Not long ago, one of my team members showed up to our one-on-one check-in with an admirably thorough list. It included what they were working on, the areas where they felt blocked, and a few questions that they had for me. We had a productive chat and both left feeling energized, but I later realized something was missing.
There was one very important question they didn’t ask me: “Which items on my list of tasks and projects are the most important?”
Not Sure What To Focus On? Just Ask Your Manager
Most talented people at work cover more surface area than their managers are aware of. And that’s often because they pick the right things to prioritize in the first place. But that doesn’t mean they always do it alone. A few years into my career, I realized that figuring out what to focus on at work wasn’t a complicated process —I just needed to ask.
Still, most employees tend to think of prioritizing their workloads as a solo affair. That’s one reason why time management is so often a major burden. But you work on a team, so why not run your individual to-do list past the person who heads up that team? Give it a try; chances are your manager won’t see it as an imposition.
Once I clued into this, I continued to bring a list of everything I was working on to my one-on-one meetings with my manager, but I also added a question into the mix every week: If I have five things on my to-do list but can only do three of them well in the time I’ve got, which three should they be? These simple requests for my manager’s input helped me make sure we both agreed on what I should focus on, and over time, I got a lot better at focusing on the right things.
I like to think of these as “forced alignment” conversations. The whole point is for managers and employees to get on the same page about what’s most important to the growth of the business and what individual team members are doing to advance it.
But these conversations do something else that’s equally important—they establish sustainable boundaries for employees. Even good managers are often tempted to pile tasks on their best team members. After all, there’s always more work that needs to be done than people to do it, and it’s natural to look to high-capacity, ambitious people to lead the most important tasks. But this can quickly get out of hand.
It can be difficult for people to say no to work—especially for top performers and people early in their careers. After all, they want all the opportunities they can get! The reality, though, is that even the most talented employees have limited resources. What’s more, not everything is equally important. The most effective managers know this. That’s why they’re willing to help their team members decide what their priorities should be.
Making Prioritizing A Team Sport
Of course, this is a two-way street. If you ask your manager, “Could you help me decide which items on my list are the most important?” they can respond in one of two ways: They can either prioritize your to-dos just like you’ve asked, or they can tell you that they think tackling the whole list is a reasonable expectation.
Either way, this gives you the information you need to prioritize what’s most important, and it allows for a more open discussion about time management. You can agree on a longer timeline for one of your to-do list items, for instance, without leaving doubt in your manager’s mind that you question its value. This is a crucial trap to avoid; you never want your manager to interpret a missed deadline as a sign of apathy, and this simple conversation can help you sidestep that risk.
But more often than not, it cuts the other way. Whenever my direct reports come to me with to-do lists that I think are unreasonably long, I generally start a forced alignment conversation in order to help them narrow down, even if they don’t ask for that. As an employee, it’s your job to look out for your own priorities and boundaries. But it’s the job of managers to look out for their team members’ priorities, too—especially if your employees aren’t always confident in pushing back.
So next time you feel like your to-do list is overwhelming, try running it past your manager and asking what you should prioritize. And don’t just do it once—make it a regular part of your one-on-one meetings. These conversations aren’t investments just in your own career growth, but in the growth of your whole organization. Good businesses prioritize, but only because they have good employees who know how to do the same.
Kieran Snyder is the CEO and cofounder of Textio, an augmented writing platform that finds patterns in job posts and outcomes data.