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First Things First

By Stephen Covey





Author Stephen Covey believes that the key to finding inner peace is found in putting “first things first.” He and co-authors  A. Roger Merrill and Rebecca R. Merrill present a time management approach that further develops the ideas put forward in his 1989 book, ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Using a “clock” and “compass” analogy, the main message conveyed is that being guided by the clock alone leads to decisions being made according to perceived urgency, whereas being guided by the compass of values and purpose leads to decisions being based on importance. The approach set out by the authors aims to address the tendency most of us have to focus on the wrong things in life, experiencing stress and disharmony as a consequence. By identifying our priorities, and switching our focus from urgency to importance, we can increase our quality of life, create balance in all we do, and achieve a sense of inner peace and happiness.



My Top 3 Takes from the Summary

  • By identifying your priorities, and replacing urgency with importance, you can create a better balance in your daily tasks and increase your quality of life.

  • When you put your first things first, you put the things that will bring inner peace and happiness ahead of the urgent and ultimately less important things.

  • Picturing yourself at your 80th birthday can help you to identify the goals and achievements that really matter to you in life – your “true north” on and compass – and give you a purpose to begin working towards, beginning now!  



First Things First


When you put “first things first” in life, you’re putting the things that matter most; the big things that are of greatest overall importance in your life ahead of the things that are urgent – and often smaller. The authors propose that moving beyond urgency and focusing on the basic needs of “to live, to love, to learn, and to leave a legacy” puts you in a position to find “true north” – a reference point for deciding which things are of most importance to you in life. Using the clock and compass analogy, putting first things first means you’re not making decisions based purely on urgency and the ticking of a clock in your busy schedule, but on the value and purpose of everything you do in terms of the direction, you want your life to take you in.


All too often, we fill our time with things that we deem to be urgent, but they’re not important. The authors illustrate this point with a metaphor:


Placing the Big Rocks First


In class, a professor once filled an empty jar with rocks and asked the students if they thought it was full. They replied that it was. The professor then poured in gravel, which began to fill in the gaps between the rocks, and then sand, and then water, completely filling even the tiniest of gaps that were left in the jar. What we can learn from this is that the jar represents the time you have in your life and the way you fill it. The rocks represent the important things to spend time on, and the gravel, sand, and water represent time spent on everything else. If the sand and gravel of unimportant daily chores were to go into the jar first, there would be no room left for the big rocks, but if you put the important things in first, everything else will fall into place around them.

Another way the authors convey this message is by asking the reader to imagine themselves at their 80th birthday. Asking yourself who you see there, what you see around you, and who you are in terms of achievements in life can be an effective way to identify the future goals that are most important to you. The goals you identify as important things you want to have achieved by the time you’re 80 should then be your “first things” to focus on, and working towards them begins now.


What’s Important?


Stephen Covey poses a question to help the reader think about making the best use of time. He asks us to imagine a fairy offering us the ability to do everything 20 per cent faster, and then to consider if we’d accept the offer. He believes that most of us would, but he doesn’t believe that having this ability would really solve any of our problems. We might think that we’d be able to do more, but he points out that thinking this way doesn’t equate to the best use of our time because the focus is on the “clock of our lives,” therefore itineraries, objectives, and commitments, rather than the “compass of our lives,” meaning values, principles, and conscience.

Living a meaningful life isn’t about crossing things off a to-do list, it’s about identifying the things that have a positive and long-lasting impact on your happiness. For most of us, these things are connected to relationships with friends and family, and the example of no one ever looking back on their life and wishing they had spent more time at the office is used as a great example of this. Another scenario that helps to illustrate the point being made is to imagine wanting to start a family, but choosing to focus on your career first.


You work your way up in your workplace and achieve a high-flying position with a top salary – only to then discover you’ve left it too late to have children. In this scenario, your career wasn’t your true “first thing,” it was actually having a family. If you're not aware of your first things, the decisions you make may end up making you unhappy in the long run. It’s not about doing more, it’s about prioritising the things that matter, so the fairy’s offer may not be one you should rush to accept after all.

Most of us organise our days around the things we believe to be urgent and therefore important, but the problem with this is that urgent and important are not necessarily one and the same. If we have a choice to make between doing something urgent or something important, most of us will choose the urgent task, and the authors suggest a few reasons for this. In Western culture, urgency is effectively a status symbol; if you’re rushing around and stressed out with work, you must be important. Also, taking on urgent responsibilities and getting them sorted out can provide an adrenaline rush that makes us feel alive.


However, if our focus is on urgency, we have less time for what’s really important. Time with family versus time at work is used as an example. If you have organised a family evening because you feel you haven’t spent much time together lately, but your boss then calls to ask you to attend a business dinner on the same day, what would you do? The authors believe most people in this position would choose to postpone the family evening, and this is because the business dinner would be deemed most urgent. The question that needs to be considered is what will bring you the most happiness in the long run; what’s truly most important?


Principles and Perspectives


A meaningful goal is one that’s consistent with your principles, and to achieve it you need to establish a what, why, and how. ‘What’ is the right thing, ‘why’ is the right reason, and ‘how’ is the right way. In other words, what do you want to achieve, why do you want to achieve it, and which way represents the right way to achieve it? As an example, if your goal is to maintain a healthy body, your why might be to limit the potential for avoidable illnesses, and your how could be to make healthier lifestyle choices relating to diet and exercise. A goal must also be driven by importance, not urgency. Reaching the point of being able to maintain a healthy body may be a lengthy process if you’re currently overweight and out of condition, but it’s a goal you remain motivated to achieve because you recognise its importance and the positive effect it will have on your long-term happiness.


Strong principles can be thought of as a guide in life, helping you to make decisions about how you spend your time. Most people view their lives as a bunch of separate compartments – work, family, leisure time – and their role in each compartment as a separate entity, but this view can be limiting. In the same way, a photographer uses different lenses to get just the right perspective to capture an image perfectly, the right perspective is needed when you’re making important decisions or plans.


Most of us use a “close-up view” when we’re deciding what to have for dinner or other such immediate needs, and then a “wide-angled view” when we’re making a plan that stretches into the future. The authors suggest that combining these perspectives provides a better way forward, and one way to do this is to plan in weekly terms. By creating a weekly calendar, you can allocate time to things that matter. Specific hours don’t need to be allocated, it’s simply a way of ensuring that everything of importance is given proper attention across the week.


Combining your weekly tasks whenever possible is another way to create a combined close-up and wide-angled perspective. As an example, imagine that you need to cook dinner tonight, meet your new neighbours tomorrow, and then prepare an untried recipe for an upcoming event – a combination of tasks that are causing you stress. With a combined perspective, you could try cooking the new recipe for dinner tonight, make extra for meeting with your new neighbours tomorrow, and then the stress of the recipe being untried before the event is also removed. In other words, try thinking of your life and the roles you play as a whole, not separate compartments.


By adding perspective to principles, you’re in a position to make decisions with integrity across every aspect of your life, and with integrity being an essential element of making good choices, you’re better placed to make good choices that create balance, bringing peace and happiness into your life.      





The message the authors convey is that many of us find ourselves thinking there just aren’t enough hours in the day, but the real problem is that we’re often spending too much time doing things that aren’t important. Being busy doesn’t always equate to being efficient or effective with your time, and the important lesson learned in this book is that focusing on priorities – or “first things” – is the key to using the time you have effectively, increasing the quality of your life, and finding a sense of inner peace.   





A great quote by Stephen Covey helps to illustrate the powerful message contained in the pages of this book: “Where you’re headed is more important than how fast you’re going.” Most of us slip into living our lives by the clock, rushing from one urgent thing to the next, or one appointment or deadline to the next, without taking any time to do what really matters – or even consider what the things that really matter are! Learning how to swap the clock of life for the compass of life allows you to find your true north, and knowing that where you’re heading is where you want to go is much more important than how fast you’re moving.  



Bio of the Authors


Stephen Covey was an American author, educator, businessman, and keynote speaker, and at the time of his death in 2012, he was a professor at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University. In 1996, he was named one of the top 25 most influential people by Times magazine, and his books have sold millions of copies worldwide.


Roger Merrill is one of the founding members of the Covey Leadership Center (now the Franklin Covey Company), which specialises in leadership development. He writes, consults, and teaches leadership development. His wife, Rebecca Merrill, has served in numerous leadership positions in the community, education, and women’s organisations.

First Things First by Stephen Covey, 1993, ISBN 10: 0671712837 is available to buy at Amazon.


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