How to Set Clear Priorities

A stack of priority planning pads next to three colorful markers

Don’t know where to start? It’s okay! 

We’ve all done it. We return from the grocery store and think, “I don’t need to make two trips. I’ve got this.”

So we grab all of the bags, some weighed down with heavy items and others with delicate produce or fragile eggs, and head for the front door. Sometimes it works... but just as often, we end up with broken bags, smashed eggs, and more chaos to deal with than if we had simply made a plan for multiple trips to the car.

Life, with all of its deadlines, goals and tasks, can feel much the same way. 

Instead of setting priorities (like carrying the heavy stuff first, and then returning for the bags that require a bit more care), we end up taking it all on at once.

The result is letting things fall between the cracks, not doing a thorough job or feeling so rundown after carrying so much for so long. But the truth is, some priorities are the bread and eggs. They require a bit more attention. And others are a sack of potatoes — a heavy lift, but harder to ruin. 

Figuring out the difference isn’t always as easy as a grocery run, especially when everything can feel urgent, you don’t have enough time or resources, and you’re trying to juggle life, work, relationships and more. 

So how do you set clear priorities?

Below are a few ways to ensure you don’t have to take everything on at once and still get through it all. Setting priorities doesn’t have to be confusing. It just takes a little planning.

1. Write everything out 

To-do lists are good to have, but they lack the structure needed to effectively set priorities. Most people's are just a stream-of-consciousness lists without any rhyme or reason. 

One way to turn your basic list into a prioritized list is with the Eisenhower Method, which is a quick and easy hack for figuring out what moves to the top of your priority list and what you can drop off completely. Tasks fit into four categories (if you do better with visuals, set this up into four quadrants): 

  1. Urgent and important 
  2. Urgent and not important 
  3. Not urgent and important 
  4. Not urgent and not important 

The urgent and important automatically move to the top of your list while the north urgent and not important can be put off or even delegated to somebody else (if you’re able to). This simple method, which was a favorite of President Dwight Eisenhower, can help day-to-day tasks and on major projects. You’ll immediately know where to work first and then you can start to work down your list.

2. Make a mind map

When a task or project is still in the conceptual stage, brainstorming is one way to make sure your priorities are clear. For a major task, like launching a new product, it might feel hard to know where to start or what important tasks will make more sense to save for later in the process.

These kinds of tasks - that require plotting and deep thinking - are best served by mind maps, where your plan doesn't have to conform to a strict list structure.

Mind maps put it all out in front of you so you can build a plan with space to move and breathe.

Start with your overall goal in a bubble in the middle of a page. From there, add several more bubbles that represent some of the main tasks you'll need in order to complete that goal. Continue expanding into sub-tasks and other areas (questions to research, ideas to think through, etc) until you've essentially drawn out the entire project.

You can then begin to color code, or use symbols or numbers to rank importance or order of tasks - whatever brings the concept into order for you.

From there, you can start building more traditional task lists. You’re essentially creating a web that’ll help you reach your goal in a logical order that leaves nothing out.

Mind maps are also a good way to examine current priorities for yourself or a team and show you where you could better focus resources or change directions.

3. Eat the frog first 

Mark Twain famously wrote once that if you have to eat a frog, you should do it first thing in the morning. It’ll probably end up being the worst thing you do all day, so nothing afterwards will seem quite as bad. 

Now, you probably aren’t eating frogs. You’re probably dreading returning voicemails or paying bills or having a 1:1 with your manager.

Whatever your “frog” is, you can apply Twain’s advice. After all, priorities can be hard to manage because there are always tasks that we don’t want to do and procrastination can be such a tempting option.

In those cases, make time for those important-but-undesirable tasks early on. Get them out of the way as soon as you can. It’ll be good for your productivity in a few ways: 

  1. You’ll have more energy to finish them. Doing the hard things first will be easier when you’re ready to take on the day.
  2. You’ll commit to focusing. Get it over with; the sooner you start, the sooner you will be done.

Identifying your frogs can help you set other priorities. By getting through the tough stuff everything else will likely fall into place. 

4. Reassess your deadlines

Some priorities are deadline-driven, and that can make a big difference in how to tackle them, especially if you tend to procrastinate. 

Even if you’re writing your deadlines down in a planner, make sure you revisit upcoming deadlines often. Even color code them if necessary or use a digital reminder app to send you notifications in the weeks or days leading up to the due date. This will prevent something from sneaking up on you. 

At the end of the day, priorities are all about time management and logical thinking. Even if these things feel hard to you, they are within your reach.

If you’re having trouble dedicating some time to one task over others, seek out advice from a manager or colleague. You may be able to find support or get clarification on what you really need to be doing, which will save you time and help you create the best possible results.

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