Explained: First Things Come First

This is the third piece of content in our thread recontextualising Stephen R. Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” into 21st century businesses and high-functioning organisations. You can read the first and second pieces here, as well as a heap more content on organisational tips and tricks, news and advise here on our blog.

In today’s piece, we’re going to be talking about Covey’s third habit of highly effective people: the ability to put first things first. In previous posts, I’ve done most of the talking, but for this part of the process, I’m going to let Covey himself do most of the talking, as this is an important chapter of the book to get straight from the horse’s mouth.

“To paraphrase Peter Drucker, effective people are not problem-minded; they’re opportunity-minded.”

As Covey explains in the book, this step comes third, rather than first due to the fact that “you can’t become principle-centred without first being aware of and developing your own proactive nature.” The third habit centres on “the fulfilment, the actualization, the natural emergence of habits 1 & 2”; being proactive and starting with the end in mind, which in turn should be helpful when it comes to the task of prioritisation and distinguishing the difference between urgent and important matters. “

“If you are an effective manager of yourself, your discipline comes from within; it is a function of your independent will.”

In order to practice this, Covey asks two questions:

-What is one thing you could do - that you aren’t doing now - that if you did on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your personal life?

-What one thing in your business or professional life would bring similar results?

The Time Management Matrix

In the book, Covey turns this concept into a ‘time management’ matrix, which touches on both time management, but more specifically, asks you to practice the concept of prioritisation in your organisation. The matrix is broken up two main categories: important and not-important criteria, which both have an urgent and non-urgent section.

Important and urgent issues like crises, pressing problems and deadline-driven projects come first, according to this time management matrix.

Important, but non-urgent issues like planning, relationship building, customer attention and prevention methods come in as a secondary priority in this model.

Then, we have not important but urgent issues like meetings, calls, reports and emails that need writing.

And finally, not important and non-urgent issues like certain calls and emails, time-wasting tasks with little in the way of a return on the time invested and bureaucracy coming in last place in the time management matrix.

“Urgent matters are usually visible,” Covey says. “They press on us; they insist on action. They’re often popular with others. They’re usually right in front of us. And often they are pleasant, easy, fun to do. But often they are unimportant!”

“Importance, on the other hand, has to do with results. If something is important, it contributes to your mission, your values, your high priority goals. We react to urgent matters. Important matters that are not urgent require more initiative, more proactivity,” he explains.

“We must act to seize opportunity, to make things happen. If we don’t practice Habit 2 , if we don’t have a clear idea of what is important, of the results we desire… we are easily diverted into responding to the urgent,” rather than the important.

You can see from this explanation that it’s essential to distinguish between the two, as they can often become conflated with the other, and begin to eat up an organisation’s time and resources. While something may well be urgent, if it’s not important, you should begin to recognise this and delegate an appropriate response and prioritise the issues that remain important and urgent; even important and non-urgent. This does require the ability for people in the organisation to say ‘no’ to certain things. Delegation, be it from above or below, must ensure that an idea or project can be rejected if it’s not falling into line in the prioritisation food chain.

Covey argues that the end result of this process - in its optimum form - is an increase in the vision and perspective the organisation now has, as well as the balance, discipline and control of staff members, which in theory eventuate in fewer crises inside the organisation.

Closing up the chapter, he offers up a number tips to start putting this into practice:

-Identify something you know has been neglected in your life - one that, if done well, would have a significant impact. Write it down, commit to it, implement it.

-Draw up a time management matrix and try to estimate what percentage of your time you spend in each quadrant. Then, log your time for three days in fifteen-minute intervals.

-Make a list of your responsibilities you could delegate and the people you could delegate or train to be responsible in these areas.

- Organise your next week; start by writing roles and goals for the week.

-Commit yourself to start organising on a weekly basis and set up a regular time to do it.

As always, thanks for your time.

-Kobi Simmat

References: “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” Stephen R. Covey, 1989, Simon & Schuster, New York

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