Friday, October 12, 2007

Putting First Things First

"Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least."


The other day I talked about the Seven Habits and I mentioned under habit number three, Put First Things First, that it warranted further comment. Well, here ya go.

Habit one deals with claiming responsibility for and taking control - ownership - of your life.

Habit two is the design phase, to use an engineering project term, where you decide what's most important, where you're going, and how you're going to get there based on your principles and the responsibilities you have for each of your roles in life (e.g. husband, wife, father, mother, son, daughter, sibling, manager, employee, volunteer). You define the roles, then you identify the short and long term goals that get you where you want to be for each of those roles and for you as a whole. You visualize the process and the outcome.

Habit three puts the plan into effect and keeps you on track. It's a natural progression from one and two. The mistake a lot of people make is in believing that this step is simply a "time management" technique. But the fact that it's based on principles makes it more than that. Rather than being driven by a clock, it's guided by a moral compass that keeps you on course toward the outcome you've visualized in habit two. That you only have so much time is true, but rather than managing the time, this approach manages the priorities based on what is important to you. On what truly matters in your life. Then you allot the appropriate time - a lot, a little, or none at all.

The whole thing is based on the relationship between importance and urgency. Where it falls in your priorities and when it needs to be accomplished. Here's Covey's four quadrant matrix that illustrates the relationship:

Quadrant I, Urgent and Important - Critical things that MUST be done, and done NOW.

Quadrant II, Not Urgent but Important - Things that are truly important and meaningful for your life and your goals. They need to be done but they're not screaming at you and often get pushed aside for other things that are.

Quadrant III, Urgent but Not Important - There's an urgency to them but they're not really all that important and doing them or not doing them doesn't have much of an impact either way. Most of the meetings I've been involved in at work.

Quadrant IV, Not Urgent and Not Important - True time wasters. Things that you start doing simply to fill time or to aid in procrastinating. Endless, unnecessary web surfing, mindlessly staring at the TV and going around the dial without really watching anything, allowing the office bore to stand in your office for twenty minutes giving you every last detail of his life, etc.

Now the goal is to live in Quadrant II. Habit 1 is "Be Proactive" and QII is where that happens. There are always important things that get put on the back burner for things that aren't as important but are more immediate. If you're truly proactive the number and immediacy of those things will decline. How do you get the deed to QII and start moving in? Well, Quadrant I things must be done, remember? So initially you make time for the QII things by taking it, claiming it, seizing it from Quadrants III & IV. And the beauty of it is, as you spend more time in QII the number of things occurring in QI decreases because you've proactively addressed them before they became immediate.

You've probably seen this story as it's all over the internet in various forms but Covey uses it to demonstrate the point:

One day an expert in time management was speaking to a group of business students and, to drive home a point, used an illustration those students would never forget. As he stood in front of the group of high powered overachievers he said, "Okay, time for a quiz." Then he pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed Mason jar and set it on the table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar. When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, "Is this jar full?"Everyone in the class said, "Yes."

Then he said, "Really?" He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the space between the big rocks. Then he asked the group once more, "Is the jar full?" By this time the class was on to him. "Probably not," one of them answered. "Good!" he replied.

He reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in the jar and it went into all of the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked the question, "Is this jar full?" "No!" the class shouted. Once again he said, "Good."

Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he looked at the class and asked, "What is the point of this illustration?" One eager student raised his hand and said, "The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard you can always fit some more things in it!"

"No," the speaker replied, "That's not the point. The truth this illustration teaches us is: If you don't put the big rocks in first, you'll never get them in at all."

Habit 1 and 2 is where you figure out what the big rocks are. Habit 3 is the act of putting them in the jar. Focusing on Quadrant II is putting them in the jar first.

Great in theory but the level of dedication, discipline and work is high. So is the payoff. I started this whole thing talking about and using quotes, so I'll finish it with one:

"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work."
-Thomas Edison


Anonymous said...

I thought all important things were urgent...suppose I better get a grip on life.

Bruce, a work in progress said...

Today birthday girl you're important task is to spoil yourself. Happy birthday.

Bruce, a work in progress said...

"your" not "you're". Damn! I hate that.

Mike said...

I have never been good at prioritizing.I just can't concentrate long enough.

Oh look...shiny things!

Tequila Mockingbird said...

i always want to prioritize stuff, and get things accomplished, but my procrastination makes me think i should probably wait until tomorow to be concerned about it.

Bruce, a work in progress said...

Yeah, I have the same problem. I am huge procrastinator. That's one of my goals. To stop procrastinating and set goals.

curryegg said...

I am always bad in doing the first thing at the first moment. I keep on procrastinate and do something unimportant.. Sigh.. I've to learned it.. and thank for sharing this. It's useful... ;)

Godwhacker said...

Thanks for another great post. These issues are some that I've been struggling with over the last few weeks. I know all of these principles, but sometimes it's good to have a refresher course.

The root of my conflict is that I have so many priorities and interests, that it is nearly impossible to cram them all into one life. That's not going to stop me from trying though.

So here I sit, stretched at the seams of time; overloaded but unbowed :)

Casdok said...

Yes a good post, im pretty organised. But i do need lists to do it!

Bruce, a work in progress said...

Curryegg, thanks for stopping by, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Hopefully it's something you can use.

GW, that's both the good and the bad thing about this approach, you get to define the roles and the goals yourself. Not everything can go into quad II. Cheers.

Casdok, Yeah, I do the list thing too. My kids always make fun of me when I make lists to go to the store. Of course they'd make fun if I came home without most of the things I went out to get if I didn't make a list too. Thanks.

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