A generic framework for setting conservation priorities based on the principles of classic decision theory is provided. This framework encapsulates the key elements of any problem, including the objective, the constraints, and knowledge of the system. Within the context of this framework the broad array of approaches for setting conservation priorities are reviewed. While some approaches prioritize assets or locations for conservation investment, it is concluded here that prioritization is incomplete without consideration of the conservation actions required to conserve the assets at particular locations. The challenges associated with prioritizing investments through time in the face of threats (and also spatially and temporally heterogeneous costs) can be aided by proper problem definition. Using the authors’ general framework for setting conservation priorities, multiple criteria can be rationally integrated and where, how, and when to invest conservation resources can be scheduled. Trade-offs are unavoidable in priority setting when there are multiple considerations, and budgets are almost always finite. The authors discuss how trade-offs, risks, uncertainty, feedbacks, and learning can be explicitly evaluated within their generic framework for setting conservation priorities. Finally, they suggest ways that current priority-setting approaches may be improved.