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As of the new year I'm going from my regular day to day duties to going full time into preparation for a planned shut down. I've been struggling trying to tie up all of the loose ends as it seems like every task I finish opens two more follow up activities.

I'll be at the same site in the same office but with a different set of responsibilities. The nature of my job is that I end up being direct support to multiple departments answering requests directly. I've been open with departments that I support that I will be unavailable for support starting Jan 1 but without my position being backfilled I think that support requests will continue and that some level of distraction dealing with them (5 or 10 minutes here and there) is probably acceptable but it's a slippery slope that leads to burn out.

My boss is going to be even busier than I am focusing on the same project so I'd rather avoid deflecting requests toward him. What should be considered when deciding if one of these distractions is better to acquiesce to or turn away?

  • Does this requests usually need to be taken right away or can wait a couple of hours? – Homerothompson Dec 14 '17 at 3:06
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    I'm not sure why you think we're better placed than you or your boss to judge whether a request is important to your company/team or not. Why haven't you just asked your boss how you should handle this change? – Lilienthal Dec 14 '17 at 12:02
  • @JoeStrazzere That they are secondary to preparation for our summer shutdown and not to let them jeopardize it. Unfortunately my day's primary activities are in terms of some pretty high level/long deadline goals and how I achieve those goals is mostly left to me. – Myles Dec 14 '17 at 14:21
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    @Myles Here's the thing: prioritising your work and judging which requests are and aren't important is a crucial skill at work. But it's one that you're meant to develop yourself as there's no set of golden rules that can be applied to all jobs or even to just a single industry. Either you are new enough to the workforce that you can ask colleagues or managers for help on that (they actually know your job and company, we don't) or you should have the experience you need to do this yourself. Strangers can't tell you which parts of your job are important and which aren't... – Lilienthal Dec 14 '17 at 16:03
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    Well, we really exist as a Q&A repository and that means personalised questions where the answers only apply to you are out of scope. It also means that questions need to be practically answerable and I think it's likely that as-written your question fails that test. My and Joe's comments are largely intended to see if there's a better version of this question that you could/should be asking. Since this has been up for a while with a net 0 score and no CVs it seems like the question is on-topic but not worded well or too difficult to answer. – Lilienthal Dec 14 '17 at 18:07
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If the requests aren't truly urgent (of the "right this minute or it's going to block business critical operations" variety) then a good tactic is to allocate a section of the day (say an hour or so) for dealing with them and batch them up as it were. Communicate in advance to the people you support that because of the nature of your shutdown-related tasks that you are setting aside 4-5pm for dealing with support requests and that any requests you receive will be dealt with then. At first you may need to gently remind people each time they make a request until it sinks in.

Obviously if there is a genuine emergency issue that comes in you'll just have to deal with that but there's no real getting away from that. If you suspect people are trying to abuse the notion of "emergency" requests with false urgency or the volume of requests exceed the time you can allocate to the support function then you will need to escalate to your manager. Not in a "users are being really annoying and bombarding me with support requests" way but rather in a "the support workload is too high and it's impacting upon my ability to complete the shutdown work, what would you like me to prioritize?" way.

  • I'd struggle with is compartmentalizing enough that I'd be able to stick to an hour a day. The problems that people come to me with are things that I find engaging so I easily get engrossed and overspend time on them. I'm a sucker for an interesting problem. – Myles Dec 14 '17 at 14:47
  • That's probably outside the scope of this site, might be worth a look on [productivity.se] though? About the best suggestion I have would be that if the requests for support come through on e-mail could you set up an automatic rule to file them away in a folder so they aren't brought straight to your attention? – motosubatsu Dec 14 '17 at 15:28
  • Email solution would be tough as I'm interacting with these same departments in both of my roles. Basically if they come to me with a regular business processes or SAP question that's secondary if they come to me with a shutdown prep business process or Scaffold/Insulation question that's my primary focus. – Myles Dec 14 '17 at 15:54
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+125

The first thing you do is sit down with your boss and work out a priority system, so that you can set the priority yourself on 75-80% of the tasks if not more. Design a report to let him know what you are being asked to do and give it to him daily or weekly depending on his needs. It is up to him to make sure that this old work goes elsewhere if it is affecting your ability to do the new work. He needs to see in writing how much of it you are being asked to do.

Next you communicate the priority to the person doing the asking and tell them that if they need a higher priority they need to contact your boss. Then only change the priority if the boss tells you to change it. I would suggest you have a priority list visible on a whiteboard, so that people can see why you are not working on their task.

If the priority on a task is lowered due to something else of higher priority coming along, make sure to let the requester know.

It is probably a good idea to have discuss having a time period each day to work on the lower priority work. Then you need to have the self-discipline to stay within that time window. Discuss when would be the best time to do that with your boss. Depending on the support need, first thing in the morning might be best or at the end of the day. But it is critical that you stay within the time period allotted even if the task is interesting or you are not done yet. The other work is your higher priority, never forget that even when it isn't the most interesting task you have to do. If the work is taking more than the allotted time, you need to push it up to your boss whether he is busy or not. He needs to know that you are being over-scheduled.

Next you have to train your customers to understand the new priorities and one of the best methods for that is to change how requests are submitted. Never accept a verbal request of any kind. Period. If they don't put it in a ticketing system (highly recommended) or at least in an email, you didn't get it. You have to be ruthless about this. People will take advantage if you let them.

You also have to be ruthless about not working overtime on a task unless it is absolutely urgent (i.e., people can't log in or the production server is down type of thing). People will try to guilt you into working two full-time jobs. Don't take the bait. Trust me when I say that no one will remember it took two days to do something that you used to do immediately a year from now. They will remember if you don't get your main work done.

You have to mentally consider that this is a change of job position, just like you have moved to a new job at a new employer. You can't do the old job and the new one together, so you provide only the minimum that must be done on the old one and concentrate your motivation and personal investment into the new one.

2

Firstly, determine what the expectation is for the support tasks

Presumably, when you were asked to change your duties, people were aware of your current tasks. You can always make sure this is the case by going to your manager and checking with them.

Hey boss, I just wanted to check something with you. I was thinking about my new assignment that will start soon, and I realized that I don't know what the plan is for handling my current tasks and responsibilities. Would you mind telling me about it to set my mind at ease?

At this point I see three options:

  • A plan has been made: there will be no support until a replacement is found for your former role

  • A plan has been made: it's expected that you perform your own duties in addition to the new ones

  • No plan has been made.

If a plan has been made: there will be no support

You can voice your concerns, but ultimately this is not your responsibility. It's admirable that you feel responsible, but if this is what management has decided, you'll have to let it go. When you start your new assignment, if people come to you for these things, direct them to the appropriate person but don't take ownership of anything. Focus fully on your new assignment.

If a plan has been made: your new duties are to be performed on top of your current ones

In this case it's important to have a good chat with your boss to get it crystal clear what the expectations are. You need to know how much of your time you are expected to spend on your old tasks and your new tasks. If you think the proposed division of time is unrealistic, voice your concerns but in the end, accept the decision of your boss. Hopefully it's clear to everyone that your old tasks kept you busy full-time so adding more tasks to it means that something has to go.

If no plan has been made

In this case, have a good talk with your boss and help him/her come to a decision by asking the right questions. Some examples are:

  • If someone comes to me with an issue, what should I do?
  • If nobody performs my current tasks for a while, are we okay with that? If yes, to what extent?
  • If I spend time on issues slows down the new assignment, is that acceptable or not? If yes, to what extent?
  • Should we make an inventory of all the different types of task and then determine which ones are more important than the new assignment?
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Q: "What should be considered when deciding if one of these distractions is better to acquiesce to or turn away?"

A: Your boundaries.

Many of these answers hit on three different boundaries:

  1. The boundaries protecting your time.
  2. The boundaries protecting your relationship with your boss.
  3. The boundaries protecting your organization.

Some of the comments even hit on a fourth boundary:

  1. The boundaries protecting the standards of the workplace stack exchange.

This is my favorite description of boundaries

our personal mission is like a "north star". In order to reach it, we need a path. Like any other road we travel, this path needs lines that keep us on course. Yes.....BOUNDARIES drawn out of respect for that "north star" give us guides on how we use our time, our talent, and our treasure. They help us stay on a trail toward our mission, but serve another purpose too: they make our life's mission crystal-clear to others. Those lines allow us to take our commitment to our mission seriously, infusing a sense of purpose into our days, and give others a real understanding of how serious we are about our life's work. This often leads to greater support from those around us, which breeds greater productivity and happiness as we take steps toward that north star.

You probably need to do the work necessary to get your personal boundaries set. To set boundaries are variety of popular tools are available. The following is just a few examples:

  1. For time boundaries

    • Eisenhower boxes
    • Pareto Analysis (the 80/20 rule)
    • Timeboxing
  2. For boundaries with your boss

    • Communication
  3. For boundaries in the workplace

    • Written Policies
    • Communication (for unwritten policies)

And to validate a point of one of the commenters:

  1. For boundaries in the workplace stack exchange
    • Check the workplace stack exchange meta
    • Also note discussion of general boundaries is probably acceptable, but discussion of boundaries specific to your circumstance is outside the scope of this stack exchange.

Lots of information is online, particularly in pop psychology literature, on how to set boundaries. It takes time and practices to get good. Best of luck!!

0

When trying to determine the priority of some task, consider:

  • How long will the task take?
  • How important is it getting done?

    These two are very closely linked and determines, on a high level, how efficiently you're spending your time. In theory, the tasks with the highest priority should be the ones that are the most important and take the least amount of time.

    If a task is absolutely critical, you might prioritise it above any other task, no matter how long that task will take, but it might also make sense to slip in a few important non-critical quick tasks in between if the critical task will take a long time (the overall benefit to getting the quick task done now might outweigh the disadvantage of delaying the critical task slightly).

    You might run into some problems here if your judgement of how important a task is differs significantly from what management thinks (especially if you have enough tasks that being unable to tend to some is unavoidable), so it's good to try to get those to line up through the occasional discussion with your manager.

    Assume that the person giving the task wouldn't be the best judge of how important it is, as it may be a whole lot more important to them than it should be to you.

  • When is its deadline?

    If a task's deadline is not soon, it might make sense to postpone to a less busy time later on. But you could also get even busier, so postponing is a bit of a risk.

  • Who else can do it?

    If there is another less senior, critical or busy coworker who can do any given task, it might make sense to deflect the task to them and instead focus on something which only you can do.

    You can do this by either just asking the other person to do it (assuming you have enough seniority to justify this) or you can simply tell the person giving the task that you're really busy and recommend that they instead ask the other person.

  • How long would it take to train someone to do it?

    For some repetitive or simple, but time-consuming, tasks, it might take less (of your) time to give someone else instructions on how to do something instead of doing it yourself. A prime candidate to train would be the person who gave you the task (emailing them the details would be a good idea, as that's easy for them to go back and check or pass onto someone else).

    You should also consider the abilities and current knowledge of the person you're asking to do this - the same task might require a lot of knowledge transfer, guidance and time for some to do it, while others might only require some vague pointers.

The above will, in large part, need to be judged based on your domain experience and company knowledge. If you are unable to make a good judgement of this yourself, or if you are unsure, you should speak to your manager about it (ideally by having a broader discussion about how to prioritise, or about the priorities of many tasks, rather than just asking about one single small task).

If you're accepting tasks from multiple people (who aren't your manager), it's best that you do not tell them what you're instead working on when declining or postponing tasks, as many people might believe that their tasks are the most important, so telling them what you're working on might lead to them trying to convince you that their task is more important and that doesn't put you in a particularly good position. But do tell them when you plan to have their task done.

There's also the general productivity tip of avoiding interruptions (interruptions in the form of accepting or tending to new tasks). To do this, you can:

  • Allocate certain times of the day to tend to requests. Communicate this preference to people beforehand and, for those who missed it, a simple "sorry, I'm just in the middle of something, can you come back at X" should work.
  • Ask people to send you emails instead - these can be tended to when you choose and you can avoid the interruption from seeing an email come in by disabling popups in your email client (and then only check email at certain times).

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