Almost everyone is busy these days. We wish a day had 25 hours, or maybe 30, but laws of physics cannot be broken. Juggling the roles of partners, parents, employees, children (and sometimes two or three other roles we have in life), we struggle to find balance, and to handle our workload.

Ability to prioritize our work, and to manage our time effectively, is important for almost every employer. Unless we succeed to meaningfully plan the day in the office, and distinguish the most urgent and important tasks from the rest, we’ll struggle to deliver results that are expected from us.

For this reason, you can expect to get al least some questions that inquire about your ability to prioritize work, in almost every interview. In this article we will look at seven questions. I will try to give you some advice on how you should answer each questions, and I may add some tips for employers (who may also read this article). Enjoy!

 

How do you imagine a typical day in this job?

The most important thing is to talk systematically about your day, from morning to afternoon. For example, if you apply for a job a supervisor, you should not simply say that you imagine supervising workers and assigning tasks to them all day long.

Give your answer some logic. Say when you will arrive to work and what you’ll do first (checking the plans for the day, ensuring that employees arrived and staffing needs are met). Then you will likely assign tasks to various workers or teams, and supervise them, intervening when necessary.  As the end of the day approaches, you’ll do your reporting and administrative, and prepare a brief schedule for the next day.

Of course this was just an example from a relatively simple role of a supervisor, but I hope you got the point. You can even divide a day to blocks, and say the interviewers what you’ll do in each block. Having system in your work and sense for planning goes hand in hand with effective prioritization.

 

How do you organize your day in work when you have to work on multiple projects simultaneously?

You can start with planning again. Say that you prefer to have clear plan and milestones for each project (if your manager does not provide one, you’ll create it). Once you have the schedule and milestones, and a list of individual tasks that have to be completed in order to reach each milestone, you can easily assign priority to each task on any given day.

You can also say that you do not believe into multitasking, or illogical jumping from one task to another. Once you have your plans and priorities assigned to each task, you will simply work, with a calm and focused mind, on one task at a time.

 

How much time do you spend each day doing X, and Y (specific tasks you will be responsible for in your new job, or types of activities, such as emails, meetings)?

The right answer depends on the activity, and also on your workplace. For example, if daily meetings (team meetings, department meetings, one on one meetings) form an important part of their working culture, you should give them some importance (and time).

In reality most meetings are just a waste of time (unless they are short and effective, which is rarely the case), but you cannot afford such an answer in a company that give them utmost priority. In any case, you should do some research about your prospective employer to be able to identify the best possible answer.

If you aren’t sure, however, you can always bet on effectiveness. Let me give you an example.

Question: How much time do you spend each day answering emails? Answer: This really depends on the day, and the number of emails I receive. But I try to answer only emails I have to answer, to do it promptly, and in an effective way (one that doesn’t result in a series of messages sent back and forth). If a phone call is faster than email I do not mind calling my colleague/client instead.

to do list, pen and paper

Describe a situation when you failed to meet a deadline.

This happens to everyone, and your attitude is more important than the situation you narrate. First and foremost, you should admit making a mistake, failing to meet a deadline. Then you should clearly explain why it happened (workload was heavy, you made a mistake while prioritizing your work, you forgot on something, etc).

The key is to show the hiring managers that you learned a lesson. You know what you should do differently next time, when you find yourself in the same situation again. If this is your first job application, you can talk about a situation from school.

Tip for employers: If a job candidate says that they never missed a deadline, ask them about a situation when they were close to missing one.

 

Do you use any software products or tools to help you with your time management?

Tools can definitely help, but a board with stickers, or a simple to do list you write by hand, will also do the trick.

You can talk about some tools, such as Trello, Clarizen, or Timecamp (or any other tool you use, there are hundreds of possibilities). Explain how the tool helps you to organize your day, to easily mark and later recognize tasks with highest priority, and so on.

If you do not use any software tools, ensure the hiring managers that you have your ways of time management (to do lists, for example).

 

Have you ever felt overwhelmed with work? What did you do?

The right answer may seem obvious, but it is not obvious. Saying that you never felt overwhelmed, since you can prioritize your work and have excellent time management skills, won’t do suffice in most interviews. Hiring managers will think that you were likely never really busy in your job, and that’s why you never felt overwhelmed.

For this reason you should tell them a story. A short story describing how you actually were overwhelmed, but were able to handle the situation. Either you consulted your managers and explained that the workload was heavy and you would not be able to handle all your projects. They took notice, and assigned one of your projects to someone else (or gave you an assistant).

Another option is saying that you felt overwhelmed, but managed to delegate some of your tasks to your subordinates and prioritized your work, and eventually handled the heavy workload.

Tip for employers: Observe whether a candidate talks vaguely about the situation, or presents some facts, dates, and numbers. This should help you judge the authenticity of their story.

man is overwhelmed with work, looks anxious

Imagine that you come to work after a vacation, and find 200 new emails in your inbox. What will you do? What emails will you open first?

You have several good options at this point. First one is saying that you won’t open any emails. Before anything else you will invite core members of your team (this can include both subordinates and superiors) for a short meeting, to understand what happened while you were away. Once you have more information, it will be easier for you to recognize the most important emails.

Second option consists in opening the emails from most important people first (your direct manager, key suppliers and customers, etc).

The third option is opening emails in a logical order, starting with the one you received first (arranging them in this way). In this case you can say that you will read each email quickly, and try to respond to it in a shortest possible time (or not responding at all, if a response isn’t required), in order to get the job done as quickly as possible.

 

Summary, next steps

Prioritization and time management is important in almost every employment, and it will help you also outside of work. Interviewers may ask you some situational and behavioral questions, referring to real or hypothetical situations that uncover your way of thinking, and ability to prioritize your work.

Prepare for the questions I outlined, and do not forget that other abilities will be tested in your interview. Check the following posts to prepare for the questions:

Matthew Chulaw

Matthew has been working in international recruitment since 2008. He helps job seekers from all walks of life to pursue their career goals, and to prepare for their interviews. He is the founder of InterviewPenguin.com website.
Matthew Chulaw

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