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Do you know how to set priorities? What basic human needs should every person fulfill for a satisfying life?

Whether you’re running a business or simply navigating life, you might face a roadblock when every task appears to be important. Setting priorities can fix this because it ranks tasks by value, which helps you make progress day by day. 

Continue reading to learn how to set priorities in business and life.

General Advice: Define Urgent vs. Important Tasks

For their advice on how to set priorities, Personal Kanban authors Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria derive inspiration from the time management matrix Stephen Covey presents in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey’s matrix helps you differentiate between urgent and important tasks. Benson and DeMaria take Covey’s categories and make them more flexible to fit your personal kanban, a visual tool for keeping track of tasks throughout your workflow:

High importanceLow urgency
Continuous improvement tasks
High importanceHigh urgency
Low importanceLow urgency
Rest and leisure
Low importanceHigh urgency
Connection with others

According to the authors, you should prioritize continuous improvement tasks. These tasks include learning and making projects more efficient. This could be the case for personal projects such as getting the oil changed in your car or professional projects such as getting a head start on a performance review. They’re not urgent, but they can help you avoid future emergencies. Urgencies, on the other hand, should be few and far between. Don’t get into the habit of putting tasks off until they become urgent.

Examine the Bigger Picture

As you work through your personal kanban, it’s important to also look at the bigger picture of your life. To prioritize the options in front of you, you also need to have a context for how they fit into your life’s or business’ overall vision. If your boss asks you to chair a committee at work, it may seem important until you stop and consider whether devoting your time and energy to that helps you achieve your professional goals

Consider these six different levels—or horizons—of perspectives to learn how to set priorities, according to Getting Things Done by David Allen: 

  1. The Ground is the current actions on your to-do list
  2. Horizon 1 is current projects with relatively short-term timelines, such as organizing a conference or finding a new dentist. Your projects dictate many of your actions. 
  3. Horizon 2 is areas of focus and accountabilities, or the roles and responsibilities you have, from job duties to maintaining your health and family commitments. This horizon isn’t composed of tasks but rather the interests and responsibilities that help to determine what projects and actions you’ll take on. 
  4. Horizon 3 is goals, another horizon that dictates your projects, actions, and accountabilities. Specifically, horizon 3 encompasses goals for the next one to two years. 
  5. Horizon 4 is vision, or your goals for the next three to five years. Again, this influences your shorter-term goals as well as your areas of focus, accountabilities, projects, and actions. 
  6. Horizon 5 is purpose and principles; this is the big-picture context of your life. All your actions, projects, focuses, goals, and visions are defined by and also lead you toward your purpose and principles.

How to Set Priorities as a Business Leader

Now that you have an idea of what tasks are important and what tasks are urgent, let’s look at how to set priorities as a manager of a business. Most businesses have objectives that need to be met to achieve their overall vision. Some examples of business priorities may include fulfilling customers’ needs, increasing efficiency, and product testing. Below we’ll look at the business hierarchy of needs by order of importance and how to accomplish them.

Use Mike Michalowicz’s Business Hierarchy of Needs

Mike Michalowicz’s business hierarchy of needs helps you prioritize solutions for your company’s problems by identifying its most crucial requirement—or vital need, as he calls it. This is whichever essential function will cause the most damage to your company if it isn’t fulfilled. Framed positively, fulfilling this requirement will bring the most benefit to your company—it’s the most impactful approach. For example, if your business is failing because you’re not making enough sales, your crucial requirement may be attracting and converting customers.

Michalowicz’s prioritization system groups a company’s requirements into five tiers: sales, profit, structure, influence, and self-perpetuation, with sales being the lowest tier and self-perpetuation being the highest. These tiers are arranged in order of importance, with the requirements that are most essential to your company’s survival on the lowest tier. Thus, you must fulfill the more essential, lower-tier requirements before moving to higher tiers. This structure is based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a psychological theory that states people can’t effectively fulfill some higher-tier requirements (like forming strong relationships) before they’ve fulfilled other, more essential lower-tier requirements (like food).

Here, we outline these tiers and highlight several of the requirements in each tier, according to Michaelowicz’s book Fix This Next

Tier #1: Sales. Help your company survive by earning revenue through sales.

  • Requirement #1: Set a sales goal that supports your personal financial comfort.
  • Requirement #2: Attract and convert enough customers.
  • Requirement #3: Fulfill your responsibility to the customer.

Tier #2: Profit. Help your company endure and prosper by earning enough revenue that you can safely withdraw profit.

  • Requirement #1: Separate profit from revenue.
  • Requirement #2: Increase sales margins and frequency.
  • Requirement #3: Eliminate debt.

Tier #3: Structure. Increase your company’s stability by delineating and improving its processes.

  • Requirement #1: Increase process efficiency.
  • Requirement #2: Capitalize on employee experiences.

Tier #4: Influence. Encourage customer and employee loyalty by creating positive change.

  • Requirement #1: Identify a mission that you’re passionate about.
  • Requirement #2: Improve people’s lives.

Tier #5: Self-perpetuation. Help your company self-perpetuate by continuing to create positive change after you leave.

  • Requirement #1: Plan for leadership changes.
  • Requirement #2: Create a supportive community.
  • Requirement #3: Improve adaptability.

How to Set Priorities in Life

When you get off work every day, you might still feel stressed about your personal to-do list. You need to get so many things done, whether it’s paying the bills, cooking dinner, or having a night out to relax. How do you determine what should be accomplished first?

When figuring out how to set priorities in your personal life, you might also ask yourself bigger questions, such as “What should my priorities be in life?” Are they happiness, love, or wealth? According to First Things First by Stephen Covey, there’s a difference between living day to day and feeling fulfilled. Humans get a sense of fulfillment only through satisfying four fundamental human needs: “to live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy,” as Covey writes.

  • The need to live involves your physical needs for survival, including food, shelter, clothing, good health, and money. 
  • The need to love pertains to humans’ need to be social and have relationships with other people in which they can love, be loved, and feel they belong. 
  • The need to learn is your need to continuously nourish and develop your mind. 
  • The need to leave a legacy pertains to a more spiritual desire to live a life of purpose and meaning in which you feel you’re contributing to society. 

The four needs are interrelated—whether each is satisfied affects the fulfillment of the others. If any of these needs are unmet, that lack can easily hamper your ability to meet the other three needs; all four needs must be taken care of collectively to maintain quality of life. 

Wrapping Up

One of the drawbacks of not setting priorities is burnout. When everything is of equal importance to you, there’s a greater chance that you’ll try to accomplish all these tasks in a limited amount of time, leading to exhaustion. When you distinguish between what’s important and what’s urgent, you’ll have an easier time knowing how to set priorities that will push you forward.

Do you have any tips on how to set priorities? Let us know in the comments below!

How to Set Priorities in Life and at Work

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Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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