How to set priorities

swimmingI previously wrote about the importance of setting goals. Now I’d like to tell you about how to set priorities, the things you have to (and want to) do to meet your goals.

Focus on what’s important to you.

Choose priorities that are important – either they will help you achieve loftier ambitions or they will prevent catastrophe. These priorities will help you get wherever you want to go.

I think it’s great to pursue lofty and life-changing goals. Want to cure cancer? A Nobel Prize? The Presidency? Good for you. But when it comes to organizing your life, it pays to work towards more realistic priorities.

Want to cure cancer? Then a realistic first priority might be to earn an A in biology this semester. Or to get into medical school. Or to survive a semester of medical school. Therefore, you can have lofty goals, but to attain them, you first need to cut them down to more realistic priorities. As a rule of thumb, try to come up with priorities that you can accomplish within one year.

Want to win an Olympic Gold Medal in swimming? Here’s a priority: Learn to swim.

I really respect renaissance people who can do many different things. However, when setting priorities, it’s a good idea to stay focused. Because Miller’s Law says that a person can keep track of seven tasks at a time, at most, then if you have set more than seven priorities for yourself, then they’re not really priorities anymore. (After all, by definition, priorities can only exist when some other things aren’t priorities.)

That said, it’s not a good idea to put all your eggs in one basket and work on only one thing. You should have a sufficient number of priorities that you can switch between them when circumstances put some on hold, or when you need a break. You can mix business with pleasure: Find a new job and Be a good parent.

You can set simple and seemingly boring priorities for yourself that keep your life going. For example, as a professor, I turn each course I teach into a priority: Teach Accounting 101. As an administrator, my priority is to: Chair the Department. Earning your living and doing different components of your job well, on a daily basis, is an important principle to work towards, and to keep in mind as an important priority.

[Image: swimming by Jim Bahn, on Flickr]


About Mark P. Holtzman

Chair of Accounting Department at Seton Hall University. PhD from The University of Texas at Austin. Worked at Deloitte's New York Office. BSBA from Hofstra University.

One comment

  1. Pingback: How to organize your e-mail folders « Freaking Important

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