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First Things First Book Review

First Things First Book Review

          First Things First is a follow up to the classic, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”  Fans of the first book will recognize this as the third habit.  Covey was joined by co-authors Roger and Rebecca Merrill.  In addition to expounding on and applying the third habit, all three authors give examples of how they practiced or failed to practice this habit.



            “People have an innate desire to control our circumstances, but we cannot control what happens to us.  We can only control what we do and then principles control what happens as a result.  First Things First replaces the “time management” approach to life with a principle-centered approach.  “A meaningful life is not a matter of speed or efficiency.  It’s much more a matter of what you do and why you do it than how fast you get it done.”


The Clock and the Compass

            The book illustrates the problem in many people’s lives by alluding to two important tools – the clock and the compass.   The clock represents how we spend our time – all of our activities, appointments, etc.  The compass represents the things that are important to us – our values, goals, relationships, etc.  When there is a divergence between how we spend our time and what is important to us, we will be dissatisfied.  The temptation is to rush from urgent task to urgent task being driven by the clock and to neglect what is truly important.  

            Covey describes three generations of time management.  The first generation centered on reminders and used lists.  The second generation focused on planning and preparing and used calendars and scheduling.   The third generation focused on prioritizing and controlling and used long, medium and short-term goals.  None of these are bad, but they all miss the point of alignment.  The first generation lacks priorities and planning.  It is one-dimensional.  The second generation “focus on schedule, goals, and efficiency enthrones the schedule… this schedule focus often leads [people] to act as though others are ‘the enemy.’ Other people become interruptions or distractions that keep them from sticking to their schedule and carrying out their plans.”  The third generation makes a lot of progress on the others, but is based on some mistaken ideas.  It is based on control, but we cannot always control our lives.  It stresses efficiency, but effectiveness, not efficiency, is what works with people.  Efficiency only works with tasks.  Finally, the third generation only works within the system, not on the system.  The fourth generation identifies the activities that could make a real difference in our lives and then focuses on these.   One of the largest obstacles to this is our addiction to urgency.  “Urgency addiction is a self-destructive behavior that temporarily fills the void created by unmet needs.  And instead of meeting these needs, the tools and approaches of time management often feed the addiction.  They keep us focused on daily prioritization of the urgent.”  Covey describes a four-cell matrix divided by urgency and importance.   Quadrant I is urgent and important.   These tasks need to be done and they need to be done now!  Quadrant II is non-urgent and important.  These things can have a material effect on our life, but either have no deadline or a deadline that is far in the future.  It is the “quadrant of quality.”  Quadrant III, “the quadrant of deception” is urgent, but not important.   Quadrant IV, “the quadrant of waste” is neither important nor urgent.  The key is to maximize our time in Quadrant II.  Quadrant IV should be avoided or delegated.  Quadrant III tasks should be either ignored or settled as quickly as possible.  Quadrant II is where we should be deliberately spending our time.  By taking care of things that are the most important and dealing with items well before their deadline we avoid the stress of overloading Quadrant I.  “Quadrant II is the heart of effective personal management. It deals with things that are not urgent, but are important… like building relationships, writing a personal mission statement, long-range planning, exercising, preventive maintenance, preparation—all those things we know we need to do, but somehow seldom get around to doing, because they aren’t urgent.”

            There are many things that need to get done, but Covey suggests we have four basic needs: to live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy.  “We think of “balance” as running from one area to another fast enough to spend time in each one on a regular basis. But the “touching bases” paradigm ignores the reality of their powerful synergy. It’s where these four needs overlap that we find true inner balance, deep fulfillment, and joy.”


The Main Thing: To Keep The Main Thing the Main Thing

On a weekly basis, plan using the following steps, which should take about 30 minutes.

  1. Connect with your vision and mission.  This is the big picture view which creates the context to allow effective planning.
  2. Identify your roles.  We all have many different relationships and different roles in each.   Since failure in any is failure in the whole, we need to consider each in our planning.
  3. Select Quadrant II goals in each role.
  4. Create a decision-making framework for the week.   Instead of prioritizing your schedule, schedule your priorities.  Put these on the schedule first and then work around them with what extra time that you have.
  5. Exercise integrity in the moment.  “Exercising integrity, or integratedness, means translating the mission to the moment with peace and confidence – whether putting first things first means carrying out your plan or creating conscience-directed change.”  On a daily basis, preview the day, prioritize, and evaluate what is time-sensitive.
  6. Evaluate – turn your weeks into “upwards spirals of learning and living.”

            To be able to do the weekly planning, one must have a clear vision and mission.  Covey suggests spending some time to develop a mission statement that 1) represents the deepest and best within you, 2) is the fulfillment of your own unique gifts, 3) is transcendent, 4, addresses and integrates all four fundamental human needs and capacities (physical, social, mental, spiritual), 5) based on principles that produce quality of life results, 6) deals with both vision and principle-based values, 7) deals with all the significant roles in your life, 8) is written to inspire you.

Further guidance for mission statements:

• Commit your mission statement to memory. • Set a daily “sharpen the saw” goal to visualize yourself living your mission statement. • Review your mission statement each week before you begin to organize. • Keep a daily journal record of how your experiences, your choices, and your decisions are affected by your personal mission statement. • Read mission statements written by other people throughout history. Consider the impact of these statements on their lives and on society.


The Synergy of Interdependence

            When facing a decision of whether to stick to the plan or to respond to something that came up, tie the decision to your goals.  Use a three-part process to analyze the decision: ask with intent, listen without excuse, act with courage.  Keep track of how you do this throughout the day and what the results are. 

            “Effective interdependence is core to the issue of time management… fourth generation interdependence is not transactional; it’s transformational... [It] is the richness of relationships, the adventure of discovery, the spontaneity and deep fulfillment of putting people ahead of schedules and the joy of creating together what did not exist before.”  Interdependence is essential because life is interdependent.  The four human needs are interdependent.  “There’s a place for independence. In the space between stimulus and response, independence is having the strength of character to transcend scripting, the social mirror, and other influences that would keep us from a principle-centered response to life. But, as well as a place, there’s a purpose for this independence. It’s not an end in itself. True independence precedes and prepares us for effective interdependence. It’s the personal trustworthiness that makes trust possible.”

            Covey lists implications of the interdependent reality: 1) all public behavior is ultimately private behavior.  Problems need to be solved inside-out, starting with individuals and working to society, 2) life is one indivisible whole.  Problems in one area of life will affect all of life.  3) Trust grows out of trustworthiness.  This foundational principle holds all relationships.  Our four endowments – self-awareness, conscience, independent will and creative imagination are all important in effective interdependence.  Interdependence is boosted by the win/win approach.  Rather than trying to win by forcing someone else to lose, we can work cooperatively to create more value so we both win.  “Win-win is not adversarial; it’s synergistic. It’s not transactional; it’s transformational. And everyone who participates in it or witnesses it can see it.”  This happens through a three-step process: think win/win, seek first to understand and then to be understood, and synergize.  (Notice that these are three more of the habits.)  Families and organizations thrive when they work together toward a shared vision.  From the shared vision come roles and goals.  Each member can contribute what he is best equipped to do. 

            First things first transforms management.  Instead of managing tasks, it develops people.  In order to work within our circle of influence to empower ourselves and help transform others we can: 1) cultivate the conditions of empowerment 2) feast on the lunch of champions 3) become a servant leader.  There are five conditions of empowerment: 1) trustworthiness- this requires both integrity and competence, 2) self-directing individuals and teams, 3) aligned structures and systems. 4) accountability.  The lunch of champions is feedback (vision is the breakfast.)  Feedback allows us to learn and improve and should come from different perspectives.  Becoming a servant-leader doesn’t work if the conditions of empowerment are missing, but if they are there and the vision is clear and people are free to pursue it, the leader gets to equip his team for maximum impact.  “’Accomplishing things through people’ is a different paradigm than ‘building people through the accomplishment of tasks.’ With one, you get things done. With the other, you get them done with far greater creativity, synergy, and effectiveness . . . and in the process, you build the capacity to do more in the future as well.”

 The Power of Principle Centered Leadership

            The book concludes with examples of putting first things first in practice.  Practicing a first things first lifestyle brings both power and peace.  “Peace is essentially a function of putting first things first. Foundational to ‘first things’ are the four needs and capacities—to live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy.”  Power comes from living according to our conscience and principles instead of the expectations of others.  “There may be several turning points in our lives, but the most critical of all is the point at which we make the decision: ‘I will live by my conscience. From this time forward, I will not allow any voice—social mirror, scripting, even my own rationalizing—to speak more clearly to me than the voice of conscience. And, whatever the consequence, I will follow it.’”


            Like many of the best things in life, the First Things First concept is both simple and very challenging.  If we are willing to be introspective and to learn and change, it can yield tremendous fruit in all areas of our lives.  We can stop trying to do more faster and instead focus on the few things that will bring about results we really care about.  We go from managing ourselves and others to leading.  We change our mentality from trying to rush around covering all of our responsibilities to living an integrated life.

            There is a lot to apply in this book, and it will take time to build the habits and start to see results.  Covey gives the example of a Chinese bamboo tree, which shows almost no growth above ground for four years while its energy is directed to developing roots.  In the fifth year it can grow up to eighty feet.  This is what happens when we work in Quadrant II.  “Your organization’s culture is the one competitive advantage that cannot be duplicated.”  It is worth taking the time to develop a great culture. I’ll close by once more using the books’ own words: “Becoming principle-centered is not always easy, but it does create quality-of-life results. The important thing is to keep trying, to keep working to create more and more alignment with true north.”