There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities.
The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks.
If You are a Procrastinator -- Eat a Frog!
There’s an old saying that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. The day can only get better!
Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day. Just knuckle down and do it, and the rest of the day will be a breeze.
The second approach is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day:
If You Thrive on Accomplishments -- Move Big Rocks
Maybe you’re someone who fills your time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done. You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, because there’s no room.
If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first.
The pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.
To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow.
In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff.
The third approach is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment:
If You are Analytical – Use the Covey Quadrants
If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system might be for you.
Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:
I. Important and Urgent
II. Important and Not Urgent
III. Not Important but Urgent
IV. Not Important and Not Urgent
If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them -- a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.
After you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).
Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person.
In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge.