Review of First Things First-Stephen Covey

I’ve just read a book by Stephen Covey, author of the classic, The 7 Habits of HighlyFirst things first Successful People. This one is called First Things First and I highly recommend a read of it. In actual fact though, I have never read The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, so maybe I should get on to that one very soon too!

A running theme in the book is the notion that we need to distinguish between things that are just pressing and things that are actually really important in our lives. The book helps somebody to decide and identify what these important things are.

A lot of the time, people are distracted by what is pressing or “urgent“, the things that need to be done right now. However, these activities are commonly not central to our true values and the direction we want to head in.

So striking that balance between so called urgent things and the real important things in our lives is the main theme the book revolves around. This is a fairly long book, 350 or so pages and lots of text per page but a very interesting and useful read. There are four main sections-The Clock And The Compass, The Main Thing Is To Keep The Main Thing The Main Thing, The Synergy Of Interdependence and The Power and Peace Of Principle-Centered Living.

Time management matrixThis time management matrix on the left neatly shows how Covey believes the Important, Not-Important, Urgent and Not-Urgent combinations of tasks generally fall in day to day life.

I like this diagram. It is simple and to the point. Covey states that urgency tends to influence the average person greatly while importance is given, well less importance. An aim after reading the book would be to spend more time and effort on tasks falling in the 2nd quadrant.

Apparently urgent things are always going to crop up and this alone is not necessarily a problem. It is when urgency becomes a more dominant factor than importance, that somebody could say they have a problem or even addiction to satisfying the urgent “little fires” that life throws at them on a daily basis and neglecting what is important.

The trick of the urgency monster is that it makes us feel like we have accomplished something significant and been successful when actually, it’s most likely to be success on a very small scale. Quashing urgent little cares can produce a feel-good factor and excitement even, but can easily rob from longer term and larger achievement.

The “little fires” mentioned above would fall in to quadrant 3. They can easily be mistakenly assigned the focus due for quadrant 1 activities. They are often important to other people but not necessarily useful to have too much time spent on them, for our own grand scheme.

The quadrant 1 activities are actually urgent and important. These are real and require immediate attention and sometimes swift action. Like your child is about to fall down some steps. Quadrant 3 situations, such as a mundane IM message popping up, will often mistakenly get the same treatment.

Quadrant 4 tasks and activities seem to be the worst of the worst according to Covey. These are the real avoidance behaviours. Reading celebrity gossip columns when you are meant to be working at your desk, playing games when you should be working or studying. You get the picture.

Quadrant 2 is all about the long term. This is where your future is created from what you put in here. The hard work that has no immediate result or reward, building connections and relationships, planning for big future successes. It sounds wonderful but the catch is that there is little or no urgency associated with most of the activities and you have to toil whilst gaining little in the way of instant gratification.

I get what Stephen Covey is saying here. 2nd quadrant activities are hard to stick with and because they are hard, we spend a lot of time and effort on other quadrant tasks, that often do little to set us up for long-term achievement.

Tomorrow, I will be looking at some other sections of First Things First, so stay tuned for the next installment.