The juggling game: How to show your balance of priorities in an interview

Sep 20, 2023

3 mins

The juggling game: How to show your balance of priorities in an interview
Michele O'Brien

Writer and podcast producer based in Brooklyn, NY

“Tell me about a time when you had to balance competing priorities at work.” This interview question, while common, probes deeper than just recounting a story from your past. It offers a window into your problem-solving acumen, adaptability, and time management skills. Yet, articulating these skills in a compelling manner can be challenging.

To unpack the nuances of this question and craft a standout response, we turned to Joi White (“The Joiful Recruiter”), a seasoned recruiter in the tech domain, and Emily Rezkalla, a career coach and content creator. Their insights promise to transform your approach to this query, ensuring you not only answer it but leave a memorable mark.

Why you’re getting the question

The question of how you balance competing priorities is a behavioral question, one designed to give the interviewer a peek into how you’d act if a given situation came up in the position. Says White, the purpose of asking any behavioral question “is to hopefully get a specific example of a lived experience, as opposed to a hypothetical.”

Recruiters ask about balancing competing priorities most often for positions that involve some kind of support (think: assistant, coordinator, or project manager roles). And usually, this question is asked because the hiring manager wants to know how organized you are—and if you’re able to think on your feet. Says White, “I think emotional intelligence relates to this question, too, but really I’m trying to find out: if there are times when something’s put on your desk, and you just have to do it right away, how do you prioritize [without] cracking under pressure?”

How to stand out: Have a simple system …

White says that most of the time, she’s looking for candidates to explain what productivity tools they use to manage their workflow—apps like Asana, Todoist, or even your Outlook Task List. Rezkalla agrees: “Your priorities, stakeholder priorities, your manager’s priorities … very rarely do they all align, so you need to find a way to help your brain process a solution to align them all.” Her TikTok on the Simple System Method emphasizes that you need to demonstrate to an interviewer that you have a way to prioritize incoming tasks within your existing workload. Rezkalla’s system? The Eisenhower Matrix, as explained in Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

… And be able to explain it

While having a system is necessary for your day-to-day work, the trick in the interview is to explain it concisely and clearly. Rezkalla advises using the “STAR” method to answer this question—and all behavioral interview questions. In talking through the Situation you encountered, the Task at hand, the Action you took to solve the problem, and the Result of your actions, you’ll give your interviewer a thorough picture of your abilities. (And, as a bonus, you’ll demonstrate your ability to break down a complex situation into a clear, concise explanation!)

No system? No problem!

If you don’t yet have a simple system to organize tasks at work, you may need to do some trial-and-error exercises to figure out what works for your job and your brain. Start by looking at your non-work organization, Rezkalla advises. “Think about how you consume information and if to-do lists work for you in your personal life, they’re likely going to work for you in your professional life.” Whereas if you’re a visual person, maybe a color-coded calendar is your best system.

And remember: this one question, while important, isn’t likely to make or break your chances. As White reminded us, “Good candidates are going to do well throughout the interview.” And the key to an excellent interview? Practice, practice, practice.

Key takeaways

  • “How do you balance competing priorities” is a behavioral question designed to assess how organized you are. So when you get the question, show off your type-A prowess!
  • Demonstrate that you have a specific, simple system to determine your priorities at work—and make sure you can clearly and concisely explain it.
  • If you don’t yet use an organizational system and you’re looking for roles that involve some kind of support, get one! Look at your personal life and the way you consume and categorize information for inspiration.

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