Background Health reforms in many countries affect the scope and nature of primary care. General Practitioners (GPs) are expected to spend more time developing public health, preventive health care, coordination of care and teamwork. We aimed to explore which professional activities GPs consider to be meaningful and how they would like to prioritise tasks. Methods In a cross sectional online survey 3,270 GPs were invited to consider twenty different activities in general practice. They were asked to rate each of them on a Likert scale anchored from 1 (not meaningful) to 5 (very meaningful). They then selected three activities from the item list on which they would like to spend more time and three activities on which they would like to spend less time. We used multinomial logistic regression to explore associations between the GPs’ preferences for time spent on preventive health care activities and age, gender and practice characteristics. Results Approximately 40% (n=1,308) responded. The most meaningful activities were handling common symptoms and complaints (94% scored 4 or 5), chronic somatic diseases (93%), terminal care (80%), chronic psychiatric diseases (77%), risk conditions (76%) and on call emergency services (70%). In terms of priority the same items prevailed except that GPs would like to spend less time on emergency services. Items with low priority were health certificates, practice administration, meetings with local health authorities, medically unexplained symptoms, addiction medicine, follow up of people certified unfit for work, psychosocial problems, preventive health clinics for children and school health services. In multivariate regression models physician and practice characteristics explained no more than 10% of the variability in the GPs’ preferences for time spent on preventive health care services. Conclusions The GPs found diagnosis and treatment of diseases most meaningful. Their priorities were partly at odds with those of the health authorities and policy makers.