In 1970, sociologist Dr. Edward Banfield of Harvard University
wrote a book entitled The Unheavenly City. He described one of
the most profound studies on success and priority setting ever
conducted. Banfield’s goal was to find out how and why some
people became financially independent during the course of their
working lifetimes. He started off convinced that the answer to
this question would be found in factors such as family
background, education, intelligence, influential contacts, or
some other concrete factor. What he finally discovered was that
the major reason for success in life was a particular attitude
Banfield called this attitude “long time perspective.” He said
that men and women who were the most successful in life and the
most likely to move up economically were those who took the
future into consideration with every decision they made in the
present. He found that the longer the period of time a person
took into consideration while planning and acting, the more
likely it was that he would achieve greatly during his career.
For example, one of the reasons your family doctor is among the
most respected people in America is because he or she invested
many years of hard work and study to finally earn the right to
practice medicine. After university courses, internship,
residency and practical training, a doctor may be more than 30
years old before he or she is capable of earning a good living.
But from that point onward, these men and women are some of the
most respected and most successful professional people in the
United States. They had long time perspectives.
The essential key to success in setting priorities is having a
long time perspective. You can tell how important something is
today by measuring its potential future impact on your life.
For example, if you come home from work at night and choose to
play with your children or spend time with your spouse, rather
than watch TV or read the paper, you have a long time
perspective. You know that investing time in the health and
happiness of your children and your spouse is a very valuable,
high-priority use of time.
If you take additional courses in the evening to upgrade your
skills and make yourself more valuable to your employer, you’re
acting with a long time perspective. Learning something
practical and useful can have a long-term effect on your career.
The key word, then, to keep in mind when you’re setting
priorities is sacrifice. Setting priorities usually requires
sacrificing present enjoyment for future enjoyment. It requires
giving up a short-term pleasure in the present in order to enjoy
a far greater and more substantial pleasure in the future.
Economists say that the inability to delay gratification-that
is, the natural tendency of individuals to spend everything they
earn plus a little bit more, and the mind-set of doing what is
fun, easy and enjoyable-is the primary cause of economic and
personal failure in life. On the other hand, disciplining
yourself to do what you know is right and important, although
difficult, is the highroad to pride, self-esteem and personal
So setting priorities begins with your deciding what you want
most in life and then organizing your time and activities so
that everything you do is the most valuable use of your time in
achieving those objectives.
With your larger, long-term priorities in order, you can much
more easily decide upon your short-term priorities.
You can say that the process of setting short-term priorities
begins with a pad of paper and a pen. Whenever you feel
overwhelmed by too many things to do and too little time in
which to do them, sit down, take a deep breath, and list all
those tasks you need to accomplish. Although there is never
enough time to do everything, there is always enough time to do
the most important things, and to stay with them until they are
Peter Drucker once said, “Efficiency is doing things right, but
effectiveness is doing the right things.” And this requires
thought. Once you have listed your tasks, ask yourself this
question: “If I were to be called out of town for a month, and
finish only one thing on this list, which one thing would it
be?” Think it through, and circle that one item on your list.
Then ask yourself: “If I could do only one more thing before I
was called out of town for a month, what would it be?” This then
becomes the second thing you circle on your list.
Perform this exercise five or six times until you have sorted
out the highest priorities on your list. Then number each
according to its importance. With these priorities, you are now
ready to begin working effectively toward the achievement of
your major goals.
Another popular method for setting priorities on your list,
once you have determined your major goals or objectives, is the
A-B-C-D-E method. You place one of those letters in the margin
before each of the tasks on your list.
“A” stands for “very important; must do; severe negative
consequences if not completed.”
“B” stands for “important; should do; but not as important as
my ‘A’ tasks, and only minor negative consequences if not
“C” stands for “nice to do; but not as important as ‘A’ or ‘B,’
and no negative consequences for not completing.”
“D” stands for “delegate, or assign to someone else who can do
the task in my place.”
“E” stands for “eliminate, whenever possible.”
When you use the A-B-C-D-E method, you can very easily sort out
what is important and unimportant. This then will focus your
time and attention on those items on your list that are most
essential for you to do.
Once you can clearly see the one or two things that you should
be doing, above all others, just say no to all diversions and
distractions and focus single-mindedly on accomplishing those
Much stress that people experience in their work lives comes
from working on low-priority tasks. The amazing thing is that as
soon as you start working on your highest-value activity, all
your stress disappears. You begin to feel a continuous stream of
energy and enthusiasm. As you work toward the completion of
something that is really important, you feel an increased sense
of personal value and inner satisfaction. You experience a
sensation of self-mastery and self-control. You feel calm,
confident and capable.
Here are six ideas that you can use, every day, to help you set
priorities and to keep you working at your best:
1. Take the time to be clear about your goals and objectives so
that the priorities you set are moving you in the direction of
something that is of value to you. Remember that many people
scramble frantically to climb the ladder of success, only to
find that it is leaning against the wrong building.
2. Develop a long time perspective and work on those things in
the present that can have the greatest positive impact on your
future. Maintain your balance in life by setting priorities in
the areas of your health, your personal relationships and your
3. Make the commitment to improve those aspects of your life
that are most important to you. If you’re in sales, learn how to
be an excellent salesperson. If you’re a parent, learn how to be
an outstanding mother or father. The power is always on the side
of the person with the best practical knowledge.
4. Be sure to take the time to do your work right the first
time. The fewer mistakes you make, the less time you will waste
going back and doing it over.
5. Remember that what counts is not the amount of time that you
put in overall; rather, it’s the amount of time that you spend
working on high-priority tasks. You will always be paid for the
results that you obtain, not merely the hours that you spend on
6. Understand that the most important factor in setting
priorities is your ability to make wise choices. You are always
free to choose to engage in one activity or another. You may
choose a higher-value activity or a lower-value activity, but
once you have chosen, you must accept the consequences of your
Resolve today to set clear priorities in every area of your
life, and always choose the activities that will assure you the
greatest health, happiness and prosperity in the long term. The
long term comes soon enough, and every sacrifice that you make
today will be rewarded with compound interest in the great
future that lies ahead for you.
Provides you with a concrete, step-by-step approach to making the best use of every minute of every day.
You can gain at least two hours every day. You will learn how to set goals, objectives and priorities.
Learn how to overcome procrastination and maximize your productivity.
Most importantly, find out why time management is life management.
Brian Tracy is a leading authority on personal and business success. As Chairman
and CEO of
International, he is the best-selling author of 17 books and over 300 audio
and video learning programs.
Join Brian’s Free Email Newsletters.