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First Things First

Written by: Stephen R. Covey
Published: January 17, 1996


"First Things First" by Stephen R. Covey, A. Roger Merrill, and Rebecca R. Merrill is a self-help book that builds on the principles established in "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People." This book focuses on time management and life balance, proposing that the way we prioritize and manage our time is a reflection of our deepest values and the key to effective living. Unlike many traditional time management approaches that emphasize efficiency and control, "First Things First" advocates for a principle-centered approach that arises from deeply held principles and focuses on relationships and results.

The book begins by critiquing traditional time management strategies that focus on checking off tasks and scheduling activities efficiently. Covey and the Merrills argue that being busy is not synonymous with being effective. Instead, they suggest that true effectiveness comes from focusing on what is most important, not just what is urgent. They introduce the concept of the "Time Management Matrix," which categorizes activities into four quadrants based on urgency and importance. The authors emphasize that highly effective people spend most of their time in Quadrant II—on activities that are important but not urgent, such as relationship building, long-term planning, and personal development.

One of the central themes of "First Things First" is the idea of governing our lives according to personal principles and values. Covey and his co-authors guide readers through a process of identifying their values and crafting a personal mission statement. This mission statement serves as a compass to guide decision-making and prioritization.

The book also discusses the importance of vision and purpose, encouraging readers to envision the legacy they want to leave and to align their daily actions with that vision. It advises readers to say "no" to tasks and requests that do not align with their most important roles and goals.

"First Things First" delves into the challenges of living in alignment with one's values in a world that often prioritizes urgency over importance. It provides strategies for managing demands and expectations, setting boundaries, and making time for rejuvenation and self-renewal. The authors advocate for a holistic approach to time management that balances work, family, personal needs, and spiritual life, suggesting that this balance is essential for long-term effectiveness and fulfillment.

Throughout the book, practical exercises and anecdotes offer readers tools for application. These include how to conduct a weekly planning session that focuses on Quadrant II activities and how to create a "Roles and Goals" document that outlines objectives for each key role in one’s life.

The authors also address the interpersonal dimension of time management, discussing how to create interdependent relationships where parties work together to achieve a balance of personal and mutual goals. Covey, Merrill, and Merrill do not just offer techniques but a philosophy of life management that integrates time management with personal leadership and effectiveness.

Final Thoughts

"First Things First" is not merely a book about managing time; it’s about managing life. The principle-centered approach encourages readers to live and work in a way that reflects their deepest values, leading to a sense of integrity, alignment, and well-being. This book is an essential read for anyone looking to transcend the daily grind and embrace a life of significance and satisfaction.

10 Big Ideas

1. Principle-Centered Living

Living based on core principles and values is essential for making wise and fulfilling choices about how to use one’s time and live one’s life.

2. The Tyranny of the Urgent

Urgency can often overshadow importance. Recognizing the difference is crucial for focusing on activities that align with long-term goals and values.

3. Importance of Quadrant II Activities

Activities that are important but not urgent, such as relationship-building and personal growth, are key to long-term effectiveness and should be prioritized.

4. Vision and Mission

Having a clear vision and a personal mission statement helps to focus on what is truly significant, guiding daily actions and decisions.

5. The Roles We Play

Identifying and fulfilling our key roles in life—whether personal or professional—is foundational to living a balanced and purposeful life.

6. Saying No to Say Yes

Saying no to less important activities enables us to say yes to opportunities that truly matter and contribute to our life’s mission.

7. Synergy in Relationships

Cultivating synergistic relationships allows for the creation of better solutions and the achievement of shared goals.

8. Renewal for Sustained Effectiveness

Regular renewal in the physical, social, emotional, mental, and spiritual dimensions is necessary to maintain effectiveness and prevent burnout.

9. The Weekly Compass

Planning on a weekly basis with a focus on important activities allows for greater flexibility and context than daily to-do lists.

10. Delegation for Development

Effective delegation isn’t just about freeing up time; it’s about choosing to engage in high-leverage activities and developing others.

5 Exercises

1. Principle Identification and Application

Objective: To identify personal principles and integrate them into daily life.

  • Write down a list of your core values and principles that you want to live by.
  • For one week, at the end of each day, reflect on how your actions have aligned with these principles.
  • Identify any discrepancies between your values and your actions and plan for adjustments.
  • Develop a system to remind yourself of these principles during decision-making moments.
2. Quadrant II Focus

Objective: To prioritize and dedicate time to Quadrant II activities that are important but not urgent.

  • Create a weekly schedule that includes time blocks dedicated to Quadrant II activities such as planning, relationship building, and learning.
  • Monitor how much time you spend on these activities compared to urgent but less important tasks.
  • Adjust your schedule as needed to increase time spent on Quadrant II activities.
3. Mission Statement Development

Objective: To craft a personal mission statement that reflects your vision and goals.

  • Consider what you want to be (character), do (contributions and achievements), and the values or principles upon which being and doing are based.
  • Write a draft of your personal mission statement.
  • Share it with a trusted friend or advisor for feedback, and revise it accordingly.
  • Place the mission statement where you can see it daily to guide your decisions and actions.
4. Role Analysis and Goal Setting

Objective: To clarify your roles and set goals that enhance your contribution in each area.

  • List the different roles you play in your life (e.g., parent, manager, volunteer).
  • Define two to three important results you feel you should accomplish in each role this month.
  • Plan weekly steps toward achieving these results, and review your progress at the end of each week.
5. Personal Renewal Plan

Objective: To establish a personal renewal routine that promotes balanced self-development.

  • Assess your current practices in physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual renewal.
  • Set specific, achievable goals for improvement in each area (e.g., exercise, meaningful conversations with friends, reading, meditation).
  • Schedule time each week for activities related to these goals.
  • Regularly review and adjust your goals and activities to ensure they continue to align with your personal renewal needs.

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