Loss of biodiversity is one of the world's overriding environmental challenges. Reducing those losses by creating reserve networks is a cornerstone of global conservation and resource management. Historically, assembly of reserve networks has been ad hoc, but recently the focus has shifted to identifying optimal reserve networks. We show that while comprehensive reserve network design is best when the entire network can be implemented immediately, when conservation investments must be staged over years, such solutions actually may be sub-optimal in the context of biodiversity loss and uncertainty. Simple decision rules, such as protecting the available site with the highest irreplaceability or with the highest species richness, may be more effective when implementation occurs over many years.