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There’s an old exercise in time management involving a jar, a pile of rocks and a bag of sand. The process notes that, if you fill the jar up with sand first, then attempt to place the rocks, you’ll never get everything into the jar.

But if you place the rocks first, then allow the sand to filter into the cracks left in the arrangement, you can secure a snug fit for all elements. The lesson: Start with your priorities — the bigger, inflexible items (i.e., the rocks) — then let all the smaller details (i.e., the sand) fall into place accordingly to ensure you allot the right amount of time to the things in your life.

Designing your ideal cabin can be viewed in much the same way. Spending more time focused on the perfect hardware for your kitchen cabinets rather than the kitchen layout itself and how it fits with the rest of the home is wasted effort. Loading up on all kinds of throws and pillows for your great room instead of figuring out if your sofa will fit in the new space will almost guarantee a headache.

Instead, try to think about the absolute essentials your dream home will include. Do you plan to live there well into retirement? Then you’ll probably want all the key living areas to be on the main level of the home. Will you frequently entertain guests? Then you’ll need to figure out the appropriate sleeping arrangements based on who will be there and what activities their visit will entail. Once you’ve nailed down these elements, then you can start to determine whether or not you want antique white or distressed black cabinetry for the kitchen.

Enter our 2012 edition of the Floor Plans & Design Guide, which hit newsstands this week. To help you set your priorities, we highlight a number of factors to consider in your design, from rooflines to room dimensions. The winning plans of our annual design contest also should provide a solid foundation for your design ideas. (You can check out details on the runners-up here.) Get a sneak peek of one of the issue’s four featured homes — all of which showcase varied finishes, features and architectural styles —to jump-start your discussion as well.

In the end, you will be the one living in your cabin, so it’s up to you to decide what’s most important for you to enjoy your new abode. Use this issue to determine what those priorities are.

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