There’s a compelling phrase in Job (5:7): “A person was born to work.” In other words, this world is a place where we get things done. However, as anyone who has stayed up all night working will tell you, we can’t do it all. We have to prioritize what is need to do and what it is we are trying to accomplish.

We often complain that we don’t have enough time; however, to be perfectly blunt, lack of time is actually a lack of priorities. Follow these guidelines to get ahead of the curve:

1) Make sure you aren’t being “busy” at the expense of getting real work done

No matter how manic your schedule, if you won the lottery you would unquestionably drop everything and run off to claim your gazillion-dollar check.

Some people are just running on the treadmill of life

Ask anyone how they are doing, and chances are that part of the answer will include the word “busy.” We are all busy, busy, busy. But what are we actually doing? When you finally get the kids in bed and collapse on the sofa with a sigh because it was such a busy day, do you ever wonder what exactly it was that kept you so busy?

Some people run around being busy, but don’t move closer to their goals, essentially just running on the treadmill of life.

It is all well and good to be super-busy—helping your friends move, running a bake sale at school or helping a neighbor plant a garden. But it is important to make sure that you can afford the donation of time required to do those things. If helping a friend make hand-decorated cupcakes from scratch for her daughter’s birthday party means that you cancel your appointment with the accountant—which means you file your taxes late and have to pay a penalty—then maybe you didn’t really have the time to give.

Not having a clear sense of what your top priorities are will lead you to focus on the wrong things, at the expense of your valuable time and sanity.

2) Figure out your priorities

So, how do you figure out what’s actually a priority?

Well, on a rough day, probably anything with caffeine.

On a good day, your priorities will align with the many hats you wear and the short- and long-term goals associated with them.

Let’s say you are a mother of two children, president of the PTA, a part-time psychologist, and somewhat of a caregiver to your parents, who live 20 minutes away. If those are your main roles, then each week you will have certain goals to achieve to keep all those balls in the air. Children will need appointments made, and the dog will need some flea medicine bought. You may need to write a proposal for a PTA fundraiser. Your mother might need new sneakers, and you may have to consult with a colleague about your clients.

Focus on the tasks that have the greatest impact

So, when you plan the calendar part of your week on a Sunday (like you will always do once you have embraced the lessons in this blog), you should also have a column for each of your main roles, with a list of tasks in each. For example:

Children

PTA

Mom and Dad

Work

New shoes for Y

Dentist appt for C

Send e‑mail to A

Make sure class mothers know deadline for holiday presents

New sneakers for Mom

New bike for Dad

Set up faster Internet

Discuss family reunion

Call RS re: AB

Research hoarding for CD

Send thank-you note to EF

Each night, you should pick out the five to eight or so items that must get done the next day. Those items are your top priorities. The sample table above looks pretty slim, but you will be adding items throughout the week as they come to mind. When fishing for which jobs to do, the idea is to fish for a few large fish rather than 23 skinny minnows that will amount to nothing. In other words, focus on the few tasks that have the greatest impact.

3) Stay focused

Ideally, there would be no chatting on the phone, no e‑mail, and no checking your friends’ new Facebook statuses until the important items are checked off your list. Realistically, you might not have quite such an iron will, but do try to keep extraneous distractions to a minimum until you’ve taken care of the priorities. Think how good you will feel—and how nice it will be to reward yourself when you’re done.

Of course, your work day is not over when those five to eight items are checked off the list. You will notice that the above table does not include daily tasks such as making dinner, doing laundry, packing lunches or overseeing homework. But once you’ve embraced this plan, these daily tasks will be so systemized that they will require minimal planning. And when your friend calls about the hand-decorated homemade cupcakes, you’ll have a much clearer idea of what you need to take care of and whether you honestly have the time to give—before you pull out the sugar and sprinkles.