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First Things First Stephen Covey

First Things  First

8th September 2017

   Our lives are very hectic today, and we always seem to be running from one goalpost to another. We are running after money, family goals, relationship goals, that new house we always wanted and everything else under the bright blue sky. We do too many things and forget to do many others. Our lives have become too large to handle. And wading through these deep waters we are constantly spending something very important; time!


   Of all the resources we have, time is the most precious one. Every single moment we lose is never coming back! And only a few lucky ones amongst us realise this secret early in life. Most of us come to terms with it only after the thirties when we have long jobs and kids to look after. And then we start to ponder about the time that has gone past, the time we have already spent. If you lose money you can get it back, if you lose your job you can get a new one, if you lose your house in an earthquake you can even build your house back brick by brick. But the time you lose is gone for ever. And therefore, it is imperative that each of us understands the perishability of this resource.


   And once we understand that, we can draw the clear conclusion that we must first do the things that matter most and keep other stuff for later. But we must do chores to survive, we must file tax returns and do book-keeping. We lose a lot time doing mundane tasks. And then there isn’t enough left to attend a friend’s birthday or to go out for that dinner with the family. I too struggled with time management. But early in my career I read a book called “First Things First” by Stephen Covey. And it brought about a sea change in the way I managed my time and priorities. And I think that it is of crucial importance that people understand this secret to manage time effectively.

Most of us plan our tasks day by day. We make a ‘to-do’ list and put in all the tasks that need to be done that day.  It looks somethings like this:

  1. Fill up the car

  2. Buy groceries

  3. Call Karen and wish her Happy Birthday

  4. Pay bills for utilities

  5. Pick-up laundry

  6. Fix leaking tap


   We try to work through this list and at the end of the day we strike out the things we accomplished, copying over the remaining items over to the next day. Although this approach seems to work at a rudimentary level, most tasks tend to pile up towards the end of the week and we get stressed during the weekend trying to finish everything, when we should be relaxing instead. And the reason for this anomaly is that we haven’t done one of the most important things necessary; Accurate Estimation of Available Resources. So, the first thing we must do is move away from this day to day cycle. Let’s look at the things to be done more broadly and let’s plan our schedule for the week. The second thing we must do is categorise tasks according to roles.

   We all play different roles in our lives. We play a son or a daughter to our parents, we play the role of a parent to our children and we play the role of a partner to our spouse. We play the role of a sibling, of a friend, of an employee, of a boss, and of a member the society we live in. So we must define our responsibilities for each of these roles during the week. For example,

  1. Watch movie with children

  2. Buy apron for mom

  3. Spend time with wife

  4. Mentor 2 employees after work

  5. Buy book for brother

  6. Wish Karen Happy Birthday

  7. Skype with Josh


Now add to this all the administrative tasks you need to do.


  1. Buy groceries

  2. Fill up the car

  3. Fix leaking tap

  4. Pick up laundry

  5. Pay bill for utilities

  6. File paperwork for taxes


Don’t forget to add ‘me-time’ or responsibilities towards yourself.


  1. Go running 5 km once a week

  2. Play video games

  3. Go to a music concert

Once you list these tasks out, your job is halfway done. Now make a quadrant with these four headings; Important, Unimportant, Urgent, Not Urgent. Thus, you will get four categories:


  • Important & Urgent

  • Unimportant but Urgent

  • Important but Not Urgent

  • Unimportant and Not Urgent


This is known as the Eisenhower Decision Matrix. The "Eisenhower Method" stems from a quote attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower; "I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent."


   Now assign all the tasks you listed to one of these four categories. The third and last thing you must do is make a seven-day calendar. Out of the twenty-four hours we have each day, subtract the hours needed for sleep, work, meals, commute and grooming. Thus, you will be left with around 2-3 hours on a work day and maybe 8-9 hours on the weekends. On the seven-day calendar, try to allocate tasks in the ‘Important and Urgent’ quadrant to these free hours on the calendar first. These could be things like spending time with kids, buying an apron for mom and wishing Karen Happy Birthday. Once those tasks have been allotted time, move on to the ‘Unimportant but Urgent’ quadrant. These could be things like filing for taxes and fixing your tap. After these are done, move on to the third and the fourth quadrant. The benefit of have role-assigned categories is that you can see if you are spending too much or too less time within a category. For example, if you are going out to dinner most nights with different sets of friends and aren’t spending enough time with family it can be easily observed and corrected during weekly planning before your kids complain. Another thing to bear in mind is that not all tasks are equal. Some require more time while some are done in a jiffy. So, think of the time you have as a big empty glass. First put all the big rocks in, like spending time with family, me-time, time for health and work. Next put in the small rocks like administrative tasks, friends, hobbies etc. If any time remains, you can use it to pursue tasks in the fourth quadrant. At the end of the week, add incomplete tasks to next week’s plan.


   The benefit of using this method is that you have a clear roadmap of your entire week. You know the links between any interconnected tasks and know the priorities at a glance. This will leave you less flustered and free of stress. Try practicing this for a month. It will almost take a month before you get a good hang of it. Now try to optimise your planning according to this method. You should ideally be living in the third quadrant; Important but not urgent! The more tasks you have in this area, the happier you will be.

   Another golden rule to remember is that urgent tasks have to be completed even though they might be unimportant. Like ‘filling up the car’. Therefore, when you plan your day, don’t create a tight schedule with back to back meetings or chores. You should always keep about forty percent of your time free so that you can take on any urgent tasks that come your way. All this is easier said than done, but taking one step at a time will surely set you on your way. You might to stick to the plan during the first few weeks but you will soon start appreciating the fragility of time once you start following your weekly schedule. The things you learn will get translated as improvements in you next weekly plan until you become a master of this technique. The tasks in the fourth quadrant; ‘Unimportant and not urgent’ should cease to appear on the list once you become adept at time management.


   If you want more insights into the topic of time management, do read Stephen Covey’s First Things First. If not, keep reading my blog.

Download the time management spreadsheet template for Microsoft Excel

Time Management Spreadsheet
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