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Here’s a scene I bet you can relate to:

Last week, I was sitting at my desk working through my to-do list. I had planned out the end of my week in my Spark Notebook, and I was getting all my important work done.

Then an email comes into my inbox.

“Hey Kate! Can you help out with ____? We need to you to be in this meeting later today and then have the work done asap. Ideally, tomorrow.”

What do you do?

The way I see it, you have three options:

  • You can find the time to do the work
  • You can make the time to do the work
  • You can cut something from your schedule to get the most important work done

While it might feel stressful in the moment, you are really limited to one of these three choices. So all you have to do is decide which one is the case for your current schedule and then act accordingly.

Here’s what to do the next in each of these scenarios so that you can get the work done without going crazy.


1. You find the time to do the work

In my case last week, I was able to find the time to do the work. Although my days were planned, I knew I had flexibility because several of the things I had planned to work on didn’t necessarily need to happen on the days I had scheduled them for.

I like to leave a little buffer room for this kind of thing in my schedule every week, if possible, so I can incorporate new things without too much stress.

So the first thing last week I did was reply to the email to say yes, and to outline expectations.

  • How long would the meeting be?
  • What time tomorrow did they need my work?

I wanted to know exactly how to adjust and plan the rest of my time, so knowing these details helped me know exactly how much time I needed to find and how much space I’d have available in the rest of the week to get the other things I had planned done.

I pushed all the work I had intended to do that afternoon onto the following afternoon, after the meeting and deadline for my new priority work. This meant a couple of things got less time than I’d originally planned, but sometimes having less time isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think having them pushed a little later forced me to work on them more efficiently to still get them done before the end of the week, which is a good thing. :)

Then I found a quiet place where I could do focused work quickly. I took every other task I had originally planned to do out of my mind and I worked only on the new assignment until it was done. By getting super focused, I actually got it done way ahead of the deadline and was able to get back to my normal work faster.


2. You make the time to do the work

If I hadn’t had such a flexible week last week, this is the one I would have had to do. Why?

It wasn’t just because someone asked me. It’s because someone asked me and I already knew that this work was high priority.

I knew this because, when I outline my week, I think about what work is most important to get done before I actually start my work. I literally have a list going from 1-7 outlining, in order of importance, my goals. So when I’m planning my week, I match my potential tasks up against that link, and put my to-do’s in order of importance.

And since this work was high priority, I needed to get it done by the “tomorrow” deadline.

If you don’t have flexibility, you have to make time. You can do this a number of ways:

  • Find free time in your schedule, like lunch or evening time
  • You can create time by getting other things done faster

If you need to just get other things done faster so that you have more free hours, that is totally possible.

I do this by using the Pomodoro technique to bang out a few key priorities quickly. Note here: this doesn’t usually result in my highest quality work. But if things need to get done, then they need to get done. There is no point in chasing perfection when the real key is speed.

So if you can take 2 hours to do some tasks that should have taken 4-5, then you’ve freed up 2-3 extra hours in your day for the new priority. If you need lots of time, you can combine this technique with a lunch or evening work session to get even more done.


3. You can cut something from your schedule to get the most important work done

Working at a startup, I’ve been in this boat a million times. A new important task comes up, but I’ve already got an overflowing plate. Something’s got to give.

So your choice in this situation is:

  • cut something for your existing to-do list
  • don’t accept the new task (or find a way to make it smaller)

If the new task is truly high priority, then it’s not a good idea to skip it or try to find a way to do less of it. If it’s really important, you want to be aligned — and not look like you don’t understand what’s important or aren’t willing to jump in and do the work.

So you’ll have to cut something from your to-do list.

Sometimes this is easy; you just take it off your to-do list and move it to the next week. If you’re tracking in a Spark Notebook, it’s a good idea to write that task on your next week’s outlook so that you make sure it doesn’t get forgotten when you’re moving into the next week.

Sometimes it’s a bit more challenging, especially if there’s someone who was counting on the task you have to cut to be done this week.

If possible, try to get someone else to help you with the task. You can delegate it to someone on your team or get the input of a peer to help you still get the work done on time.

If that’s not an option, though, the best strategy here is to approach the person who was counting on your work ahead of time; don’t just miss the deadline and hope they understand. You want to get out in front of it and let them know plans have changed.

Try to be as honest as possible. “This assignment came up and I absolutely have to take the time for it this week.” If they don’t understand, do your best to explain why it is the higher priority.

Then set a new deadline and be super clear about when they can expect the work from you. Try to make that deadline as soon as possible, and then be diligent about meeting it. Most people will be flexible with you, but only up to a point, if you keep missing their expectations.

If, on the other hand, you think the new task you’ve been asked to do isn’t the very highest priority and you don’t have time for it, you can try to minimize your involvement.

For example, you could ask to skip the meeting and get the meeting notes from someone else, but still complete the work they need from you. Or you could split the work part with a peer on your team who is also up to speed on the project.

Again, being honest and explaining why you are not taking on the entire assignment will help minimize damage to the relationship or your reputation.

Have you had a big assignment come up unexpectedly?

What did you do? Share your stories and suggestions in the comments!

Tags: delegate, goals, planning, productivity, spark notebook, time,

One Response to “3 ways to respond when you get an unexpected new task at work (without ruining your schedule)”

  1. Harold Webb

    I used to plan my day and, actually, Im crazy with time management. But now Im writing my dissertation and 24 hours a day is not enough for me. I write a plan every morning (sometimes in the evening the day before, depends on many factors), then I mark the main assignments and try to do my tasks in time.