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First Things First

We very often strive for the things that are important to us, but we are distracted by the things that are urgent. Do you recognize this in your personal life? Stephen Covey’s third ‘habit of highly effective people’ focuses on this issue. He calls it: First Things First.

Putting first things first deals with many of the questions about time management, addressed in the bigger perspective of your purposes, values, roles, and priorities. Covey calls it “the philosophy of setting priorities and focusing on making the distinction between what is urgent and what is important”. The urgent things that have to be done RIGHT NOW are not necessarily always part of your values in life, Covey describes. To live a more balanced life, you will have to recognize that you cannot do everything in life that comes along. It takes the realization that it’s all right to say ‘no’ when necessary and then focus on your highest priorities that are in line with your values.

What are “first things?” To classify all the day-to-day activities that you do in daily life, Covey has developed the Time Management Matrix (TMM). The TMM contains four quadrant, being:

Quadrant 1: Urgent-Important. These things are the most pressing tasks. Examples are: highly pressing meetings, writing an article in the long-run for an upcoming deadline, etc.  

Quadrant 2: Not Urgent – Important. These are the things that matter in the long-term but will yield no tangible benefits this week or the upcoming month. Examples are: relationship-building for your family, serious long-term planning, etc.

Quadrant 3: Urgent – Not Important. These tasks squeeze are time for things that actually are important. When we look back at these tasks at the end of the week, we’ll have to admit they were a waste of time. Examples are: interrupting phone calls, poorly thought-out meetings.

Quadrant 4: Not Urgent – Not Important. We do these things because we feel like we’re tired and need a break. Examples are: watching a mindless TV show, checking and rechecking Facebook during the day, mindlessly eating potato chips, etc. We prioritize these things in the moment and obviously derive some pleasure from them, but you’d be amazed how much time most people waste in a given week on these tasks.

If you think about it for a while, you will probably realize that most of your time is spent in Quadrants 1 and 3. Covey says that this is probably because most people are somewhat addicted to urgency. However, the so called ‘first things’ are those things that you personally find of most value in life. These things are categorized in Quadrant 2: the things that are not urgent, but important. As, these are the things in life that are in line with your purposes, values, roles, and priorities. To be able to do these things, Covey recommends to focus on planning for a week instead of individual days. By planning Quadrant 2 activities in your weekly schedule, you are giving yourself room to really build up the long-term important things.

If you put first things first, you are organizing and managing your time schedule according to the personal priorities you established. Thus, don’t focus on urgent activities. Focus instead on important things; the ‘first things’. Good luck!


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