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

First things first

Summary of “First things first”: What if the solution to live a richer life was not to work harder and faster, but to identify what meaning you want to give your life? Goals will arise from this and you can concentrate on what is truly important (your priorities) in order to accomplish your mission in life.

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

Note: This is a guest article written by Claire ESCALA of the blog

First things first, life

Chronicle and summary of the book “First things first”


What if the solution was not to work harder and faster? Then what is the solution? What if you took a moment to reflect on your priorities in life, the three or four things that matter most? What would they be? Do you give these priorities the attention and the time that you should give them?

  • In the first section of “First things first”, the authors want you to think about how you currently manage your time. Perhaps you are doing what is urgent instead of what is important.
  • In the second section of “First things first”, the authors offer guidance with a 6-step method that will make the weeks go by in an upward spiral of learning about life.
  • In the third section of “First things first”, the authors describe the strategy of interdependence. They show you how to create powerful synergy based on a common vision with the people around you.
  • In the fourth section of “First things first”, the authors help you to realise the benefits of leading an enlightened life, to become aware of the peace that this brings.

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

In the first section, the authors introduce the metaphor of the clock and the compass and raise awareness through personal questioning. What things are you doing that are not important and are not making your everyday life better?

To help you put first things first, the basic metaphor that the authors use is the clock and the compass:

  • The clock represents your appointments, your deadlines, your goals, your activities: what you do and how you manage your time.
  • The compass represents your vision, your values, your principles, your mission, your conscience, your orientation: what is important to you and the way you want to live your life.

The clock and the compass often diverge. What you do is not always at the service of what is most important in your life.

Perhaps you use one of these tools for time management, to help you chase time:

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

By using these tools, you may be, may even always be in conflict with what really counts for you and how you use your time.

You clearly need another way to manage your time (uniting the strengths of these 3 tools without their weak points). This is what the authors will teach in “First things first”.

At first, this will let you find out what you want (what direction your COMPASS is pointing in). Afterwards, you can define your activities (how you are going to use your CLOCK).

Before you begin trying to manage your time better, it is vital for you to be aware of what is most important to you. This will help you to be sure that you are moving in the right direction (that you are using your compass properly).

To do this, it is important to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What direction do I want to go in?
  • What do I want to accomplish in my life?

In short, what meaning do you want to give to your life!

Next, to define what you want in better detail, you should identify the answers to these 2 questions:

  • What activity am I conscious of that would offer positive and decisive results in my personal life?
  • What activity am I conscious of that offers positive and decisive results in my professional life?

Why am I not doing these 2 activities NOW?

Your activities can be categorised into one of these 4 quadrants:

  • QUADRANT I (important / urgent) where you manage, produce, make use of your experience and your good judgement in reaction to a number of needs and challenges.
  • QUADRANT II (important / not urgent) is the quality of life and planning box. The more time you give to this box, the better your ability to act. It is your personal leadership box.
  • QUADRANT III (not important / urgent) is the ghost of Box I. It is the quadrant of illusion. Agitation and urgency create a false sense of importance. Activities undertaken in this spirit, even if they seem to be very important, are only of benefit to others.
  • QUADRANT IV (not important / not urgent) is the quadrant of waste; a place where you should never put anything.

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

What are your priorities and how do you make them priorities?

In short, you, like everyone else, have the four following needs:

  • live – a physical need for food, clothing, shelter, economic well-being, health
  • love -a social need to maintain relations with others, to belong, to love (love and be loved)
  • learn – an intellectual need to develop and progress
  • leave a legacy – you need to give meaning to your life, to find your goals, inner coherence and to fulfil your desire to be useful.

What impact do these needs have on your time and your quality of life?

The following questions may help you to answer this question:

  • Am I always in top form and full of energy throughout the day or are there activities that I don’t perform because I feel tired, sick or out of sorts?
  • Do I enjoy financial security?
  • Do I have rich and satisfying relations with others?
  • Am I constantly learning and developing myself to broaden my horizons and acquire new skills?
  • Do I have clear objectives and a direction to guide me, inspire me and fill me with energy?

First things first life

Physical (TO LIVE), social (TO LOVE), intellectual (TO LEARN) and spiritual (TO LEAVE A LEGACY) needs are essential for self-realisation and for your quality of life.

When you satisfy these four needs, synergy occurs and feeds your inner fire. It gives you vision, passion and the spirit of adventure.

The authors also explain what they call «the law of the farm “. In agriculture, it is

obvious that external laws and principles govern the work of the farm and determine the harvest.

The same things happens in life:

  • The way you see things (your principles) is at the root of what you do (your acts).
  • The way you do things (your acts) is at the root of what you get (your results).

Basically, you reap what you sow.

You often live in an illusion when it comes to the law of the farm. You think that if you sow one thing, you will reap something else. Take your example from the law of the farm, and accept the fact that what you reap is similar to what you sowed.

In order to succeed, you can rely on your 4 talents:

  • Self-consciousness
  • Moral conscience
  • Independent will
  • Creative imagination

Developing your four talents and their synergy is the key to your success.

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

The authors offer a questionnaire to give you an overview of how developed your talents are and what use you are making of them.

Regardless of the current development of your talents, you can make them grow and develop.

Here are some ideas for this:

You can cultivate your self-awareness by keeping a diary

Keeping a personal diary is a QUADRANT II activity that significantly increases self-awareness and strengthens your talents. The process of writing will allow you to give more attention to your guidance system. It strengthens and builds your self-confidence.

You can educate your moral conscience by learning, by listening and responding

Moral conscience is your most important talent. Nevertheless, you may be living in an environment that is not conducive to the development of this awareness. The voice of moral conscience is only heard clearly in silence, reflection or meditation. If you are overwhelmed by activities, you are deaf to the whisper of your inner voice. When you experience your inner voice, you will discover the existence of principles.

You can educate your moral conscience:

  • By reading philosophical texts and reflecting on the principles that they describe
  • By getting some perspective on your professional and personal experiences and those of others
  • And, by taking the time to be silent, to listen to your inner voice and answer it.

You can develop your independent will by knowing how to make promises and keep them

One of the most effective ways to strengthen your independent will is to make promises and keep them. To illustrate this, the authors use the metaphor of a Personal Integrity Account Every time you make a promise that you keep, you credit your personal integrity account (and the balance grows). They explain very clearly that you must start small and not take risks (i.e. do not make promises that are too difficult to keep). When you make promises that are too difficult, you may not be able to keep them and end up debiting your personal integrity account. By setting small objectives, you start small and you can gradually increase the balance of your personal integrity account. This way you will go further progressively.

You can develop your creative imagination through visualisation.

To tackle the concept of the creative imagination, the authors describe the MacGyver phenomenon. MacGyver is an enigmatic hero. His knowledge and his inexhaustible creativity help him to get out of any situation. The MacGyver phenomenon is the embodiment of the creative imagination. The method the authors propose is to develop your creative imagination using visualisation. They advise using visualisation to improve your quality of life.

Here is an exercise that the authors suggest – do it right away, even during reading!

Find a moment to be alone and avoid any interruptions. Close your eyes and picture a situation which would usually feel unpleasant or inconvenient to you. Now picture yourself full of courage and respect in the same situation. Use the MacGyver phenomenon to test different solutions

The best way to predict your future is to create it. You can use the same power of creative imagination to see a goal before achieving it or to prepare for a meeting. In this way, you increase the quality of your reality before living it.

You have needs that are essential to your self-realisation (living, loving, learning and leaving a legacy).

You are aware of the principles that govern the quality of your life (the law of the farm).

And, you have experienced some of the talent that will allow you to guide your life (self-awareness, moral conscience, independent will, creative imagination).

Doing more and doing it more quickly will not remove this need to do what you must. The power to create quality of life is the ability to develop and use your inner compass to act consistently.

First things first life

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

In the second part of the book, the authors introduce the process of organising Quadrant II (important / not urgent). They show that by devoting 30 minutes per week to this, you will create a quality of life based on your needs.

They first suggest an exercise:

  • Imagine you are organising your day. How can you tell what tasks are really important? What determines your priorities?
  • Imagine that your day is already planned and then someone asks you to solve an urgent problem. How do you know if it is better to change your priorities? Can you change them peacefully with the certain knowledge that you are putting first things first?
  • What do you do when you feel torn between different roles, for example between your work and your family? What about between what you have to do for others and your personal development?
  • Imagine that over the course of the day, an unexpected situation occurs. How can you I know if it is more important to pay attention to this situation or to continue doing what you had planned?

The process of organising QUADRANT II: put first things first

“No garden without a gardener”

In this chapter, the authors delve deeper into the principle of the law of the farm. In a very detailed manner, they illustrate the fact that there is no garden without a gardener. You will never have fine crops if you do not tend to your garden or cultivate it assiduously. And, you must pull up the weeds regularly.

You may think that it would be great if you could just put your life on automatic pilot and obtain quality of life without effort, without tending to it with attention and perseverance. Life doesn’t work like that!

You cannot just plant some seeds and continue to attend to your favourite occupations. You cannot expect to find a beautiful garden with no weeds when you get back, which rewards you with an abundant harvest.

Your life is also subject to a perpetual process of germination and growth. The metaphor of gardening is going to help visualise what is important. In fact, it will enable you to apply and focus on the principle of importance in order to improve your quality of life. This is a high yield activity which does not require more than 30 minutes per week.

The process has an impact on three levels:

  1. It is a first-aid kit that helps you resolve the immediate demands of the emergency.
  2. It helps you to focus on your needs and your principles and to force yourself to apply them in your life. You can create a schedule that is consistent with your inner compass
  3. This will allow you to incorporate the definition of a personal mission to your day-to-day activities.

The weekly schedule

According to Quadrant II of “First things first”, the process of time management is based on a weekly schedule. Unlike the day-to-day planning that drowns you in emergency and performance, weekly planning highlights what is important. It is based on efficiency. It will not let you drown in the small details of daily life.

And, it only takes 30 minutes per week to set up this weekly planning, by following 6 steps. The authors provide models of weekly schedules to assist you in the planning process.

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

The first step when you start to organize your week according to Quadrant II is to know what is most important in your life. It is essential to have a clear idea of your vision and your mission in order to know how you must act. Once you define your mission, it is like knowing which wall you should lean the ladder against to reach the top.

Defining your mission amounts to writing your personal credo. Getting to know your personal mission is fundamental if you want to implement the principle of importance as taught in “First things first”.

If your mission includes topics such as personal development or participating in family life, reviewing it will strengthen your sense of priorities.

Here are a few points suggested by the authors to help you define your mission:

  • Make a list of the three or four priorities that you care about most
  • Think about the long-term objectives that you can set yourself
  • Think about the relationships that matter most in your life
  • Consider how you would spend the coming weeks if you only had six months to live.
  • Think of the way in which you would like to make yourself useful
  • Confirm the feelings that you want to experience: serenity, self-confidence, happiness, offering something to others, finding a meaning in life

A protocol to help you define your mission is given in Chapter 5 and Appendix A of “First things first”.

Think about the impact that defining your mission will have on you:

  • To what extent will a clear mission of my principles, my values and my long-term goals change the way I manage my time?
  • How would I consider my life if I knew what is important for me?
  • Will writing down my life’s goal offer me something useful? Will it change the way I manage my time and energy?
  • How would weekly contact with this document change what I decided when I defined my mission.

Second step: Identify your roles

Your roles, as defined by the authors, are the functions that you have chosen in your life. They can be a role at work, in your family, for an association or in other sectors. These roles are your responsibilities in your relationships and areas of intervention.

Discord often arises if you feel that you are successful in one of these roles at the expense of other roles. There is a protocol to help you list your roles in Chapter 6.

Now make a list of the roles that come to mind.

Don’t worry too much about this list as it can change over the years. Do not define more than seven roles in order to stay focused. If you have five or six, that is perfect.

One of the roles that you must identify is “sharpen the saw “. “Sharpen the saw” is a metaphor which describes the energy that you are spending to increase your personal skills in your four fundamental areas (physical, social, intellectual and spiritual). The “sharpen the saw” role covers the weekly planning of your activities. It includes daily physical activity, personal reading, defining your long-term goals and preparing your career or training plan.

Also answer the following questions:

  • Do I often notice that I am dedicated to one or two roles and I am not giving all the time and the attention that I would like to others?
  • How many of my priorities lie in the roles to which I am not devoting the major portion of my time and attention?
  • Do my roles help me to fulfil my mission?
  • What improvement would I see in my quality of life if I planned my activities in a balanced way each week?

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

You have defined each of your roles at family level, at work, for your personal development… For each of these roles, what is the most important thing that you will do this week? What will have the greatest positive impact? What would make a real difference this week in each of your roles?

  • For personal development, you can think for example about taking time to go on a spiritual retreat or work on writing your mission, collecting information about an educational course.
  • For your role as a parent, you can, for example, think about spending more time with your children.
  • Your role as a spouse, you can plan a romantic date.
  • And for your “sharpen the saw” role, it is important to work on it for at least one hour per day. For example, you can choose to do exercise, eat 5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day, meditate, read books on personal development, learn about unconditional acceptance…

The key is that this week’s priority can increase your ability to LIVE, to LOVE, to LEARN and to LEAVE A LEGACY.

You may have a goal for each role for next week. This is great, but be careful not to think too big in order to be able to stick to it (remember your personal integrity account!).

Stop for a moment and note this (these) goal (goals) in your diary.

Once you have written down these goals, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What happens if I succeed in this week’s goals?
  • What consequence(s) will it have on my quality of life?
  • If I only succeed partially, how will I feel?
  • If I achieve these goals, will my life improve?
  • Will I be more efficient than I am now?
  • If I do this every week, what will happen?

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

The key is not to classify the content of your schedule by priority but to give your priorities a schedule.

The authors use the metaphor of the bowl. Your schedule is like a bowl – it has limited volume.

You can visualise the activities in Quadrant II like big stones, those of Quadrant I like gravel, those of Quadrant III like sand and those of Quadrant IV like water.

If you fill the bowl with the water first, you cannot put the big stones in without it overflowing. On the other hand, if you put the big stones in the bowl first, you can add the gravel to fill in the gaps, then the sand to fill even smaller gaps and finally the water to fill the rest.

You need to fill your schedule the same way for optimal results. Put activities in Quadrant II first! If you identify the big stones, in other words the actions that are important but not urgent and put them in your diary first, you can go on to introduce other activities from Quadrant I or Quadrant III.

For each objective in Quadrant II, you can either make a specific appointment in your diary (a set time), or write it down as a priority in a side list.

Sometimes you will have to wait for the opportunity to achieve your goal. For example, if you want to spend more time with your daughter, perhaps you will not have the opportunity tomorrow. You can postpone this objective by one day and so on until the opportunity presents itself. The important thing is that you accomplish this objective as you promised yourself you would before next week to credit and not debit your account.

Now schedule your goals for the coming week.

Once you have set objectives from Quadrant II in your diary, you can arrange the activities from Quadrants I and II around them. At the beginning, you may feel as though all the other activities are from Quadrant I (important / urgent). You may go on to realise that they are activities from Quadrant III (not important / urgent): they serve other people. Ideally, you will eliminate all activities from Quadrants III and IV from your schedule.

Be flexible. The unexpected will always happen, opportunities will appear and you need to be spontaneous to act on them.

Now add your other activities from your weekly diary in addition to those from Quadrant II that already appear.

Now ask yourself these questions:

  • How do I feel about the week I have planned?
  • What difference would it make if I schedule goals from Quadrant II for each role and if I carry them out?
  • Do I understand the logic of putting the big stones in first?
  • How will this help me accomplish important tasks?

Fifth step: Practice inner coherence at the moment of choosing

The difficulty that you will encounter will be to continue to put first things first every day when unforeseen events and opportunities turn up. For this, you will have to practice inner coherence. This will shift your sense of mission to the reality of the moment with peace and trust in yourself.

All the steps in the “First things first” process strengthen your ability to enter into contact with your inner compass.

In addition to the weekly scheduling that lasts 30 minutes, the authors also recommend spending a moment every morning to plan the day in more detail. Follow the steps below:

  1. Picture your day in advance Spend a few moments at the start of the day reviewing your schedule. This will motivate you and allow you to check that everything is in alignment with your inner compass.
  2. Review your priorities for the day and check that they belong in QUADRANT I or QUADRANT II. This new opportunity to assess your schedule will allow you to ensure that no activity from QUADRANT III has slipped into your priorities. With this additional check, you should feel more confident that you are in the kairos (quality time, i.e., the compass) and not in the kronos, sequential clock time. This will help to strengthen the concept of importance as opposed to the concept of emergency. You can also make a hierarchy among your daily priorities. For example, you can categorise ABC by order of importance or use incremental numbering 1, 2, 3… During this exercise, stay in touch with your inner compass to act coherently.

Sixth step: The assessment

If you want to improve a little each day, you must assess your progress and your mistakes. Before setting out your weekly schedule, take a little time to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What goals did I achieve?
  • What challenges did I face?
  • Do I put first things first when I made my decisions?
  • What decisions did I make?

Now imagine devoting yourself to this weekly process for the next 52 weeks. Imagine that you only reach half of the objectives in QUADRANT II that you are going to set yourself following this method. Would it represent more time devoted to the activities in QUADRANT II than you ever spent? A little more or a lot more? If you were able to focus a lot of additional time on activities in QUADRANT II, how would it change the quality of your professional and personal life?

The organisational process of QUADRANT II strengthens the concept of importance. It helps you make the best of what you want to accomplish. This is not a new management tool; it is a working method to change your way of thinking. By applying this process, you will see time differently, and you can give yourself the power to work on the priorities in your life – what is important but not urgent.

First things first life

Section Three: The synergy of interdependence

In the third part of “First things first”, the authors describe the strategy of interdependence and how to create powerful synergy based on a shared vision with the people around you.

Think about:

  • How much time you waste on futile crises from QUADRANT I. This can be due to problems with communication, understanding or non-specific roles and objectives.
  • How much time do you spend in QUADRANT III, solving problems that do not concern you?

Go back to your four needs:

To live, you need to be in good health and have a certain amount of economic security. Where would you be today without doctors, without hospitals or without social security? You get a salary because, in one way or another, what you do has an impact on other people. You spend the money from your salary on things that represent the work of other people.

To love is, by nature, an interaction. “If it does not involve giving, love is not love.” This translates to relationships between individuals. It is based on one of the main themes that comes up in all wise texts: reciprocity.

To learn is to make progress and extend your knowledge. How many times have you learned things by reading books written by others, by attending conferences given by others, or by following courses taught by teachers? How much progress did you make by attending meetings? And, how many of your personal ideas come from the ideas of the people around you?

To leave a legacy is also, by nature, an interaction. It is the contribution that you make to society. It is a way to contribute to the well-being of others. The world in which you live is the legacy of those who went before you. The choices you make create the legacy that you will leave.

Becoming conscience of your interactions with others will offer you the basis to associate and create with greater efficiency.

“Synergy begins when you take differences into account”

“Every time that you think that the problem does not concern you, this very idea becomes the problem”

So, think “win-win” in your relationships!

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

In section four of “First things first”, the authors help readers to understand the benefits of leading an enlightened life. You will become aware of the inner peace that offers.

“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”

Not unlike a cookbook recipe, the authors of “First things first” offer a complete methodology to change the way we look at how we use our time. They list all the ingredients and all the methods you need to stop chasing after time.

What I love about this book is that it is full of questionnaires and concrete exercises. The authors are careful to describe in detail the basic principles that they want to pass on. Also, as I am very visual, I really appreciate all the metaphors that they use to help visualise the concepts.

A small weak point about this book is when it comes to practical application. The order and the way in which the methodology is described is perfect for the initiation phase. There is a kind of progressive zoom into the methodology starting with very general concepts and questions that are honed as you read the book. Once the initiation phase is behind you, if you want to implement the methodology on a daily basis, there are some diary models that you can use. But if you really want to do it right, you almost have to read the entire book again to extract the practical, systematic and easily applicable method distilled throughout the book.

I decided to adopt the thought process described in “First things first”. To put it into practice on a daily basis, I created a practical handbook with my diary and the daily, weekly and more long-term assessment questionnaires so that I don’t forget anything.

Strong points of First Things First:

  • A pragmatic approach
  • A clear, efficient and easy-to-implement way of thinking
  • A gold mine to help find the direction that you want to give your life
  • A 6-step method that only takes 30 minutes per week as described by the authors. It has an incredibly powerful impact on improving quality of life and time management
  • Use it abundantly in conjunction with “Miracle Morning” and “The 4-Hour Workweek” to get the most benefit

Weak points of First Things First:

  • The first section explains the principles well and the second section explains the methodology well. However, the third and fourth sections seem a little redundant and too detailed for my taste: they could be better summarised
  • For practical implementation and regular assessments of your way of acting, you have to either read the whole book again (because the whole process is distilled as you move through the book), or create a guide to application like the one that goes with “Miracle Morning”. An application guidebook facilitates implementing the way of thinking in “First things first” on a daily basis.

My rating : First things first, life First things first, life First things first, lifeFirst things first, lifeFirst things first, lifeFirst things first, lifeFirst things first, lifeFirst things first, lifeFirst things first, life

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