Habit 3: Put first things first is Stephen Covey’s third habit in his book, the 7 habits of highly effective people. In this guide, we’ll discuss how to use it so you can build a life that matches your dreams.

Habit 3: Put First things first is the ability to create a balanced, happy and fulfilled life by giving you the blueprint to focus on doing the right things every day. Habit 3 shows you an effective time management system called the Covey Matrix, which consists of placing all your daily and weekly commitments into an urgent and important matrix, running from least urgent and important, to most urgent and important.  By doing this, you can then plan your day around actions that are important to you and achieving life goals first. 

Here’s a summary of the 7 habits journey up to this point: 

Progress So Far

In habit 1, you worked on how you see the world, generating a positive energy and mindset and taking control of your life

In habit 2, you created your personal mission statement, values and goals, so you could be clear as to what really matters to you now and in the future

In habit 3: Put first things first, you’re about to move in the direction you’ve planned and work on your goals each day. 

In order to achieve this, you need to be disciplined and make time for the important things- those actions and tasks that will ensure you’re going in the direction which support your goals and objectives. 

Putting first things first means that you plan what’s important first and that you never allow unimportant tasks to jump the queue in front of your important things.

The Importance of Putting First Things First

We’ve discussed this in the 7 habits summary and in previous guides like habit 1 and habit 2. If you don’t work on the important things – the things that will get you to your objectives, you’ll never accomplish what you want in life.

It’s easy to be at the beck and call of other people. The problem is, their important and urgent tasks are not always yours.

If you were to not follow a structured time management planner each day, you’ll find you’re more at the mercy of events outside of your control. This can often mean that other people and external events will quite literally take charge of your life for you. The more this happens, the less control you have.

Have you ever felt that you’ve been extremely busy today, but not really got much done? This is normally a symptom of what we’re discussing here.

Alternatively, if you can structure your day so that these tasks are nearly always done first and plan other things around them, then you’ll find that you work smarter and are more productive.

Here’s how you can systemise your daily planning system.

The Covey Matrix Time Management System

The Covey Matrix is a visual grid, split into 4 categories.

  • Important and urgent activities
  • Important but not urgent activities
  • Not important but urgent activities
  • Not important and not urgent activities

Quadrant 1: Important and Urgent

These are activities that will propel you to your goals which you created in habit 2. Urgent tasks need to be completed today or immediately, and can’t be put off.

Typical tasks are reserved for emergencies and urgent deadlines. They can be separated into 2 categories:

  • Those activities which were not planned and have to be acted on
  • Those activities that could be avoided if we planned them in better

Naturally, If you’re faced with a crisis, be sure to postpone other projects that are deadline driven and make time for these activities. 

Equally so, if you are reacting to last minute tasks that are important to you, take note and look for lessons learned, so you can plan them into quadrant 2  in the future.

Quadrant 2: Important but not Urgent

This is where you ideally need to spend most of your time and where you can proactively plan ahead. The tasks that currently sit here are things that you need to complete and which are critical to your goals, but can be planned in for a later time.

You need a non-urgent atmosphere in order for you to get more done, because it increases efficiency and allows you to work in a more comfortable setting where you control the pace of work. 

You can plan time to:

  • Exercise
  • Spend quality time with loved ones
  • Meet your friend for lunch
  • Learn that course you’ve been wanting to learn
  • Planning your goals
  • Planning your tasks and work to help achieve these goals

Quadrant 3: Not Important, but Urgent

As you live life, you’ll attract commitments or requests that are important and urgent to other people, but not to you. If you get stuck with too many tasks here, then you’ll find you’re doing a lot of activities, but don’t have much to show for it each day. 

These actions sap your vital time and mean you’re not really spending as much time as you should to spend on you and your goals.

Think of activities here as being obstacles that are in your way, which are preventing you from having a well balanced and fulfilling life.

By weeding them out and eliminating them, you are more able to focus on some of the important things in life and less on non valued added distractions.

Work of this type should be delegated or eliminated altogether if possible, as there is no real value gained from it. 

Does it mean that you should be rude and selfish and never help anyone?

Of course not. You can help people where they need it and when you can schedule it in around your important tasks, but try not to be overloaded with these types of requests. They are quite destructive to you getting a balanced life.

Managing this quadrant is essential. If another person is demanding a lot of your time, then my advice would be to politely explain that there are more pressing activities that need doing and decline their request, or delegate it to someone else.

Another element of losing time here, is constantly being bombarded with requests or demands from your employees. These can be small, subtle distractions, that when added together, cause a considerable loss in your time.

Studies show that constantly being interrupted can for the average worker, cause typically 2 hours a day of lost time. This lost time can be accrued from an average of 56 distractions a day. 

That’s a big impact from tasks that are merely distractions.

Typical interruptions can be:

  • Meetings
  • Small talk
  • Questions that people should know the answer to themselves
  • General interruptions (phone, email, knock on your door…)

Where you can, look at reducing these distractions as much as possible, by structuring your day and blocking available slots for ‘other activities’.

Quadrant 4: Not Important and Not Urgent 

These activities don’t add value to you or anyone else. They are normally seen in the things you do when you put important tasks off. Watching the TV, stuck in emails, sending Tweets and so on. 

As in the previous quadrant, if you are mostly stuck here, you’re not being proactive and productive.

They are distractions that don’t make you any better, or do anything other than serve to waste your time.

It’s not uncommon for people to waste much of their free time in quadrant 4. These activities typically consist of:

  • Checking emails
  • Watching social media
  • Playing video games
  • Surfing the internet
  • Watching excessive TV

This quadrant is a great tool to use to see how much of your present time falls within this category. 

People are often amazed at just how much of their valuable time is indeed lost, when they analyse their time.

The key here is to eliminate as much of your time here as possible. Sure, watching TV is ok, so too surfing the internet, but it’s not ok if it’s at the expense of other important tasks that contribute to your goals.

Tackle what you need to tackle first, and then look to rest afterwards. We too often do it the other way round.

How to Apply the Time Matrix

When using the Covey matrix, try to maximise most of your time in quadrant 2. This is the efficient zone of optimum time management. This is the main goal of habit 3: Put first things first.

By practicing and improving your skills at planning these tasks in, you’ll quickly find that quadrant 1 tasks will be cut down.

In other words, the feeling of fire-fighting and spending too much time in the ‘operational’ zone will be minimised.

Use the rest of the matrix’s quadrants to track how much time you are distracted and how many activities you put off to procrastinate, so you can objectively review and improve each day.

Plan your week ahead

Habit 3: Putting first things first begins with planning the week ahead. By checking your goals and listing the things that you need to do this week, you can start prioritising your tasks.

Here’s an example of a weekly and daily planning sheet:

You can download a copy of your weekly and daily planner, below:

Spend time each week to reflect on each of your roles and priorities, (spritual, family, career, etc) from your personal mission statement.

Now plan them into specific days in your planner:

Doing this makes it more likely to get them done in an efficient manner – this is what Covey calls ‘putting first things first’.

Then Plan Tomorrow’s Work

Once you have planned specific days where you’ll assign your actions that will help achieve your balanced goals, you now need to get a bit more granular – planning your tasks into actual time slots for the day ahead.

By time slots, I mean that you need to block off time in your calendar for certain tasks.

The first step in this process is deciding what should be done at the start of each day, before anything else: ‘What are my top priorities?’

Here’s an example of time blocking:

The first thing you do in the morning can set your mood for every other task. Take a few minutes to review what’s on today’s agenda and plan it out so that not too much time is spent later changing priorities or finishing tasks late into the evening.

The Little and Often Approach to Success

Habit 3: Put first things first consists of repeatedly following through on planning and executing tasks. This doens’t mean that you have to flog yourself each day. Merely plan your sessions. Spread them out and focus on repeating the habit to maximise results.

As most successful people will tell you, the secret to success is to consistently stick to your goals and complete your tasks every day. Think of it as a habitual process of continuously chipping away and making small gains.

This time management system is about increasing your efficiency by getting important work done first, whilst still allowing time in between to recharge/recoup.

More importantly, it gives you the ability to consistently focus on all the important areas of your life, one step at a time.

The areas to focus on, match those we discussed in habits 1 and 2:

  • Wealth
  • Health
  • Family
  • Friends and relationships
  • Career
  • Spiritual

Using your time management system correctly means that you get balance across all of these areas, because you plan time in for them.

If you don’t do this, you can often find that you’re doing well in one area, but drastically poor in another. 

A casing point is the career minded husband and father.

He’s spent too many years with all his focus on his work, leaving little to no time for his family and relationships. What tends to happen is divorce and separation, all at the expense of his career.

Tips to Being More Productive

Here are some tips to help be more productive with managing your own time.

Use Productive Time

This is time that’s spent on the two most important tasks of your day (quadrants 1 & 2).

These productive time slots can typically be in between meetings, after work hours or while waiting for a meeting to start (allowing you more productive use of time).

If these were put off until later, they may not get done.

Productive Space

This is any place where you can be productive.

It might not always be the office. 

It could also mean at home or in a coffee shop while waiting for your child to finish up with another activity. But time spent here should still count (as long as there’s no distractions).

You want this space and time set aside so that when opportunity presents itself, then productivity happens without having wasted too much of our precious and limited energy on finding an open spot elsewhere.

If we don’t plan ahead by saving these spaces during busy times, we wouldn’t use them to our advantage.

Some people have a hard time with this because they see the idea of “opportunity” as something that just happens spontaneously.

The reality is, opportunity does not happen without us making it so. And if you find yourself waiting for these opportunities to arise and then rushing into them at random – well chances are, your plans will more often than not be interrupted by other things going on in life or work.

We can ensure success even when our goals require lots of energy over long periods. We just need to plan opportunities into our days and weeks.

And the more we do this, the easier and systemised we make it.

Habit 3: Put First Things First Summary

After you are clear as to what you want out of life, it’s time to set the wheels in motion and get things done.

Habit 3: Put first things first is about having discipline to plan your week ahead and identify what needs completing, so you can work in a balanced way to achieving your goals set out in Habit 2.

This means that you must constantly evaluate where you’re losing your time to uneccesary tasks and challenging these activities: Either politely refusing more work or delegating those activities that are not important nor urgent to you.

Eliminate those tasks that you’re procrastinating on, like pointelessly surfing the internet, TV, emails, etc, and try to live most of your life in quadrant 2 – low urgency but high important tasks.

This allows you to be more proactive when managing your days.