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What Covey Never Told Us About “First Things First”

List the important (i.e., rewarding) tasks at the top and the most urgent at the right of your prioritization graph. (Note that Covey puts the most important at the left. It’s reversed here).

Fans of Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People know that Habit #3 is “Put First Things First.”

While it seems like we could establish Habit #3 by making a to-do list ordering our chores and activities, Covey’s big contribution is to discard this traditional, one dimensional approach to prioritization in favor of a two dimensional system that differentiates between IMPORTANT and URGENT.

What Covey doesn’t tell us is how to decide what’s important!

Covey’s system requires re-interpretation and additional explanation to be put into practice.

Prioritize your activities in two dimensions: important and urgent. Do the tasks that appear in the upper ight first, and work your way down and to the left.

Implement the IMPORTANT vs URGENT system by completing these steps:

  • First, reverse Covey’s URGENT axis. The way I learned algebra, the (0,0) origin is always in the lower left corner and the x-axis (horizontal, or abscissa) is always increasing to the right. Covey chooses the opposite, but for me it’s more intuitive to think of the right edge of the graph as more urgent than the left.
  • Second, give each axis units of measure. For the URGENT axis, use units of time, in minutes, hours, days, weeks, or months. The most urgent items are those that, if neglected, will result in consequences right away, and the least urgent are those that will not result in consequences for several months. The IMPORTANT axis is a lot harder, because it is difficult to measure. At the top, list those activities for which you will be rewarded. In the middle list those things that you do to avoid being punished. At the bottom, list those activities about which you are apathetic (meaning, you don’t care).
  • Third, make a list of all the activities worth scheduling. Put each activity on its own little 2"x2" post-it note, so you can stick them to a separate sheet of paper with the axes drawn on it.
  • Fourth, once you have the post-it notes in the positions that indicate their relative importance and urgency, rewrite each activity on the underlying sheet of paper and remove the post-it notes. Draw a circle around each task that corresponds roughly to the amount of time you estimate will be necessary to complete the task.
  • Wherever some tasks are pre-requisites for others, draw an arrow from the task circles that must be completed first to those that follow.
  • Finally, complete those tasks in the upper right corner first, and work your way towards the origin (down and to the left), crossing off tasks as you complete them.

The most difficult quadrant in which to work is at the upper left, where the important, but not urgent activities are found. These are things like practicing new skills, exercising, and investing in relationships, that Nicolas Cole says he does in his “free time”.

Because these activities are not urgent, they’re difficult for people to prioritize. Without the fear of imminent rewards or negative consequences, few people have the willpower to allocate energy to these activities.

That’s why Covey’s book describes habits — because it is the habits we form that will accomplish the important tasks. To work in the upper left quadrant, we must make habits out of practicing, writing, flossing, exercising, or making deposits in the emotional bank accounts of the ones we love.

One of the things that the IMPORTANT vs URGENT approach will help you do is manage your anxieties and negative emotions. Most of what happens in the not important and not urgent quadrant is sucking up energy that could be available for more productive work, if only you were free of the anxieties, gossip, fear of criticism, and pessimism. Using the IMPORTANT vs URGENT method will remind you of those things at the top of your chart, where your dreams reside, and help prevent you from being distracted by those things at the bottom, for which their are no rewards.