Covey Habit 3: Put First Things First

January 21, 2007    By: Geoff J @ 5:40 pm   Category: 7 Habits

Ok, after a seven month layoff I figured now would be a good time to pick up my discussion of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. If you weren’t following along last Spring, you may not know that Habit 1 is: Be Proactive. In short, that means: “You have free will (in the full libertarian sense of the word) so use it. Do something. No excuses.” Habit 2 is: Begin with the End in Mind. This one is sort of about goal setting but it is also about metaphysics and mapping out existence for ourselves and trying to decide where we actually fit in the universe and where we intend to end up (whether in this life or past it). Now we’re on to Habit 3: Put First Things First.

Habit 3 could be summarized like this: Now that you know you control your own thoughts and actions (Habit 1), and now that you have short term and long term goals in mind (Habit 2), you need to put first things first and accomplish those goals efficiently by minimizing your procrastination and distractions. Covey suggests that a good way to evaluate our daily activities is by breaking them down into four quadrants along two axis. One axis measures “importance” — is the activity important when it comes to your goals or not. The other axis measures “urgency” — how pressing is the activity. Here is an illustration of the four quadrants that arise:

The killers to productivity are quadrants III and IV. Quadrant III consists of busy work– things that suck up our time but don’t really move us closer to our goals. Quadrant IV is the laziness quadrant — the things we do when we really don’t want to work at our goals when we know we should. (I should note quadrant IV is not having fun or unwinding after working hard; Covey insists that is actually very important. Rather quadrant IV is lollygagging about when we know we should be working.) Quadrant I consists of “fires” in life that require our urgent attention. (Note: Covey thinks that lots of people love to live in quadrant I because it makes them feel important and useful. He calls it the “urgency addiction”. You know the type — always frazzled and running around like a chicken with its head cut off…) But the key to true productivity is quadrant II. This quadrant consists of all those things we know we should be doing but we put off anyway (like exercising, pondering/praying, planning, etc.). Covey teaches that the key to being efficient and productive with our time is to take the time we are devoting to quadrants III and IV and put it into quadrant II. Once we begin to spend more time in quadrant II we discover that quadrant I begins to shrink and there are fewer fires to put out in our lives.

So there is the short version of Habit 3 — the book(s) obviously go into much greater detail than this. I think it is a very useful way of looking at our activities in life. (My problem is that I’m not convinced I am particularly good at actually doing important things as consistently as I should.) Thoughts?

15 Comments »

  1. Sorry for the cynicism, but how do people adopt this philosophy without it becoming a millstone around their necks?

    Comment by Jack — January 21, 2007 @ 7:29 pm

  2. This is why I’m not a big fan of the Covey system. Like Jack says it can become a millstone around one’s neck. I ended up becoming paralyzed with inaction because I couldn’t figure out what the important not urgent things were. Even if you do the important not urgent things, those urgent not important things can start to pile up.

    That’s why I like David Allen’s Getting Things Done system. When ever something comes your way you decide what you’re going to do with it at that moment. Is it actionable? If yes, then what’s the next action? If the next action can take less then two minutes, you do it. If it can’t either delegate it, trash it, reference it, or put it on your someday maybe list. It takes care of the little stuff, so you can think about the big things. I’ve been doing this year and it’s been wonderful. Check out 43 Folders for more info.

    Comment by Brett — January 21, 2007 @ 7:49 pm

  3. Interesting question Jack. I’m not sure I see how viewing one’s activities through this lens would become a millstone around the neck. We all choose to do some list of things during the week. It seems to me that looking at things this way just helps us prioritize what those things ought to be (based on whatever short term or long term goals we have set and are serious about). I guess my question back is how would it become a millstone?

    Comment by Geoff J — January 21, 2007 @ 9:24 pm

  4. Brett: Even if you do the important not urgent things, those urgent not important things can start to pile up.

    You lost me here. Why would “not important” tasks pile up? If they are not important just don’t do them at all.

    If the next action can take less then two minutes, you do it. If it can’t either delegate it, trash it, reference it, or put it on your someday maybe list.

    It seems to me that there is nothing you list here that is incompatible with segmenting things as important or not in your mind. I don’t think Habit 3 is some kind of Franklin Planner or Palm Pilot or something. It is simply a way to sort out and prioritize one’s activities for the week as far as I can tell.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 21, 2007 @ 9:28 pm

  5. You lost me here. Why would “not important” tasks pile up? If they are not important just don’t do them at all.

    Because after they pile up a while, they become urgent.

    Right now, doing one’s USAmerican income taxes is not important. About two months from now, it will be.

    Comment by Naismith — January 22, 2007 @ 5:10 am

  6. Well, I think this is all very interesting, but let’s face it, Covey wrote this while Sandra was raising their children. That’s why he was able to write the book, a luxury of time that she bought and paid for.

    A mother of toddlers and teens lives in Quadrant I. There is little proactivity and few choices. Everything is a crisis. It is extremely stressful.

    And it is really a tough call to figure out what is Quadrant III and what is Quadrant II. Can we blow off a birthday party this year and declare we will do parties every other year? Or will the child be scarred for life?

    And it becomes a millstone when you feel guilty all the time that all you do is put out fires.

    This may be a great system for people who go to an office every day and work with sane adults. It is not as applicable to every job as Covey makes it out to be.

    Comment by Naismith — January 22, 2007 @ 5:16 am

  7. Naismith: doing one’s USAmerican income taxes is not important. About two months from now, it will be.

    Actually, taxes in January is a textbook example of a quadrant II activity. It is important but not urgent. Going to worthless meetings all day or getting bogged down with unimportant emails and other things like that are what make up quadrant III.

    In my experience most complaints people have with organizing activities along the importance vs. urgency axis stem from miscategorization.

    let’s face it, Covey wrote this while Sandra was raising their children.

    Hmmmm… that may be true but I pretty sure it is irrelevant even if it is. Does it matter that he wentto work to write a book instead of to be an attorney or something? Either the principles he describes are true or they aren’t.

    And it is really a tough call to figure out what is Quadrant III and what is Quadrant II.

    This is a legitimate complaint. But I don’t know that the idea of the quadrants was designed to free us from any difficult judgment calls like the birthday dilemma you mentioned. Those calls need to be made one way or the other. I think the quadrants are supposed to help us have better visibility into to the consequences our proximate choices will have with regard to our long term goals. (For what it is worth, Kristen and I decided to go with the every other year B-Day party thing and it has been great for us and no problem for the kids.)

    In a sense, this quadrants concept is very much like a set of accounting principles for our time. Not many people like to keep a budget with their money but those who do are almost always much better managers of money. I think the same idea applies to our time.

    And it becomes a millstone when you feel guilty all the time that all you do is put out fires

    I agree that having everything in life be a real emergency is a major millstone. But I have experienced a reduction of the frantic mania that occurs when living in quadrant I (and by being addicted to busy-ness) by doing things like taxes (quad II activities) in place of things that seem urgent at the time but really aren’t important (quad III activities). The key skill to learn is to just say no to things that will steal our time away from actually important activities. As I said, it is as painful to budget ones time as it is to scrupulously budget ones money, but the results have been just as striking when I’ve done it right in my life.

    It is not as applicable to every job as Covey makes it out to be.

    I don’t think I agree with this. To me it is like saying that the principles of budgeting finances are not applicable to all families or businesses. It is true that implementing a budget will vary from situation to situation but the principles apply universally. I think the same applies to these principles of time budgeting Covey outlines. The issues are with implementation and not the universally applicable principles themselves.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 22, 2007 @ 8:45 am

  8. Covey has equivocated on this in one aspect. In 6 events, he made this important statment: “You can’t be efficient with people.” I think this fleshes out the prioritizing system somewhat.

    Comment by Matt W. — January 22, 2007 @ 9:00 am

  9. Good point Matt. The habits 4-6 in the 7 Habits are focused on interpersonal relationships and Covey is right that one cannot be efficient with people. We can be effective in our relationships with people but not efficient. This is akin to Buber’s the I-Thou relationships vs. I-It relationships that Blake talks about in his second volume.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 22, 2007 @ 9:06 am

  10. I am expecting my third copy of Blake’s first book any day now. Hopefully this one will not be given away…

    Comment by Matt W. — January 22, 2007 @ 11:01 am

  11. While I agree with what Geoff is saying, there is a challenge to discern what is and what is not important, as well as what is and is not urgent.

    Of course things that are not important should be ignored, but who’s to say what is and is not important in a given moment. While figuring out some complex problem for work or going on a date with your wife may seem very important, it may turn out that those moments missed with your child were critical in her development.

    So the question is not the validity of the proposition, which seems obvious to me, but it is in deciding what ultimately is or is not most important. I think this is where we hae to rely on spiritual gifts to help us discern before we make a decission, and on the atonement to clean up our mistakes after we make a decission….

    Comment by Matt W. — January 22, 2007 @ 11:07 am

  12. Matt: So the question is not the validity of the proposition, which seems obvious to me, but it is in deciding what ultimately is or is not most important.

    I very much agree with this. This issue is not so much with putting first things first as it is with really deciding what the “first things”, or most important things, really are. This then gets back to my biggest gripe with the 7 Habits model — Habit 2 seems impossible to really pull off fully. I mentioned this in my post on Habit 2. It seems to me that Habit 2 says “figure out life the universe and everything and then set some goals”. Ummm… that’s asking a bit much.

    I also agree with you when you say we often have goals that we really don’t know to achieve so we do have to wing it along the way. I think you are right that using some spiritual promptings becomes a major help as we improv our way through life — God always seems to know what is most important.

    Nevertheless, one still can and should set short term and long term goals and so Habit 3 is useful in determining if we are using our time wisely in achieving our goals or not. We can always shift goals along the way and Habit 3 is still useful when we set new goals.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 22, 2007 @ 11:30 am

  13. Very nice Geoff.

    I have been very interested in self improvement lately as well with the Carnegie class I took. There is a lot of overlap.

    I think there is some power in what you are suggesting here. The relaxation and rest part is a difficult thing for me. What is the proper roll of wholesome recreation and liesure? How and where does one draw the line of healthy rest and irresponsible lazyness and waste. I don’t always know.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — January 22, 2007 @ 3:16 pm

  14. Covey is my hero.

    Comment by Connor — January 22, 2007 @ 10:54 pm

  15. All of you confused me :/

    Comment by Umm — November 14, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

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