The Seven Habits, A Practical Summary: Habit 3 - First Things First
Time Management Is So Complicated!
The Failed To Do Lists of Life
Everyone, I think, has tried to make a to do list, and failed. No one has studied why to-do list systems fail as deeply as Stephen Covey. In Habit 3: Put First Things First of the 7 Habits, he identifies three early generations of time management tools that do not work:
- Checklists and notes are often incomplete, hard to organize, easy to lose, and impossible to prioritize.
- A calendar and appointment book are essential for appointments, but they do not organize our own work.
- Both a prioritized to do list and an appointment book together are a lot better. But they still keep us focused on what we have to get done today, not what we want to do with our lives.
To create a better system for managing goals, tasks, and appointments, Covey then builds a better mousetrap: a system of weekly planning. When we think in weeks, we can link the lifetime and longer-term goals from our Vision and Mission (Created in Habit 2) to our work of the week. We actually make progress towards our life goals, instead of just putting out fires.
Stephen Covey's tools add one more crucial element - they distinguish urgent from important. Urgent means it has to get done soon. Important means that getting it done really matters. Covey realized that there are two independent questions to be asked about each task:
- Is it urgent? (yes/no)
- Is it important? (yes/no)
Realizing that these two questions are independent of one another gives rise to the Table #1: The Four Quadrants: Urgent and Important.
Table #1: The Four Quadrants: Urgent vs. Important
Is It Urgent
Is It Important?
Q1: Urgent & Important: Putting Out Fires
Q2: Important, not Urgent: Working towards our life goals
Q3: Urgent, but not Important: Dealing with interruptions and hassles
Q4: Not Urgent, Not Important: Wasting Time
Our Roles and Our Goals
There is a problem in everyone's life that has no answer: Is an important thing for home life more important than something for work? The truth is that any time two roles conflict, there is no easy answer. There are, however, ways to think about the problem.
Covey teaches us to sort out our roles, and recognize an important goal for each role. This, combined with an understanding of the four quadrants (urgent vs. important), gives us a tool to make difficult decisions when our boss wants us to do one thing, and our loved ones want us to do something else. The whole system is too long to explain here. Let me just say that Habit 3, Putting First Things First, is well worth putting into practice. Living the first three habits means living a fulfilling life.
In creating Habit 3, Covey fulfills a famous dictum from Albert Einstein, "the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience." All scheduling methods before 7 Habits were too simple, and the richness and value of our lives were lost in this simplification. Living Habits one through three means living true to ourselves:
- Proactivity: Committing to our own responsibility for living our truth
- Begin With the End in Mind: Discovering our truth, creating our priorities
- Putting first things first: "The key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities. And this can best be done in the context of the week" not the day (7 Habits, p. 171).
Slip-Sliding Away? Or Reaching Our Goals?
Many of us feel, when we are looking at our lives, like the man Paul Simon sings about, "the nearer our destination, the more we're slip-sliding away, slip-sliding away." That includes me.
Part of me thinks that, after 17 years, I'm nowhere near good enough at keeping a weekly schedule and getting things done. And, technically, that's true. I know many ways I could do better. But, at the same time, I live the Habits, and I've internalized them deeply. And it shows up. Friends find that I keep my commitments, offer a lot of support, listen well, and think clearly. Readers find my work on HubPages and are inspired, encouraged, and given clear, helpful advice. Most of my time is given to giving, mostly through writing, which is how I've always dreamed of living. Much of my time is invested in self-improvement - becoming a better writer, a better listener, and a clearer channel for the Love and Wisdom that is available within us all, and that the world so much needs.
I have many goals that I have not achieved. Some require more money than I have. The most important ones - like world peace - require cooperation from other people. But I can say that the vast majority of time is invested in working effectively towards those goals.
And a lot of the credit for that goes to a man who I only met through reading his book. Thank you, Dr. Covey.
But what about those goals that come only by working with others? How do we get better at leading, listening, and serving. For that, we turn to the Habits of Interdependence:
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