Setting Priorities


People, money, and time are finite.  There are always more things to do than there are people, money, and time to do them.  Setting priorities is a balancing act.  It should give you a list of tasks in the order in which they should be attempted.  Setting priorities will help you manage the expectations of all of your stakeholders – your staff, your managers, and your customers.

Setting priorities is a subjective process generally based on consideration of two key attributes – importance and urgency.  By themselves, neither importance nor urgency are determinants of a task’s relative priority:

  • Resources for more urgent tasks are used before resources for less urgent tasks are used
  • Resources for more important tasks are scheduled before resources for less important tasks are scheduled.

Urgency should be an objective attribute so it should be able to be reasonably accurately determined by considering answers to the following questions:

  • Is the situation trending worse or better?
  • When does this task need to be completed?
  • How much effort is required to complete it?
  • Therefore, when does work need to start?

Importance is a subjective attribute so it resides in the eyes of the beholder.  It can be determined by considering the answers to questions such as:

  • What are the worst things that could happen if this task is not completed?
  • What are the best things that could happen if this task is completed?
  • Who is the customer for this task?

If you are unsure, talking to your trusted colleagues is a great option.

How to set priorities?

You may wish to visualise the priority setting process by plotting your tasks on a Cartesian Grid, with increasing importance on the y-axis and increasing urgency on the x-axis (see graphic example below).


You can put as many levels of importance and urgency as you like into the grid – but the more you put in, the more complex the priority setting process becomes.  So you may wish to start simply.

The following general process will help you start:

  • Jot down working definitions of high, medium and low importance and high, medium and low urgency
  • List all your tasks, with the importance, urgency and therefore absolute priority of each one – sort the list from P1 to P5 – this is a snap in a spreadsheet
  • Within each absolute priority grouping (for example, P1), manually sort each into their relative priority using the time each task needs to start as the discriminator
  • Schedule resources for P1 tasks, then P2 tasks, and so on
  • Check that the priority list makes sense – firstly to you and then to your stakeholders
  • Then start working according to your schedule
Helpful hints
  • It may not always be your role to set priorities – you may just need to make the implications of each option clear to your stakeholders
  • Just because a task has higher importance or higher urgency, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has a higher priority
  • If a task has no importance, it has no priority – if a task has no urgency, it has no priority – seek out answers to the questions posed above
  • High urgency tasks tend to be things that are either unexpected or unplanned – better planning may reduce the number of tasks in the top left of the grid
  • Spend as much time as possible in the top right hand corner of the grid – that is where you have the time to think strategically and make a significant sustainable difference
  • Spend as little time as possible in the bottom half of the grid – that is where the distractions and the time-wasters reside
  • Don’t set unrealistic deadlines – that’s a quick way to lose credibility – a promise made must be a promise kept
  • If you have competing internal priorities, you may wish to jointly consult the customers for each task – they may be able to jointly agree which should have the higher priority
  • Make sure you advise customers of the relative priority of their task – they may not share your assumptions about importance and urgency – they may wish to challenge
  • Priorities change through time – regularly review your priorities and if necessary reset them based on what is happening around you
  • Setting priorities will please some people and disappoint others – so don’t expect to keep everybody happy all the time.

If you’e having trouble with priorities, when you’re ready to talk, we’re ready to listen – so contact the Hub!