Learning and Teaching the 7 Habits: Habit 3 – Put First Things First (Part 2/2)

Happy New Year!

It was poor proactivity and putting first things first to not get this published for you all earlier. But here it is!

To review from the last post, Habit 3 “Put First Things First” is the practical fruit of the first two habits of Proactivity and Beginning With the End in Mind. The first habit has us focus on our ability to make decisions. The second habit has us envisioning the future we desire, and figuring out what is important to us deep down. The third habit is the daily execution, the work, to live the ideals that we set for ourselves. This means discipline. But, discipline is much easier to cultivate if you have an exciting personal mission. A good mission makes it a joy to put in work, rather than slack off, because you know what you’re putting in the time, effort, and sacrifice for. Without a strong mission, it’s almost impossible to summon the willpower needed to exercise consistently, build skills, study, network, and eat right.

The Four Quadrants

Covey talks about how all activities we perform any day can be put into one of four categories, as illustrated on this grid:


A task or activity can be Important or Not Important, and, it can be Urgent or Not Urgent. It’s possible for something to be Urgent but Not Important, or Important, but not Urgent.

Quadrant 1 is the things that are Urgent and Important. These are crises and pressing deadlines. If you’re house is burning down, that’s an urgent and important thing to deal with. If you have a final paper due tomorrow for a college course which will impact your career, that’s important and urgent. You have to deal with these things immediately or suffer bad consequences, but, there are ways to limit their occurrence or reoccurrence, which I’ll explain in a moment.

Quadrant 3 (I’ll get to 2) activities are Urgent, but Not Important. That means many emails, many phone calls, and peer-pressured “hey let’s go party!’ type invitations. Some phone calls and emails are important of course, but we’re talking about the unimportant ones here. You want to avoid these sorts of interruptions, mainly by controlling the flow of information to yourself: when you’re focused on important tasks, silence the phone, turn off computer notifications, slap the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door, and put your headphones in – don’t mistake perceived urgency on someone else’s part for importance on your part.

Quadrant 4 is all the fun, frivolous stuff – video games, overly long social phone calls, busy work, personal social media, mindless T.V./YouTube watching. These things can be fun and are fine in moderation, but it’s critical to strictly limit the amount of time you spend on them. Spending too much of the day in Quadrant 4 leads to dulled skills, low ambition, and little results.

Quadrant 2, is where it’s at- Important, but Not Urgent. These are the helpful, meaningful, healthy tasks that improve your personal and professional life: exercise, relationship-building, planning, study, deep work spent on programming or writing or building. It can also be important but easy to procrastinate tasks like writing your will, setting up a retirement contribution plan, or cleaning your room. The more time you spend in Quadrant 2, the more in control of your life you’ll feel, the better results you’ll get in terms of output and money, the stronger your Production Capacity (remember “PC,” with the golden goose fable/) will be, and the fewer Quadrant 1 crises you’ll have. Prevention beats a cure when it comes to staying in shape, saving money, and keeping up with an ever-changing economy!

How to Plan

Covey talks about four generations of time management tools, and explains how they have improved with each generation.

  1. Generation 1 is just a sticky note/to do list form of management. It doesn’t prioritize tasks by importance, and doesn’t relate tasks to our values and purposes in life- it lacks leadership. It tends to over-prioritize urgent, but not important (Quadrant 3) tasks by default, as they slip into our awareness the most as we’re making these lists. Gen 1 management is better than no time management at all, but there are better methods!
  2. Generation 2 moves from simple lists and upgrades to calendars and appointment books. This means that its practitioners look ahead, more precisely arrange activities in advance, and spend a bit more time in Quadrant 2. Still, there’s little prioritization here, and little account for the big picture.
  3. Generation 3 is close to what Covey advocates. Generation 3 time management means using calendars, plus taking the time to plan in accordance with values, and prioritizing tasks in accordance with those values. Gen 3 planners set short, long, and intermediate-term goals for themselves. This is all efficient, and more effective than Gen 1 and 2. But, it suffers from the problems of clashing with human interaction for richer relationships, and spontaneous moments. People who are initially enthusiastic about Gen 3 time planning can grow sick of the regimentation, and end up “throwing the baby out with the bath water” and go back to Gen 2 or 1.
  4. Generation 4, which Covey advocates, is about personal rather than time management. It seeks to focus on relationships and results, rather than on things and time – that is to say, managing the P/PC Balance. (Production/Production Capacity.) That is to say, Generation 4 means using all the values and goals based planning of Generation 3, and combining it with a focus on Quadrant 2 activities in particular, on deepening relationships with the important people in our lives, and on getting to effective results rather than only focusing on the time spent on tasks. (If you finish something early, move on quickly to the next thing instead of doing busy work in that extra half hour on your schedule, for instance.)

Principles of Quadrant 2/Generation 4 Planning

The objective of Covey’s ideal way of planning is to manage our lives effectively, with a mission, based on principles, and addressing the urgent while being sure to spend time on the important. This will balance P/PC, and let us build valuable relationships with friends, family, lovers, and business associates. Covey says that a planning tool (that is to say, a physical or digital calendar/notebook) needs to meet six criteria:

  1. Coherence: Includes space for mission, values, and goals.
  2. Balance: Identifies all the current roles in your life, not just one or two.
  3. Quadrant 2 Focus: Encourages you to think weekly, rather than just daily, and include time for valuable but not urgent activities.
  4. A People Dimension: This connects to flexibility, in letting you schedule a life that allows for spontaneity and naturalness in dealing with people, without sacrificing focus on important tasks.
  5. Flexibility: Make the tool your own. Change what doesn’t work in it.
  6. Portability: You should be able to carry it anywhere.

I got a nifty officially licenses Franklin-Covey faux-leather bound plannner in December of 2016, and have sworn by it ever since. They sell those at Staples and the Franklin-Covey website. they’re a bit pricey, (mine was like $45 I think for a 5.5″ x 8.5″ weekly planner notebook in the faux-leather, magnetic-latching case with a business card holder,) but worth it, I think. The weekly planning pages are well-organized for planning in accordance with your own application of Covey’s ideas.

Organizing a Week

Plan a year once a year. Plan a month once a month. Plan a week once a week. Plan a day once a day. Out of those, the week is the most important place to focus, as its a unit of time in which you can accomplish a lot, and build habits, yet isn’t so long that it becomes unrealistic to plan completely in detail. It’s just a reasonable chunk of time, and for many people, it gets bookended by some sort of weekend.

To organize a week, first, Covey recommends identifying the key roles in your life. For me, that means Cadet, Business Student, Writer, Brother, Son, Friend, and Man. Depending on your profession, it might be logical to divide that profession into multiple roles, each focusing on a different facet of the work.

Then, for each role, identify one to three important results you’d like to accomplish in that goal during the next week. (Covey recommends doing this planning every Sunday.) Next, consult with the appointments you already have scheduled that week from earlier in the month/year. Many of those things, like an important client meeting or a time-sensitive doctor’s appointment, will be inflexible. Others may be necessary, or fun, but lower priority than the goals you identified, and conflict with them in timing: in that case, you can reschedule with a clean conscience, to focus on what’s most important.

Find time on the week’s schedule for the tasks necessary to accomplish each of your goals. You’ll often have to estimate exactly how long each task will take, and that’s OK – learn from the experience for similar tasks in the future.

Remember in your Mission Statement how you found the long-term roles and goals for yourself? Have those in front of you as you do all this, to be sure that every week, you’re acting in accordance with those roles and goals.

Each evening, revise the next day’s plan as necessary to address any emergencies or new opportunities. And, day to day, because you have an identified set of principles, personal values, and a mission, you can take longer on a task, or respond to events, in a way consistent with those non-negotiables- and not feel bad about it. For instance, if a friend calls you crying about how they lost their job, are deeply depressed, and in an emotional crisis, you can consult principles to find that it’s worth skipping the gym that evening to go have a beer and talk with him. Bam. Taking care of people.

Stewardship Delegation

Finally, Covey hints at the advances of the next three habits by talking about the value of delegating.

While a single producer can be independent and highly effective in what he personally does, he can also increase his effectiveness by ten, one hundred, or one thousand times by connecting with others. A skillful manager knows how to use the talents of his subordinates most effectively, versus, trying to do everything himself, or wasting time and stifling creative problem solving through micromanagement.

The key of good management, for leveraging your own effectiveness to the max when connecting with others, is Stewardship Delegation. This reminds me of the concept of Mission Leadership in the modern military, in which officers are given a situation and mission, a list of parameters, and given generally wide latitude on how to accomplish the assigned mission. Stewardship Delegation similarly focuses on the results instead of the methods. To do it, you tell your subordinate the desired results, the guidelines, the resources available, the methods of measuring success, and the consequences for success or failure. Then let them go do it. This saves you time on walking the subordinate through every single step, it helps them develop their own abilities and confidence, and it opens the possibility for them, in the thick of things, to find novel solutions that you wouldn’t think of yourself.

“First things first” applies to your entire team, not only your personal actions.


  1. I need a new planner, as I filled out all the pages in my 2017 one. I’m going to get to Staples tomorrow and buy a new one, and begin using it. Seriously, the Franklin-Covey planners are great: classy, clean, and in accordance with the 7 Habits.
  2. Covey suggests thinking of a Quadrant 2 activity that you’ve neglected, but that could have a huge impact in your personal or professional life. For me, this is networking and public speaking, which are closely related. I’m committing now to attending my college’s Toastmasters meetings from 7:00-8:15 on Thursday evenings: I have no class at that time, and it’s going to help me develop the essential skill of public speaking! I’ve put that off for way too long. It will boost my abilities for marketing, and as a future Officer, including during the semester, and at Advanced Camp this summer.
  3. For the past three days, I wrote down in roughly 15 minute chunks how I spent my time: the results were bad. Lots of procrastination, lots of Quadrant 4 times on video games and YouTube. I’m going to keep tracking that, and spend as much time in Quadrant 2 as possible: and be proud of that time and the results it produces.
  4. Covey recommends making a list of responsibilities I can delegate. I can’t do that right now. But, during my Cadet leadership positions, I can delegate attendance-checking and some planning activities to subordinates.
  5. I already have the rest of this week planned. On Sunday, after my Army Reserve drill, I’m going to do a proper planning session with my new planner and post pictures here.
  6. I’ll keep planning every Sunday like that!


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