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The Seven Habits, A Practical Summary: Habit 3 - First Things First

Updated on July 26, 2012

Time Management Is So Complicated!

We can't manage time - making it go slower or faster. But, with a lot of learning, we can manage ourselves, guiding what we do with our time.
We can't manage time - making it go slower or faster. But, with a lot of learning, we can manage ourselves, guiding what we do with our time. | Source

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:

  1. Checklists and notes are often incomplete, hard to organize, easy to lose, and impossible to prioritize.
  2. A calendar and appointment book are essential for appointments, but they do not organize our own work.
  3. 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
We can evaluate each task we do. Ask "Is it urgent?" and select the appropriate column. Ask "Ist it important?" to select the appropriate row. We can evaluate ourselves honestly and see whether we are living to make our dreams real; always putting ou

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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    • SidKemp profile image

      Sid Kemp 5 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      And, when we become still and quiet, we are so much a vessel for a unique gift to the world that can only come through us. And when we do it together, we build amazing things. VisionAndFocus, I hope you will drop me an email via my profile page and connect. You would be a great addition to the LivingJoy team where we are humbly learning to do this together.

    • visionandfocus profile image

      visionandfocus 5 years ago from North York, Canada

      I love your goal of "becoming a clearer channel for the love and wisdom that is available within us all". That is a worthy goal indeed, esp. when we realise that, very often, we are not as knowledgeable/powerful/clever as we like to think we are. We are merely, if we become very still and quiet, channeling from a source far wiser and loving that we could ever hope to be.

    • SidKemp profile image

      Sid Kemp 5 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Hi Simone: Thanks for seeing the practicality of this tool. I've build an entire workbook of tools like this one for my coaching clients. They're fun and empowering!

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

      I really like the table for categorizing different tasks - I should consider that more! I often spend too much time on non-important tasks and neglect the important (but not urgent) things. Being more mindful of what each task is can really help one focus more on the right things.

    • SidKemp profile image

      Sid Kemp 5 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Glad you found it enriching, Patty.

    • Patty Kenyon profile image

      Patty Kenyon 5 years ago from Ledyard, Connecticut

      Useful and Interesting information!! Thanks for sharing!!

    • SidKemp profile image

      Sid Kemp 5 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      No problem - in fact, a great example of an unusual type of synergy. A group of people working together can create success, even when each person makes mistakes. That's why writers, editors, and proofreaders work together. There's a great movie about this called The Dish, about a radiotelescope team in Australia that brought back the TV signal from the first landing on the moon.

    • cperuzzi profile image

      Christopher Peruzzi 5 years ago from Freehold, NJ

      I saw it afterward and could not edit it. Ooops.

    • SidKemp profile image

      Sid Kemp 5 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Hi CPeruzzi! Yes, it's a daily and weekly challenge to stay focused more on important things than urgent ones. And the trivial is always enticing, always seductive! You are so right.

      By the way, I think your quote from Goethe got the idea backwards. I have it as, "Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least."

    • cperuzzi profile image

      Christopher Peruzzi 5 years ago from Freehold, NJ

      This really is a good primer.

      "Things that matter most must never come before things that matter least," - Goethe.

      Yes, going into habit 3 takes some time. It is an exercise in prioritization. Once again, the priorities made in this habit were due to the vision made in habit 2. Keeping our lives in tune with a compass and not a clock was the goal. Unfortunately, it's easier said than done. When we have to run our lives efficiently, we lose track of the things that are really important and must be done proactively. The biggest problem with the habits is that they are all in Quadrant 2 - Important but not Urgent.

      And quadrants 3 and 4 are sometimes very seductive.