Covey’s Third Habit: Put First Things First

In my last post about Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, I discussed his concept of things being created twice – once as an idea, the mental creation. The second creation is the physical creation of that idea, which forms Covey’s Third Habit.

The third habit is that of “putting first things first,” or practising effective personal management in order to achieve our goals. It is the left-brain aspect of self-management; how we break down, analyse, sequence, and apply projects, problems and challenges.

Covey explains that is the human quality of independent will “that really makes effective self-management possible.” He argues that it is our capacity to “make decisions and choices and act in accordance with them,” as well as “the ability to act rather than be acted upon.”

So when we are approaching a project or problem our ability to self-manage, or prioritise, in accordance with our goals and values, has an enormous impact on the outcome, or second creation of the vision.

There are a number of “generations” of time management that Covey discusses, each with their own limitations. The first generation involves notes and checklists, followed by the second generation characterised by calendars, diaries and appointment books. The third generation seems to be a complex combination of the first two – combining the important ideas related to prioritisation and the “relative worth of activities based on their relationship to [our] values.” It also includes daily and long-term planning to accomplish the goals and activities of greatest worth.

Whilst this third generation has great worth, it has a tendency to take out the human/relational element of our daily interactions, making the scheduling and control of time counterproductive. So how do we move to the fourth generation of self-management that combines enhanced human relationships with the accomplishment of results?

Covey suggests a time management matrix that captures how this might be achieved.The matrix consists of four quadrants:

Quadrant I – activities that are urgent and important

Quadrant II – activities that are not urgent but important.

Quadrant III – activities that are urgent but not important

Quadrant IV – activities that are not urgent and not important


Ideally, we want to be focusing mainly on activities that fall within Quadrant II. This will act to prevent problems that result in us having to focus on the crisis-management of Quadrant I. When we find ourselves focusing on Quadrants III and IV, this is when Covey suggests we are at our least effective – when we feel like we are doing a lot but not progressing or achieving our goals. Working within Quadrant II will allow us to effectively achieve results in relation to our vision and values in a time-efficient manner, whilst building positive working relationships with people.

As educators, who are often have a lot to do and minimal time in which to do it, this could provide a useful framework for helping to prioritise our own work and projects. On personal reflection, I can think of several times when I have felt “time-poor” and frustrated with a growing list of things to do. Whilst this growing list is inevitable in teaching, perhaps I wasn’t achieving as much as I would have liked because I was working within the bottom two quadrants. Yet there have also been times when I have had a lot to do, but have felt good “flow”, perhaps because during these times I was working more within Quadrant II. So, as the new school year commences in a couple of weeks, one of the aims I am setting myself is to be conscious of when I am working within each quadrant, and then adjusting my priorities to bring my activities into Quadrant II.


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