Set Priorities

Open All   |   Close All

Learning Objectives

  • Learn to become more strategic and successful at prioritizing your time.


“It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” – Henry David Thoreau

“I have so many things on my plate that I feel like I don’t have enough time to complete them all, and I feel like I’m not doing any of them very well.”

Your Approach

Problems rarely occur in isolation. Perhaps your advisor is unsupportive and discriminatory, your partner seems distant and resentful lately, your labmates are not pulling their weight, and all you want to do is finish your dissertation but nothing is going as planned with your equipment. You may have defined your problems clearly, but now you’re simply overwhelmed by all of them!

Although you can’t solve everything at once, you can take control over how you will approach the multiple issues vying for your attention. This module will teach you skills to become more strategic and successful at prioritizing your time.


Which of the following is not an example of effective prioritization?

Best Answer: C. It is important to involve others in a group project when prioritizing and divvying up the workload.

If you scored yourself low on the first set of questions, you may be struggling with setting priorities that work for your life. Setting priorities is important, however, sometimes they are not in the right order to help you toward your long-term goal.

In regard to setting priorities, ideally, doing the first three would be most effective. Be CLEAR on what you want and need to get done. Make your priorities part of your daily routine, so that they don’t get put off and become emergencies later on.

Good Prioritizing: An Issue of Urgency and Importance

Importance is defined as something that gives your life meaning and richness.1 Things of importance to you (for example, your career goals) often involve planning and commitment to achieve and maintain them.

Urgent activities are those that are asking for immediate attention.1,2 Many daily tasks are both urgent and important (for example, taking your child to the emergency room after she broke an arm, or tending to a lab experiment before it is ruined).

The first part of good prioritizing involves spending less time on things that are urgent yet unimportant, and more time on tasks that are important but not necessarily urgent.

Important Not Important

Priority ONE

Ex: submitting a proposal by the deadline

Ex: documenting and reporting a serious sexual harassment incident

Priority THREE (if time)

Ex: trivial phone calls, e-mails, texts

Not Urgent

Priority TWO

Ex: building a professional network

Ex: talking to your advisor about how to improve your working relationship

NOT a priority

Ex: reorganizing your closet

Ex: volunteering to decorate the TA office


How much is a given problem getting in the way of your motivation and desire to keep going in your program?

The accumulation of several small stressors and daily hassles that may seem minor can easily build up and become just as insurmountable as one major stressor or problem of grand proportion. You have probably heard the expression “it was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” referring to the last of a series of small stressors or infractions that eventually became too much too handle. See “Stress Triggers.”

How much will addressing a certain problem help you professionally and personally in the future? Will addressing it have a great impact, or is the problem merely a nuisance of no consequence? For example, if you are struggling with an issue relating to your lab partner, learning to resolve conflicts with teammates will likely be a good skill for your career. See “Career Goals and Motivation.”

Knowing what is most important to you and making choices accordingly can help put the control back into your hands. Prioritizing is resolving to act on your terms, according to what’s important to you, instead of reacting to every external event that needs your attention. It helps keep you organized and motivated toward reaching your goals.3

Try taking a moment to write down what is most important to you, from most important to least important. Try not to list any two things as equally important.


Of the dilemmas you are currently facing, what can wait to be dealt with later in the week, later in the semester, or later in your program? What do you feel needs to be addressed now, before it turns into an even greater problem?

It may help to consider how long the problem has persisted. Is it something you have tolerated for the past year and, if so, is there another (more imminent) issue that should be addressed first while the other (more longstanding) issue is tackled afterward?

Research suggests that you may like to reach short-term goals and solve problems that appear urgent before moving on to something else.4The problem in academia is that you will always find yourself dealing with seemingly “urgent” tasks (such as e-mails, doing favors for others, and administrative loose ends). If you constantly tend to the smaller problems and distractions in life first, you will never have time to chip away at your long-term goals.5

Now take a moment to look at the list of what is important to you and think of some problematic issues that you are currently facing that match up with these values you listed. Rank the issues by how urgent they appear to be. Consider which issue must be dealt with immediately, and which ones are not quite as pressing.

You may discover that one specific concern of yours needs to be dealt with now, before it develops further, while others are not likely to change much despite how bothersome they may be.

Sorting Through Problems

How would you sort through the problems in the scenario below, applying what you have just learned about setting priorities?

It’s 6:30 pm on a Tuesday. You can’t stop thinking about a labmate who recently said to you, “Use your head, sweetie.” His disrespectful behavior has started to affect your performance in the lab. You receive an e-mail from your advisor asking you to complete a project for him by 9 a.m. the next morning. This will mean pulling an all-nighter. He can’t seem to respect the fact that you need sleep. What’s worse, he hasn’t taken the time to look over the latest draft of your proposal. Looks like you are going to have to keep pushing back your timeline. Also in your inbox are unanswered messages from your students arguing about their midterm grades, and one from your mother asking about your Thanksgiving plans. You think about your long-distance friends, and how you never respond to their messages on Facebook. They must think you have fallen off the face of the planet. Your partner calls to ask where you are. You had promised to go to a happy hour with him to meet his new co-workers.

Here is a task list based on the previous scenario.

Order the tasks below according to number of priority (#1 = highest priority, #7 = lowest priority).

Respond to your e-mails


Reply to your friends on Facebook


Attend the happy hour with partner


Deal with your frustration toward your labmate


Work on your advisor’s project


Talk to your advisor about respecting your time


Try again to get feedback from your advisor on the proposal


Do you find that you rated the items according to your list of what is most important? Remember, some problems might not seem like a high priority, but when you stop to think about what’s at stake, you will realize that it is important to deal with this issue right way. For example, if a labmate is hindering your productivity (and your career is of high importance), you should make it a priority to deal with this problem as soon as possible.

Reflections: Determining your own priorities

Important Not Important
Urgent 1 3
Not Urgent 2 4
  • Highly effective people focus their efforts and energy in Box 2. If you are always doing important things in an urgent manner (Box 1), this may be reflect two things: 1) You didn’t plan well so you're doing something at the last minute and 2) You’re stressed out! Box 2 indicates that you know what’s important but you’ve planned well enough not to make it an urgent situation.
  • See where most of your tasks lie. The Pareto Principle (the 80-20 rule) states that 20% of your tasks determine 80% of your success, and 20% of your tasks are important, while the rest are somewhat more trivial.1 So, be thoughtful about them and prioritize them well.

Factors Influencing Problem-solving

There are many factors that may play a role in deciding which problems to tackle first. Some of these factors might include:

  • Control
    • The more control you believe you have over a problem (whether it is of importance or not), the more likely you will work toward solving it.
    • See “Coping & Self Efficacy
  • The needs of others
  • Personality traits
    • For example, if you have perfectionist traits, you might find it difficult to prioritize at times.
    • See “My Individual Prefrerences
  • Emotional states
    • For example, when you are frustrated with a task, it might be best to walk away from it or work on something else until you calm down.
    • See “How You Feel


By setting priorities, you can have a clearer picture of what is most important to you and why, instead of feeling overwhelmed by a barrage of different issues. This will assist you with managing your time and energy more efficiently.


  1. Covey, S. R. (1989). The seven habits of highly effective people: Restoring the character ethic. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  2. Covey, S. R., Merrill, A. R., & Merrill, A. A. (1994). First things first. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  3. Guinote, A. (2007). Power and goal pursuit. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 1076-1087. doi:10.1177/0146167207301011
  4. Schmidt, A. M., & DeShon, R. P. (2007). What to do? The effects of discrepancies, incentives, and time on dynamic goal prioritization. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92, 928-941. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.92.4.928
  5. Abraham, C., & Sheeran, P. (2003). Implications of goal theories for the theories of reasoned action and planned behavior. Current Psychology: Developmental, Learning, Personality, Social, 22, 264-280. doi:10.1007/s12144-003-1021-7

Words of Wisdom: Dr. Fromme
The importance of defining clear goals, remaining self-confident, and learning to say no.

Words of Wisdom: Dr. Burrows
The importance of allowing yourself the opportunity to change your mind and reconsider your goals.

Time Management Profile
Outlines a philosophy on time management.

Dealing with Assumptions and Accusations
Being accused of cheating and regrets about not being more assertive.

Creating an Environment for Exchanging Ideas
How the physical space in a laboratory allowed for collaboration among colleagues.

Interpersonal Satisfaction
The satisfaction that comes from working with colleagues and interacting with others.

Pursuing Different Threads in Career Positions
Contributions to the field are reflected through choices.

Compromises Outside the Realm of Children
Addresses personal relationship sacrifices.


We want to hear from you. Did this page remind you of any experiences you’ve had? Did you realize something new? Please take a moment to tell us about it—and we'll keep it confidential.

Your comments have been recorded.