Habit 3: Put First Things First

Put First Things First

Where do you start when EVERYTHING seems equally important? It can be overwhelming and frustrating when a lot of things are competing for your attention at once. You might start tackling one task only to get pulled into something else, then feel guilty about abandoning the first thing…it’s a maddening and unproductive cycle. People tell you to “prioritize,” but what does that mean when you are uncertain or indecisive about where to direct your energy? This brings us to Habit 3: Put First Things First.

(This is a continuation of my series of posts on the habits described in THE 7 HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE PEOPLE, a personal development/business book that has been on my to-read list for ages and which I finished last weekend. I think all of the strategies in this book can help with stress reduction and reducing vulnerability to burnout.)

As I talked about in these previous posts, Habit 1 (http://pxlme.me/FoSW0fGI) is about remembering that you are the creator of your own life, and Habit 2 (http://pxlme.me/INAs53H4) is about vision — imagining exactly what you want, creating it in your mind.

Habit 3, Put First Things First, is about synthesizing the first two habits — taking action on your vision so that it becomes a physical reality. In other words, it’s all about time management.

In 7 HABITS, the author has a graphic to illustrate how you can begin to classify all the tasks, activities and responsibilities that fill up your life. I’m including a link to it here: http://pxlme.me/xjVPp7My . The dimensions are important vs. not important, and urgent vs. not urgent, leading to four quadrants: Q1, important and urgent; Q2, important but not urgent Q3, not important but urgent; and Q4, not important and not urgent. (Stick with me here, and click the link to see it illustrated — it will make more sense).

When I read this chapter in 7 HABITS, I was struck by the distinction between important and urgent. Most of us are used to perceiving everything that’s urgent as important, but it’s just not the case. We have been trained to respond to all urgent things with quick immediacy, to our detriment.

A lot of our attention gets hogged by quadrants 1&3 — the urgent stuff. In quadrant 1 you find crises, pressing medical issues, deadline driven projects…the stuff that it can be very hard or impossible to put off. Quadrant 3 is littered with stuff that’s grabbing for your attention, but in reality is not important TO YOU: e-mail notifications and phone alerts, some meetings, requests made by others. These things may be important to somebody, but not to you, if you’re honest with yourself.

Covey encourages to focus as much as possible in Quadrant 2: Important but not urgent. This includes things that don’t have a deadline, but line up with your values and principles and the vision you have for your life. It might include relationship building, true leisure and relaxation, preparation, planning, prevention, exercise, meditation, journaling…you get the idea. Basically all of the stuff you’d like to be devoting more time to, but don’t, because the urgent stuff is always competing for attention.

Quadrant 4 is the most wasteful, encompassing all that’s not important to you and also not urgent. Junk mail, busy work, escape activities and time wasters. The things that you do that leave you feeling unfulfilled and annoyed with yourself.

The key here is finding a way to carve out time to do Quadrant 2 (important) stuff while protecting yourself from interruption of Quadrant 3 (urgent but unimportant) stuff and the momentary allure of Quadrant 4 time wasters. It’s also about being honest with yourself about your propensity for getting involved with other people’s urgent stuff. We all have unavoidable crises and unexpected situations that we alone (or with some help) must navigate. But sometimes, if we don’t have good boundaries, we can constantly get pulled into solving other people’s problems — and not at times that are convenient or healthy for us. Other people’s Quadrant 1&3 issues are often better classified as belonging solely to our Quadrant 3, and so it makes sense to make conscious decisions about how much of this to take on, and when.

At heart of Habit 3 is building the confidence and willingness to prioritize what is vitally important to your emotional and physical well being — ⭐ giving yourself permission  to devote real, significant time to activities that align with your true values and goals. This is not the same as shutting out other people, being selfish, or being greedy. The truth is, if you’re always pushing off Quadrant 2 activities, over time you risk becoming bitter, resentful, bored, angry and/or numb, which will limit your ability to be present and generous with the rest of your time, with the people you love.

Did this resonate with you? Shoot me an e-mail at [email protected] if you have thoughts or ideas about what gets in the way of you spending more time in Quadrant 2.