I used to have no skills whatsoever setting priorities for big tasks. While I had no problems making our daily life flow smoothly, with big undertakings I would get caught up in small things and allow myself to almost completely lose sight of what I was trying to or needed to achieve. I obsessed about everything and was often a complete wreck, asking myself why I ever thought I could accomplish anything.
The adoption process for each of our girls, paying off our debt, moving to Hawaii, and setting up our first big travel adventure were all master classes in how to prioritize when taking on a big task or having a big goal. I got lessons over and over again on the necessity of establishing priorities in order to keep each process moving smoothly and complete everything that needed to be done. I figured out it wasn’t that everything needed to happen in a precise order, but that the most urgent, important, and valuable tasks got taken care of or set up in a logical order while lower priority tasks got taken care of without getting in the way of the bigger stuff.
I have always been goal focused, and the SMART method of goal setting helped me sharpen that process. Having a solid, specific goal is just the start though. It gives a big picture overview but the next step is focusing on what needs to be done in what order to get the job accomplished. At over 18 months out from leaving on our next big travel adventure, I’ve been able to recognize that certain things I would like to be doing are currently not the most important to be looking at or focusing on. For now, our highest priority task is building our travel savings and figuring out different ways to do that. Beginning the process of downsizing is the other top priority now. Deciding on lodging, transportation, and other aspects of our plan will come later as we get closer to our departure date.
I’ve learned along the way there are steps for setting priorities when working on a big task. They can be moved around a bit as needed, but these generally have proven to make the job go more easily:
- Set a specific goal (using the SMART method). This is the most critical part of setting priorities. Without a specific goal I have no real idea of what I’m working toward and I can’t realistically decide what needs to be taken care of and in what order.
- Assess urgency, importance, and value of the tasks that need to be done. The first thing I do for any big goal is make a timeline. Sometimes this is easy, but other times it’s not as many aspects remain unknown. However, without a timeline there’s no way of seeing the big picture, what can and needs to be done first, and what can wait. A timeline also helps me evaluate what aspects of planning are more critical or important than others. Finally, a timeline can tell me the value of making one task a priority over another. Taking care of one or some tasks before taking on another can provide the information to help make informed decisions, and make the next task or several other tasks easier. For example, looking at Airbnb listings 18 months ahead of time might seem frivolous since I’m not going to be booking anything, but it gives me an idea of what we can set as an upper limit, and how much we will need to save for those expenses, so there is value to doing that task earlier than might be expected.
- Do something every day. While the big things are easy to figure out because they’re usually the most urgent or have the biggest impact, even the smallest effort on something on days when nothing seems to be happening will get you closer to achieving your goal.
- Know what and when to let go. My advisor once said to me when I was struggling to finish my thesis, “Laura, finished is better than perfect.” Struggling to make every detail tied down and perfect can and will drive you crazy. The same applies when prioritizing and working toward a goal. Do your best but don’t expect perfection all the time.
- Measure progress. Keeping lists, charts, etc. are a great way to reinforce that you’ve got your priorities in the right order, and that you are on track with getting necessary tasks completed. Keeping track of progress is also extremely motivating and can let you know when you might need to make changes, or whether it’s time to start on another task. Setting smaller monthly and weekly goals as you get closer to achieving your goal helps make sure everything gets done.
- Expect things to change. Change is always going to happen, probably more than expected. Refusing to make or accept changes can and will bog everything down faster than expected as well.
Setting a goal is just the first step in making sure it gets accomplished. Prioritizing what needs to be done is an equally important part of the equation. Learning to set priorities is a learned skill, one that can take time but that will provide value later, and help minimize the work that needs be done. Learning to address and recognize the urgency, importance, and value of necessary tasks has helped make the process of accomplishing our goals easier, has helped make time move along more quickly as well, and greatly reduced anxiety. There is something that can be done each day, even if it doesn’t seem like much, and before you know it, you’re at the finish line.