first things first

First things first: Identify your priorities to work better, not harder

First things first, what if the key to a better life wasn’t working harder and faster, but finding the purpose you want in your life? When you know your purpose, your goals become clear, allowing you to focus on what truly matters (your top priorities) to fulfill your life’s mission.

By Stephen Covey (author of the book “The 7 habits of highly effective people”) with Roger Merrill and Rebecca R. Merrill, 1994, 447 pages.


What if working harder and faster isn’t the answer? Instead, take a moment to reflect on your life’s top priorities – the three or four things that truly matter to you. Are you giving them the attention and time they deserve?

  • In the first part of “First Things First,” the authors encourage you to evaluate how you currently manage your time. Are you focused on urgent tasks rather than the important ones?
  • The second part offers a 6-step method to help you learn and grow in life, creating a positive spiral of progress.
  • In the third section, the authors discuss the power of teamwork and how to achieve synergy with those who share your vision.
  • Lastly, in the fourth section, they highlight the benefits of living a purposeful life and the inner peace it can bring.

first things first

First section of “First things first”: the clock and the compass

In the first part of the book, the authors use a metaphor of the clock and the compass to help you think about your priorities and daily actions. They want you to consider what you’re doing that isn’t making your life better or isn’t important.

Here’s what the clock and compass represent:

  • The clock symbolizes your appointments, deadlines, goals, and how you manage your time.
  • The compass represents your values, principles, mission, vision, conscience, and the way you want to live your life.

Often, what you spend your time on (the clock) doesn’t always align with what truly matters to you (the compass).

To manage your time and stay organized, maybe you use tools like:

  1. Reminders
  2. Planning and preparation
  3. Defining and controlling priorities

However, relying solely on these tools can sometimes lead to conflicts between what’s important to you and how you spend your time.

What you really need is a more effective way to manage your time that combines the strengths of these tools while minimizing their weaknesses. This is precisely what the authors of “First Things First” aim to teach you.

Their approach begins by helping you identify what truly matters to you, like determining your life’s direction (your COMPASS). Then, you’ll learn to plan your activities and how to use your time (your CLOCK) in a way that aligns with your values and priorities.

Before diving into time management techniques, it’s crucial to have a clear understanding of what’s most important in your life. This awareness ensures you’re headed in the right direction, just like using a compass correctly. To achieve this, consider asking yourself questions like:

  • What are my life goals?
  • Where do I want to go in life?
  • What do I want to achieve?

In simple terms, what do you want your life to be about?

To make it clearer, try answering these two questions:

  • What can I do that would make a significant, positive difference in my personal life?
  • What can I do that would make a significant, positive difference in my professional life?

Why am I not doing these two activities right now? 

Your activities can be grouped into four quadrants:

  • Quadrant I (important/urgent): This is where you react to immediate needs and challenges, using your experience and judgment.
  • Quadrant II (important/not urgent): It’s about planning and improving your quality of life. Spending time here enhances your ability to take action and shows your personal leadership.
  • Quadrant III (not important/urgent): This quadrant is deceptive; it creates a false sense of importance through urgency. These activities, while they may seem important, often only benefit others.
  • Quadrant IV (not important/not urgent): This quadrant represents wasteful activities, a place to avoid at all costs.

If you had to classify everything you did this week into these quadrants, where do you think you spent most of your time?

What are your top priorities, and how can you ensure they truly become priorities?

IIn essence, like everyone else, you have four fundamental needs:

  1. Live: This includes your physical needs like food, clothing, shelter, financial stability, and health.
  2. Love: You have a social need for maintaining relationships, belonging, and experiencing love – both giving and receiving.
  3. Learn: You possess an intellectual need to grow and progress intellectually and personally.
  4. Leave a Legacy: You desire to give your life meaning, discover your goals, achieve inner harmony, and fulfill your desire to contribute positively to the world.

How do these needs affect your daily life and overall well-being? 

To gauge their impact, consider these questions:

  • Do you consistently have the energy and vitality to complete your daily tasks, or do you sometimes skip activities due to fatigue, illness, or feeling off?
  • Are you financially secure and comfortable?
  • Do you enjoy fulfilling and satisfying relationships with others?
  • Are you continually learning and expanding your knowledge and skills?
  • Do you have clear goals and a sense of direction that motivates and energizes you?

Satisfying these four fundamental needs—physical (TO LIVE), social (TO LOVE), intellectual (TO LEARN), and spiritual (TO LEAVE A LEGACY)—is crucial for self-realization and your overall quality of life. When these needs are met, they synergize and fuel your inner passion, providing you with vision, enthusiasm, and a sense of adventure.

The authors also introduce what they refer to as “the law of the farm.” In agriculture, it’s evident that external laws and principles govern farm work and ultimately determine the harvest.

first things first and foremost

Life operates in a similar way:

  • Your principles and beliefs shape your actions.
  • Your actions, in turn, determine the outcomes you achieve.

Basically, you reap what you sow.

In essence, you harvest what you plant, just like in farming. However, many people tend to live under an illusion when it comes to this “law of the farm.” They mistakenly believe that if they plant one thing, they’ll reap something different. To better understand this concept, it’s essential to embrace the idea that your harvest aligns with what you’ve sown.

To succeed, you can rely on four key talents:

  • To succeed, you can rely on four key talents:
  • Self-awareness
  • Moral conscience
  • Independent will
  • Creative imagination

Developing these talents and their synergy is the key to your success

“A life without analysis is not worth living. “ Plato

The authors provide a questionnaire to help you assess the current development of your talents and how you’re utilizing them. Regardless of where you currently stand, you can nurture and enhance these talents. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Cultivate self-awareness by maintaining a personal diary. This activity falls into Quadrant II and significantly boosts self-awareness while strengthening your talents. Writing allows you to pay more attention to your internal guidance system, fostering self-confidence.

Educate your moral conscience through learning, active listening, and responding. Moral conscience is your most crucial talent, but it may not develop in an environment that’s not conducive to its growth. Moral conscience speaks loudest in moments of silence, reflection, or meditation. If your life is constantly busy, you might miss the whispers of your inner voice. By tuning into your inner voice, you’ll discover the principles that guide you.

You can educate your moral conscience

  • Read philosophical texts and reflect on the principles they describe.
  • Gain perspective by examining your own and others’ personal and professional experiences.
  • Take time to be silent, listen to your inner voice, and respond to it.

You can enhance your independent will by becoming proficient at making and keeping promises. Think of it as managing a Personal Integrity Account. Each time you make and fulfill a promise, you deposit into your personal integrity account, increasing its balance. The authors emphasize starting with small promises and avoiding high-risk commitments. By setting achievable goals and gradually building your personal integrity account, you can make consistent progress.

To develop your creative imagination, practice visualization

The authors use the MacGyver phenomenon as an example. MacGyver is known for his resourcefulness and ability to solve any problem creatively. To harness your creative imagination, engage in visualization exercises to enhance your quality of life.

Here’s a simple exercise the authors recommend, and you can try it right now while reading:

  1. Find a quiet, uninterrupted moment.
  2. Close your eyes and imagine a situation that usually feels unpleasant or inconvenient.
  3. Visualize yourself in that situation with courage and respect.
  4. Use your creative imagination, like MacGyver, to brainstorm different solutions.

The key to predicting your future is to create it actively. You can employ your creative imagination to visualize your goals before achieving them or to prepare for important events like meetings. By doing this, you enhance the quality of your future experiences before they even happen.

Remember, you have fundamental needs for self-realization: living, loving, learning, and leaving a legacy. You also understand the principles that shape your life quality, like the law of the farm. Moreover, you possess talents such as self-awareness, moral conscience, independent will, and creative imagination.

Simply doing more or rushing through tasks won’t eliminate the need to fulfill what truly matters. The power to craft a high-quality life involves using your inner compass consistently to guide your actions.

first things first book

Section two: the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing

In the second part of the book, the authors introduce a process for organizing tasks in Quadrant II (important but not urgent). By dedicating just 30 minutes per week to this, you can enhance your quality of life according to your needs.

They first suggest an exercise:

  • Picture yourself planning your day. How can you distinguish which tasks are genuinely important? What guides your priorities?
  • Suppose your day is already scheduled, and someone asks you to address an urgent issue. How can you decide whether it’s better to shift your priorities? Can you make these changes calmly, knowing you’re still focusing on the most crucial matters?
  • What do you do when you’re torn between various roles, like balancing work and family, or fulfilling obligations to others versus your personal growth?
  • Imagine an unexpected situation arises during the day. How do you determine if it’s more important to address this situation or stick to your original plans?

The process of organising QUADRANT II: put first things first

“No garden without a gardener”

In this chapter, the authors explore the law of the farm in greater detail. They emphasize that just like a garden needs a diligent gardener to thrive, your life also requires attention and care to flourish. Neglecting your life or expecting it to run on autopilot without effort is unrealistic.

You can’t simply sow seeds and ignore your responsibilities, hoping to return to a well-maintained garden with a bountiful harvest. Life is an ongoing process of growth and development. The gardening metaphor helps you understand what’s truly important and allows you to apply the principle of importance to enhance your quality of life. This process only demands 30 minutes per week and has three key impacts:

  1. It acts as a first-aid kit to address immediate emergencies.
  2. It helps you align with your needs and principles, ensuring your actions reflect your inner compass.
  3. It enables you to incorporate a personal mission into your daily activities.

The weekly planning

The weekly planning process, based on Quadrant II from “First things first,” focuses on efficiency and highlights what truly matters. Unlike day-to-day planning, which can drown you in minor details and emergencies, weekly planning keeps you on track with your important tasks. It only requires 30 minutes per week and involves six straightforward steps, with sample weekly schedules provided by the authors to assist you in the planning process.

First step: Get in touch with your mission and your vision

The first step in organizing your week according to Quadrant II is to understand what truly matters in your life. You need a clear sense of your vision and mission to guide your actions effectively. Think of your mission as the wall against which you lean the ladder to reach the top. Defining your mission is like creating a personal credo, a fundamental aspect of implementing the importance principle from “First things first.”

Your mission should reflect your top priorities, whether they involve personal growth, family life, or other essential aspects. Here are some pointers from the authors to help you define your mission:

  1. List your three or four most important priorities.
  2. Consider your long-term goals.
  3. Reflect on the significant relationships in your life.
  4. Imagine how you would spend the next few weeks if you had only six months to live.
  5. Contemplate how you can make a meaningful contribution.
  6. Clarify the feelings you want to experience, such as serenity, self-confidence, happiness, and a sense of purpose.

In Chapter 5 and Appendix A of “First things first,” you’ll find a protocol to assist you in defining your mission. Consider the impact of having a clear mission:

  1. How will a mission based on your principles, values, and long-term goals change your time management?
  2. What difference will it make to your life when you know what truly matters to you?
  3. Will documenting your life’s purpose lead to practical benefits and alter how you manage your time and energy?
  4. How will weekly engagement with this document affect your initial mission definition?

Defining your mission sets the foundation for effective time management and living a purposeful life.

Second step: Identify your roles

Your roles, as described by the authors, represent the different functions you’ve taken on in your life. These can include roles at work, within your family, for organizations, or in various areas of your life. These roles define your responsibilities in your relationships and areas of involvement.

Conflict often arises when you feel successful in one role at the expense of others. Chapter 6 provides a protocol to help you list your roles. Here’s how you can do it:

  1. Create a list of roles that come to mind.
  2. Don’t worry too much about this list; it can change over time. Try not to define more than seven roles to maintain focus. Having five or six roles is perfectly fine.

One crucial role to identify is “sharpen the saw,” which is a metaphor for the energy you invest in improving your skills in four fundamental areas: physical, social, intellectual, and spiritual. This role encompasses your weekly planning of activities, including daily physical activity, personal reading, defining long-term goals, and preparing your career or training plan.

Ask yourself these questions to assess your roles:

  1. Do I find myself dedicating most of my time and attention to one or two roles, neglecting others?
  2. How many of my priorities align with roles to which I’m not devoting sufficient time and attention?
  3. Do my roles help me fulfill my mission?
  4. How would my quality of life improve if I planned my activities more balancedly each week?

By evaluating and balancing your roles, you can improve your overall quality of life and alignment with your mission and priorities.

stephen covey book

Third step: Set targets that belong to QUADRANT II for each role

You’ve already identified your roles, whether they’re related to your family, work, personal development, and more. Now, let’s focus on what’s most important for each of these roles this week. Consider what can have the most positive impact and make a real difference in each role:

  • Personal Development: Think about activities like going on a spiritual retreat, working on your mission statement, or gathering information about an educational course.
  • Parental Role: Consider spending more quality time with your children, engaging in activities that strengthen your bond.
  • Spousal Role: Plan a romantic date or special time with your spouse to nurture your relationship.
  • “Sharpen the Saw” Role: Dedicate at least one hour each day to activities that improve your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. This could include exercise, a balanced diet, meditation, reading personal development books, or learning about unconditional acceptance.

Remember that the priority for this week should contribute to your ability to live a fulfilling life, foster love, continue learning, and leave a meaningful legacy. It’s great to set goals for each role for the following week, but make sure they are manageable and realistic to maintain your personal integrity account.

After writing down these goals, ask yourself:

  • What positive changes will occur if I achieve these goals this week?
  • How will it enhance my overall quality of life?
  • If I only partially succeed, how will I feel?
  • Will achieving these goals lead to improvements in my life and efficiency?
  • If I consistently follow this weekly routine, what will be the long-term impact on my life?

Fourth step: Start a weekly framework to help with decision-making

Think of your schedule not as a list of tasks to prioritize but as a limited bowl that you need to fill with various activities. The authors use the bowl metaphor to explain how you should manage your time.

Imagine your schedule as a bowl. In this bowl, activities from Quadrant II (important but not urgent) are like big stones, Quadrant I (important and urgent) activities are like gravel, Quadrant III (not important but urgent) activities are like sand, and Quadrant IV (not important and not urgent) activities are like water.

Now, here’s the key: Start by placing the big stones (Quadrant II activities) in the bowl first. These are the important but non-urgent tasks. Once you’ve accommodated these big stones, you can add the gravel (Quadrant I activities), then the sand (Quadrant III), and finally the water (Quadrant IV).

Apply this principle to your schedule by prioritizing Quadrant II activities. Identify the important tasks that aren’t immediately urgent and allocate specific time slots in your diary for them. Alternatively, you can list them as priorities on the side. If you can’t immediately work on a Quadrant II goal, simply reschedule it for another day within the week, but be sure to honor your commitment.

Now, organize your goals for the upcoming week

Once you’ve scheduled your Quadrant II objectives, fit in other activities from Quadrants I and III around them. Aim to eliminate Quadrants III and IV activities from your schedule.

Stay flexible because unexpected events will arise, and opportunities will present themselves. Be prepared to seize these opportunities as they align with your priorities.

Finally, assess your planned week and ask yourself:

  • How do you feel about your scheduled week?
  • What impact will scheduling and accomplishing Quadrant II goals for each role have on your life?
  • Do you grasp the logic of prioritizing the big stones first?
  • How will this approach help you tackle important tasks more effectively?

time management

Fifth step: Practice inner coherence at the moment of choosing

The real challenge lies in consistently prioritizing important tasks every day, even when unexpected events and opportunities arise. To achieve this, you must practice inner coherence, which means aligning your sense of mission with the reality of the moment while maintaining peace and trust in yourself.

All the steps outlined in the “First things first” process help you strengthen your connection with your inner compass. In addition to the 30-minute weekly scheduling, the authors recommend dedicating some time every morning to plan your day in more detail. Follow these steps:

  1. Visualize your day in advance: Take a few moments at the start of the day to review your schedule. This will motivate you and ensure that everything aligns with your inner compass.
  2. Review your daily priorities: Check if your daily priorities fall into Quadrant I or Quadrant II. This review helps you make sure that no Quadrant III activities have crept into your priorities. By doing this additional check, you’ll feel more confident that you’re operating in kairos (quality time, guided by your compass) rather than kronos (sequential clock time). This reinforces the importance of tasks over emergencies. You can also prioritize your daily tasks using categories like ABC or numerical rankings (1, 2, 3…). Throughout this exercise, stay connected to your inner compass to act coherently with your priorities.

Sixth step: The assessment

If you aim to make gradual improvements every day, it’s crucial to evaluate your progress and learn from your mistakes. Before creating your weekly schedule, take a moment to consider these questions:

  • What goals did I successfully achieve?
  • What challenges did I encounter?
  • Did I prioritize important tasks when making decisions?
  • What decisions did I make?

Now, imagine committing to this weekly process for an entire year, or 52 weeks. Think about setting goals in Quadrant II using this method. Even if you only achieve half of these objectives, would it still represent more time dedicated to Quadrant II activities than ever before? Would it be just a bit more or significantly more? If you could allocate a considerable amount of additional time to Quadrant II activities, how would it positively impact the quality of both your professional and personal life?

The Quadrant II organizational process reinforces the concept of importance and empowers you to make the most of what you want to achieve. It’s not just another management tool; it’s a mindset shift. By applying this process, you will begin to perceive time differently and gain the ability to focus on life’s priorities—what’s important but not urgent.

Section Three: The synergy of interdependence

In the third part of “First things first,” the authors discuss the strategy of working together and how to harness the power of collaboration by sharing a common vision with those around you.

Consider these points:

  1. Reflect on the time you waste on urgent crises in Quadrant I, often due to communication issues, misunderstandings, or unclear roles and objectives.
  2. Evaluate the time spent in Quadrant III, dealing with problems that don’t directly affect you.

Now, let’s revisit your four fundamental needs:

  • To live: You depend on good health and some economic security. Imagine a world without doctors, hospitals, or social security. Your salary is a result of the impact your work has on others, and you spend that money on goods and services produced by other people.
  • To love: Love is inherently an interaction; it involves giving and receiving. Relationships are built on reciprocity, a fundamental theme found in wisdom across cultures.
  • To learn: Learning and growth often stem from the knowledge and experiences of others. Books, conferences, courses, and interactions with people contribute significantly to your personal development.
  • To leave a legacy: Contributing to society and the well-being of others is a form of interaction. Your choices today shape the legacy you’ll leave behind, just as previous generations’ choices have impacted the world you live in.

Becoming aware of your interactions with others provides a foundation for more effective collaboration and association. Remember these key principles:

“Synergy begins when you take differences into account.” Embrace diversity and different perspectives in your collaborations.

“Every time that you think that the problem does not concern you, this very idea becomes the problem.” Recognize that problems often have ripple effects, and your involvement can lead to solutions.

So, adopt a “win-win” mindset in your relationships, where mutual benefit is the goal.

time management 2

Section Four: The power and peace of principle-centred living

In the fourth section of “First things first,” the authors explain the advantages of living a thoughtful and enlightened life. This way of living leads to inner peace and serenity.

“Management takes place within the system; an enlightened life has an effect on the system”

“We do not know the future and have no means to plan for it. “But we can hold our spirits and our bodies so pure and high, we may cherish such thoughts and such ideals, and dream such dreams of lofty purpose, that we can determine and know what manner of men we will be, whenever and wherever the hour strikes and calls to noble action.”  Chamberlain

The two cornerstones are to be helpful and to develop your consciousness.

You must be the change you want to see in the world!

Conclusions about the book “First things first”

“First Things First” provides a comprehensive methodology for reevaluating how we manage our time. The key principles revolve around being helpful and developing self-awareness. The book offers practical exercises and detailed explanations, making it accessible for readers. However, for effective daily application, readers may need to create a practical handbook using the book’s content. The book’s strengths include its pragmatic approach, clear methodology, and a 6-step process that improves time management and quality of life. It can be used alongside other self-help books like “Miracle Morning” and “The 4-Hour Workweek.” Weaknesses include some redundancy in the later sections and the need for a dedicated guidebook for practical implementation.

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