Game of Thrones.

Too many people piling in. Dead bodies piling up. And you in the middle of it all feeling like you are suffocating under the never-ending onslaught of urgent priorities you are having to face off against.

(Does that make me Littlefinger?)

I may sound like a broken record continually going back over the same topic of dealing with the urgency (or perceived urgency) of demands that will come at you in the most stressful of ways as a data analyst.

We’ve covered some tactics for dealing with a difficult customer who makes their own poor planning your emergency.

As part of the Frustrations Of The Data Analyst Life series, I took another go at that in the event that they keep on doing it over and over again and how to deal with that situation.

What I’m talking about now goes beyond the single pain in the arse customer who keeps pulling the same Urgent! Urgent! Urgent! shit on you. This is when you find EVERYONE in the company does it – all of the time.

When you are constantly being bombarded by TOP PRIORITY requests from all corners, with no cover from your manager, you’ve reached peak toxicity and it’s the company culture that has been poisoned.

What are the tell-tale signs?

You’ll recognise the symptoms in your co-workers as much as in yourself.

  • The unending simmering tension that erupts into passive-aggressive swearing and tirades/insults/outright threats of physical violence and death (usually behind people’s backs).
  • The hammering the life out of defenceless, inanimate objects – usually their keyboard, mouse and/or desk.
  • The head in hands routine.
  • The getting up, storming out of the office and slamming the door routine.

So many routines. Such internal strife and suffering.

Let’s be clear, these are the coping mechanisms most people in this situation will use to deal with the stress and sense of impotent rage they are unable to fully release on those causing it.

It’s a symptom of a broken corporate culture, not necessarily the cause of it – but it doesn’t help fix the situation for anyone.

If the work keeps piling up and the hours we have to work to keep all the plates spinning keeps creeping up and up, how do we ever start to remedy things and straighten it all out long term?

You’ve got a decision to make

Firstly, you have to take a look at the big picture.

Are you really getting enough out of the situation to make it worth your while to keep working there?

Maybe the money is too good to give up. Mortgages/rent. Family. Kids. Massive student loan debts. Crippling gambling debts. We all have our reasons on the money front.

Maybe there are limited options in your area and you feel this is as good as it gets in the analytics field.

Either way, do an honest summary of the pro’s and con’s of the whole picture before making any rash decisions.

If you decide to stick it out then get something very clear in your mind right from that point:

You can’t change a whole company culture by yourself – especially if you have no authority to enforce your will on others.

You just can’t.

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t start to put processes into place to help protect yourself.

This whole situation arises from poor, weak management so you need to enforce some order on proceedings.

Some tried and trusted techniques to make the situation work a little better

  • Always put the onus onto the requestor to fight for their place in the priority list. If their business area has another conflicting high priority request on your workstack at the minute, ask them to work it out with the other manager which should come first. You are not an infinite resource, none of us are. People need to be reminded of that constantly.
  • Ask what the downside is going to be if the deadline they are claiming isn’t met. Sometimes it’ll be legit like if a regulatory body has made the request and it’s a proper “send it in or get fined” deadline. Sometimes it’s because the person asking is heading away on holiday for a fortnight and just wants their boss to see they’ve done something before they go. If they can’t give a proper reason and consequence for the deadline, it can de-prioritised.
  • If the two high priority competing players are from different parts of the business and of a similar position in terms of power, you should invoke the tried and trusted mob method of the “sit down”.

What is a sit down?

In his book “I’ll Make You An Offer You Can’t Refuse”, former Mafia capo Michael Franzese says the sit down is La Cosa Nostra’s version of a high-stakes negotiation at the corporate bargaining table.

He used it as a tool to think on his feet, build his case, get to know the parties involved – and how to pull their levers.

While you mightn’t have the option of whacking either party like Franzese, you will find that there is nothing to bring the chest-beating machismo of an email warrior back down to earth as quickly as a face to face meeting.

Get two of these threat-making, name-dropping big hitters in a room and let them have at it amongst themselves. 99% of the time I find you get a totally different response and attitude from all parties as you would have done by email or even over the phone.

You’ll also get a chance to weigh people up for future reference but mostly it helps let natural order decide which is REALLY the top priority. If one of them isn’t prepared to fight their corner you’ll know they were the bluffer all along.

Beyond that, it’s obviously very difficult to constantly get caught in the middle of everyone else’s turf wars.

Looking after yourself is the real top priority

If you stay in that environment make sure to prioritise your own self-care as much as you can.

Exercise regularly. The endorphins help enormously in dealing with the stress and in clearing the toxic brain sludge that builds up over any stressful period.

Run. Walk. Bike. Lift weights. Hit the heavy bag. Climb up walls. Whatever works for you. Just Do It (this is not an advertisement for a popular running shoe company, I prefer Adidas).

Disconnect from the office and the job as quickly as you can when you leave.

And always consider the long-term effects of ongoing stress on both your mental and physical health.

The money may seem good right now but if you have a stroke or heart attack before you reach 40, was it ever really worth it?

I won’t launch into a full-blown Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs lecture but the older you get, the more it starts to hit home about what is really important in life.

Which leads me back to the other path you have available to you when you consider if you really want to keep on fighting the good fight from within the belly of the corporate beast.

Taking the other path

And that’s to quit.

Trite platitude alert but life is short, too short to do something that continually makes you a worse version of yourself over a prolonged period of time.

There are other jobs out there and this is not the only way for companies, big or small, to operate. It’s dysfunctional and eventually it will collapse because of it but not without ruining a lot of lives in the process.

Just remember that you are the one making the decision to stay in that seat and stay in that company.

Don’t take it out on your poor keyboard, own the decision and once you’ve made it then make the changes, in or out, that work for you.

Good luck.

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