Setting Priorities 101: Master the Art of Goal Setting | Toggl Blog
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Setting Priorities 101: Master the Art of Goal Setting

Jacob Thomas Jacob Thomas Last Updated:

Identifying goals is an essential skill for personal and business success. While things like New Year’s Resolutions often don’t work (60% of people abandon their New Year’s Resolutions within six months), identifying specific, actionable goals can take you far.

A study by psychology professor Dr. Gail Matthews at Dominican University found that people who wrote down their goals succeeded at achieving them 50% more often than those who didn’t. Study participants were of all ages, represented a wide variety of professions, and came from the United States, Belgium, England, India, Australia, and Japan. Additional steps that helped participants achieve their goals included identifying actionable steps toward achieving their goals, sharing their goals with another person, and reporting weekly to that person on the progress made toward their goals.

The ability to hone in on what steps are most important to achieving your goals is critical. But how are you supposed to know which tasks to focus on? Are there ways to identify which jobs and assignments are most crucial?

Below, we’ve outlined the mindset you need to have when setting priorities and four frameworks you can use to better prioritize your daily to-do list.

Shift Your Mindset

Setting priorities and goals, the kinds that move your career forward, requires a mindset shift. Most of us tend to place greater priority on today and what’s happening at this very moment. If we truly took a more long term view, we’d exercise more, eat less junk food, and stop procrastinating, right.

How do you shift your mindset?

You need to picture your life a year, three years, five years from now.

What do you want to have accomplished?

Who and where do you want to be?

But don’t just picture it, actually imagine how it will feel to attain your goals and then write them down! Writing your goals down will force to you be very specific, help you understand what actions you need to take, and provide a decision-making framework by which you can evaluate other actions and opportunities in your life. Does something move you closer to or farther away from your goals? If you have them in writing, then you can always go back and look as you decide where to invest your time and energy. Written goals and priorities also allow you to see (and celebrate!) your progress.

Setting Priorities in 2 Simple Steps

The following is a general two-step system for setting priorities. First, you’ll need to identify your goals. Then you’ll want to organize your to-do list by focusing on the most “bang for the buck” tasks. Let’s dive into each of these steps in greater detail.

Identify Your Goals

You can’t properly prioritize your to-do list until you’ve identified what you’re actually trying to achieve on a grand scale. Start by taking a bird’s eye view of your life and slowly nail down more specific goals.

For example, Kim just got a job bagging groceries at a local supermarket. She really enjoys helping customers and decides she’d like to become the store manager in five years. That’s her big goal. Now she needs to get more granular and identify specific goals along the way.

In order for Kim to become a store manager, she must first graduate from grocery bagging duties to a cash register position, then become an assistant manager, and finally be eligible for store manager status.

Kim also knows that reaching her goal will require more than simply showing up every day. She decides she needs to enroll in night classes at the local community college to improve her business knowledge and people management skills.

Each of these goals — attain a cash register position, receive her business certificate, etc. — are stepping stones leading her to her overarching mission: become the store manager. You can take the same approach. Once you’ve discovered your big goal, identify the smaller ones along the way.

Set S.M.A.R.T. Goals

While we’re on the topic of goals, each one you set should be S.M.A.R.T. — Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely.

  • Specific: The more specific your goals are, the better chance you have of achieving them. For example, rather than saying you want to live on the beach, say, “I want to live in a four bedroom, three bath house on the beach in Monterey, California.”
  • Measurable: Your goals should be measurable. Can you identify milestones to hit along your way to success? If not, It will be difficult to determine whether you’re on track or not.
  • Attainable: Is your goal actually achievable for you? Not just in a broad, “is it possible?” way, but, “Am I willing to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve this goal?” If the answer is no, then your goal needs to be redefined.
  • Relevant: A relevant goal is one that you care about. Ask yourself what you really want. Just because other people desire certain things doesn’t mean you should too. Do some soul searching. If you’re honestly willing to put in the hard work necessary to achieve a goal, it passes the relevancy test.
  • Timely: Goals without plans and timeframes are doomed to never be accomplished. It’s easy to dream about the future, but you’ll never get there if you don’t take action. Make sure every goal you set is time-bound. If you fall behind in your timeline, you can always adjust.

Organize Your Tasks

Now that you understand what your goals are and the steps you’ll need to take to achieve them, you can start planning daily tasks to help get you there. These tasks can then be organized on your to-do list.

Returning to our previous example, Kim knows that she needs to first secure a cash register position before she can ever become the store manager. How can she optimize her approach and performance to accomplish this?

Kim decides to arrive 10 minutes early for work every day, complete each assigned task without complaining, and assist the current store manager whenever possible. She figures her consistent hard work and initiative will allow her to quickly climb the company ladder.

Kim’s to-do list might look something like this:

  • Pack a lunch.
  • Arrive to work at 8:50am.
  • Complete every task with a smile.
  • Ask the store manager how she can be of service.
  • Attend night school.
  • Study for next week’s quiz.
  • Read a chapter of her management book.

Now she just needs to order tasks by importance. This is a basic example, but you can see how identifying your goals and then organizing your daily tasks to reach them is so powerful.

4 Proven Methodologies for Setting Priorities

We just outlined a basic approach to setting priorities: identify your goals, then organize your daily to-do list by importance. It’s a simple, highly actionable system. But knowing which tasks to place the highest priority on isn’t always easy. Fortunately, there are a few frameworks you can use to keep you focused on the right things. We’ll explore some of them now.

Use the Eisenhower Box

A popular and highly effective framework for setting priorities is known as the Eisenhower Box.

Named after U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower for his incredible levels of productivity, this matrix classifies tasks into one of four boxes: Important and Urgent, Important but Not Urgent, Urgent but Not Important, and Neither Important or Urgent.

This image illustrates the principle:

The Eisenhower Box will help you when setting priorities.

In practice, you want to first focus on Important and Urgent tasks. Tasks that are Important but not Urgent should be scheduled onto your calendar. Urgent but Not important duties should be delegated when possible. And assignments that are Neither Important or Urgent should be eliminated from your to-do list completely.

By prioritizing tasks this way, you’ll allow yourself to really focus on the important things without becoming distracted.

Take Advantage of the 80/20 Rule

Another way to prioritize tasks is by using the 80/20 rule. Developed by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, this rule states that 20% of your work will account for 80% of your results. It’s a very important concept when understood and implemented!

The end result doesn’t always equal a perfect 80/20 split, but if you look around, you’ll find this principle to be true in many different scenarios.

  • 20% of plants in your garden produce 80% of the produce.
  • 20% of the salesmen at your company make 80% of the sales.
  • 20% of your organization’s customers produce 80% of its revenue.
  • 20% of the clothes in your closet get worn 80% of the time.

To use the 80/20 rule when setting priorities, analyze the items on your to-do list. Which of them will have the greatest impact on your current project, career, and life? These are the tasks you should focus on. Everything else can be delegated, dropped, or accomplished after you’ve completed the most important assignments.

Eat the Frog First

Can you imagine anything worse than eating a giant, wriggling, warty frog? Maybe you can, but chowing down on a live amphibian has definitely got to be high on the list of “things to avoid”! And that’s exactly why you should eat your frog first thing in the morning.

When we say “frog” we mean that big nasty project you’ve been procrastinating on. The one that scares and overwhelms you or seems mind-numbingly tedious. When setting priorities, it may be helpful for you to block out time for your toughest assignments first thing in the morning. That way they actually get done and you can’t keep pushing them off.

In case you’re wondering, the “eat the frog first” saying has been linked to famed American author Mark Twain, though there’s no substantial evidence that he came up with it or ever even said it. The attributed quote is, “Eat a Live Frog Every Morning, and Nothing Worse Will Happen to You the Rest of the Day.”

Regardless of where this saying comes from, it’s a valuable concept. If you struggle with procrastination, you would be wise to schedule your most difficult assignments first thing in the morning.

Use the ABCDE Method

Finally, Brian Tracy’s ABCDE Method is a simple and efficient framework for setting priorities. First, sit down with a pen and paper and write down every single task you need to accomplish. Then go through and mark each task with a letter ranging from A to E.

  • “A” tasks are very important. If they aren’t done you and/or your business will experience serious consequences.
  • “B” stands for important tasks. They are things you should do, but will only result in minor consequences if they are left undone.
  • “C” tasks are those you’d like to accomplish but don’t represent any negative consequences when left incomplete.
  • “D” stands for delegate. These are assignments that should be completed, just not by you. Send them to someone else.
  • “E” tasks should be eliminated. The more jobs you cross off your to-do list immediately, the more time you have for the most important assignments.

According to Brian, “although there is never enough time to do everything, there is always enough time to do the most important things, and stay with them until they are done.” The ABCDE Method will help you discover what the important things are and get them done.

Wrapping Up

If you want to achieve your goals (and who doesn’t), properly setting priorities is essential. The tactics and systems in this blog post will help you.

Remember, setting priorities starts with a mindset shift. You need to take a long-term view of your life and career. Doing so will help you identify S.M.A.R.T. goals and order your to-do list effectively.

In order to better understand which of your tasks should be given the highest priority, experiment with the different frameworks we outlined: the Eisenhower Box, the 80/20 Rule, Eat the Frog First, and the ABCDE Method. Happy prioritizing!

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