Habit 3: Put First Things First

ByMani Prithiviraj

Habit 3: Put First Things First

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In the previous article we looked at the second habit, which is “Begin with the End in Mind”. The first habit (“Be Proactive”), says that we are the creator and we are in charge. Habit 2 (“Begin with the End in Mind”), is the first creation which is executed mentally and is based on our imagination.  In this post, we will look at the third habit which is “Put First Things First”. Habit 3 is the second creation or the “Physical Creation”. Habit 1 and Habit 2 are pre-requisites for Habit 3.

            “Put First Things First” is associated with prioritizing the important things that lead us to our goals.  In his essay “Common Denominator of Success”, E.M Gray states that a common characteristic found in successful people is “Putting First Things First”. This characteristic in addition to a combination of hard work, some good luck and development of good human relations are found in successful people. Gray further states that a successful person does things of high priority that others do not execute. Though successful people may not necessarily like to do the high priority tasks, they are able to subordinate their dislike to the strength of their purpose. Hence Covey states that the third habit is a strong function of independent will and self-discipline.

            Habit 3 is  linked to time management. According to Covey, Habit 3 focuses on organizing and executing around priorities. We need to understand that we are not prioritizing all the things that are on our plate, but identifying important activities that help us reach or goals.  Historically there are four generations of time management tools:

  • The first generation of time management tools were mainly notes and checklists. This method only works if all tasks have equal priority.
  • The second generation focused on calendars and appointments (looking ahead and scheduling activities)
  • The third generation includes focusing on short term and long term goals and linking them to scheduling of activities. The scheduling is done on a daily basis.
  • The fourth generation focuses on preserving and enhancing relationships and on accomplishing results. The 4th generation focuses on management of ourselves rather than time. The scheduling is done on a weekly basis. The schedule is also reviewed every day to make adjustments if required.

Most of the current generation time management techniques are focused on third generation tools. Third generation tools have made significant contributions to time management. However, efficient scheduling and control of time are often counter-productive.  For example when we are dealing with an important customer who is unhappy, it is not possible to setup a meeting for 30 minutes to resolve the issue. Since the goal is to address the problem and make the customer satisfied, we should be flexible enough to let the meeting take longer, if it leads to resolution of the problem.

A daily plan, makes flexibility hard to achieve. Daily planning compromises relationships, spontaneous actions and quality of life. This is the key reason why the 4th generation focuses on a weekly schedule. A weekly schedule provides us the flexibility to move activities around if required.

            The essence of the 4th generation time management can be captured in the time management matrix (adapted with some modifications from Covey’s book) shown below. Any activity is a function two factors:

  • Urgency (requires immediate attention)
  • Importance (contributes towards high priority goals)

 

  URGENT NOT URGENT
I

M

P

O

R

T

A

N

T

Quadrant I

 

1.      Crisis

2.      Pressing Problems

3.      Deadline Driven Tasks

4.      Medical Emergency

Quadrant II

 

1.      Prevention and Production Capacity activities

2.      Relationship Building

3.      Long Term Planning

4.      Learning new Skills

N

O

T

 

I

M

P

O

R

T

A

N

T

Quadrant III

 

1.      Some Phone calls

2.      Some Emails

3.      Tasks that can be delegated

4.      Popular Activities

5.      Some Meetings

Quadrant IV

 

1.      Time Wasters

2.      Pleasant activities which do not contribute to goals.

3.      Unimportant phone calls and emails.

 

We need to understand that all urgent tasks are not important. We sometimes execute urgent tasks, since they are pleasant, easy and fun. Execution of an urgent task gives us a sense of accomplishment. Important activities are focused on results and contribute towards achievement of high priority goals. Important activities often do not require immediate attention. Hence unless we are disciplined, we may inadvertently neglect the important activities. The key to successful time management is maximizing our time in Quadrant II. Numerous Quadrant II activities reduce the number of tasks that often move into Quadrant I. Since the total time available to us is fixed, spending time in Quadrant II is only possible if we minimize the time spent in Quadrants III and IV. People that end up spending most of their time in Quadrant I, end up getting stressed and burnt out. People who spend most of their time in Quadrants III and IV end up not being able to accomplish long term goals.

According to Covey, Quadrant II is the most important part of effective personal management. Quadrant II organization involves four key activities:

  • Identifying roles (e.g. Parent, student, manager at work etc)
  • Selecting goals for each role
  • Scheduling weekly activities
  • Reviewing the weekly schedule each day and adapting it if required.

 Here are a few examples of Quadrant II activities and the benefits they yield:

  • Regular exercise (key benefits: promotes a healthy life and minimizes medical problems during later stages of life)
  • A student studying regularly (Key benefits: retention of new concepts; reduced stress before exams; good performance)
  • Keeping up with on-going developments in our current work focus area (key benefit: alignment of our business with market needs; prevents our knowledge from getting outdated).
  • Spending time on a daily basis for a month end report (Key benefit: reduction of stress at the month end)

How can we reduce the time spent in Quadrant III and IV activities? Two powerful means are:

  • Saying “No” to unimportant activities.
  • Delegation

In order to be able to achieve our goals, we have to say no to at-least some of the Quadrant III and most of the Quadrant IV activities. Delegation of tasks (that can be delegated) is a powerful means of improving productivity and preventing burn out.

We either play the role of a producer or a manager in execution of a task. A producer can invest one hour of effort to produce one unit of results. If a manager has a team of 5 trained producers, delegation by work by the manger to his team can increase the hourly output to five units.  When we move up from being a producer at work to a manager we need to be able to identify and delegate appropriate activities to our team members.  This greatly enhances production capacity and prevents burn-out.

Covey recommends stewardship delegation which involves:

  • Creating a clear picture of desired results.
  • Define guidelines for achieving them
  • Identification of required resources
  • Defining accountability
  • Defining consequences (good and bad)

In summary, a Quadrant II focus (or paradigm) empowers us to remain principle centered and look through the lens of importance and not urgency. Effective people spend a significant amount of time in Quadrant II. They thus feed opportunities and starve problems according to Peter Drucker.

Hope you enjoyed this post. This post completes the Habits associated with the self. In the next post we will start looking into habits that involve Interdependence. The first in that list is Habit 4: “Think Win-Win”.

Reference: 25th Anniversary Edition “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey.

About the author

Mani Prithiviraj author

Mani Prithiviraj has a Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering from BITS, Pilani and a Master's and Doctorate in Mechanical engineering from  Texas A&M University, College Station, USA. He is currently Director of Customer Success at Siemens Industry Software Computational Dynamics India Pvt Ltd, Bengaluru, India. He can be found here.

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