Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.

first thingsSeveral weeks ago, I reviewed in detail Stephen Covey’s classic personal development book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I found it to be an interesting read and was quite open to reading more books from Covey, and the blurb on the back of this one attracted me.

It spelled out quite clearly that this is a book about the philosophy of setting priorities. It focuses on making the distinction between what’s “pressing” and what’s actually important, and looks at techniques for quickly and regularly identifying those which are important. In Covey’s view, we all strive to do the things that are important to us, but we’re often distracted by things that are “pressing” – things that have to be done right now that aren’t necessarily a part of the central values of our life.

How do we strike a balance between the urgent things and the important things. That’s what this book is all about.

Looking At First Things First

Right off the bat, you’ll notice that this book is dense. It’s roughly 350 pages long and each page has a lot of meat on it. I tried reading through it all at once and it simply didn’t work – I had to slow down and read it a bit at a time. The book is split into four sections, but these are more general divisions – the book actually flows well from start to finish.

Section One – The Clock And The Compass

Immediately, First Things First argues that even if you discover an incredibly powerful method of personal productivity that enables you to get stuff done at a much faster rate, it doesn’t always solve the problem of having lots of things to do. The real key is knowing how to seek out things that are really important to you and focusing on those, allowing the other things to simply fill in the remaining gaps in your life.

1. How Many People On Their Deathbed Wish They’d Spent More Time At The Office?
First Things First opens with a review of time management philosophies, pointing out the weaknesses in each one. Mostly, these weaknesses boil down to the fact that almost all time management philosophies are centered on the clock – focused on maximizing the use of the moment and making sure you make it to meetings on time – and fail to deliver on the compass, or the greater central values in one’s life.

This was actually explained using a rather brilliant analogy, that of the parent who discovers suddenly that his/her child is on drugs. Obviously, this isn’t a desired outcome for most parents, and a parent can quickly see that quality time spent with a child could have prevented this from happening, but their time management philosophy was too focused on filling the schedule and getting things done and failed to actually focus on what was important to the parent, spending time with the child.

I will say that at this point in the book, I looked at my own philosophy of managing time and noted that it worked because I devoted blocks to the things important to me, like spending time with my family and cooking a supper at home. There’s nothing in the world valuable enough to interfere with these times – if my job started to interfere regularly, my job would go and I would find something else to do.

2. The Urgency Addiction
I found this chapter to be extremely interesting. Covey argues that most people are in fact addicted to urgency and gives some self-evaluation questions to prove the point – I found that I was somewhat addicted, but I believe that at other points in my life I was very addicted to urgency.

From there, Covey lays out a time managment matrix, made up of four quadrants:
Quadrant IImportant and Urgent – crises, deadline-driven projects, and pressing problems
Quadrant IIImportant and Not Urgent – preparation, planning, and relationship building
Quadrant IIINot Important and Urgent – interruptions, most phone calls and mail and reports
Quadrant IVNot Important and Not Urgent – trivia, busywork, time wasters, and escape activities

If you sit and think about it for a bit, you’ll realize that most of what you spend time doing is in quadrants I and III, but most of the really valuable things in life are in quadrant II. I know that it’s often difficult to brush aside things in quadrant I and III (writing articles, specific work and household tasks) to do things in quadrant II (quality family time, serious planning).

3. To Live, To Love, To Learn, To Leave A Legacy
This chapter was extremely philosophical in nature. It primarily focuses on introspection and finding the basic guidelines with which we make choices in our lives. Covey breaks this introspective trek down into three main pieces:

The fulfillment of the four human needs and capacities Our basic human needs are physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual, and truly profound experiences come from the point where all of these meet. Those are moments that we should strive for above all, because they deeply fulfill us. When I actually try to visualize moments when these all meet, I imagine playing with my son in the yard.

The reality of “true north” principles These are the basic rules by which we govern our life, and we find ourselves feeling as though we’ve failed somehow when we violate them, even if on many levels we succeed. Covey uses the example of cramming for tests when in college; it might get us through and get us a degree, but we didn’t really learn much and we missed out on the opportunity to really expand our mind. Cramming in college is something I often regret – and I also regret how much time I wasted on stuff that really didn’t matter in the end.

The potentiality of the four human endowments Covey states that four things separate humans from other species: self-awareness, conscience, independent will, and creative imagination. Whenever we spend time working with these traits, we benefit ourselves. Covey recommends several specific activities that really bring out these traits and show how they can be used to help our own lives, and one of them (interestingly) is keeping a personal journal, something I do almost to excess, but that I find incredibly powerful from time to time.

Section Two – The Main Thing Is To Keep The Main Thing The Main Thing

This second section is really the meat of the book, as it focuses on how to organize your life in such a fashion that your choices truly reflect importance instead of urgency. I felt that there were a lot of little pieces from this section that could be applied to anyone’s life, no matter how they choose to organize their time.

4. Quadrant II Organizing: The Process Of Putting First Things First
First Things First recommends that instead of focusing on planning out individual days, you should look at a week at a time. From there, much of this chapter reads a lot like the third habit from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

The central idea is that before you plan out a week, you should identify what your roles are in life (for me, that would be parent, writer, worker, husband, and volunteer) and then identify a goal or two you really want to focus on this week for that role. For example, as a parent, I would want to take my son for a long walk in the park and read him five books. Then pencil in these central goals above everything else. Let the other tasks in your life fit around these central ones. Give this a shot – it’s really powerful.

5. The Passion Of Vision
This is all about the long term. Take the roles from the previous chapter and then imagine your eightieth birthday party. What would you like for people to say about how you acted within each of those roles? Be serious – what would make you feel like you really accomplished good things with your life? Those are the central goals of your life, and your choices should always move you towards these central goals.

By putting in those “quadrant ii” tasks from the previous chapter before you put anything else on your weekly schedule, you are giving yourself room to really build up these important things. Select goals each week for each of your roles that really match these lifelong goals that you imagine when you think about your eightieth birthday.

6. The Balance Of Roles
Many people feel as though their roles in life are very isolated from one another. Take my own: parent, writer, worker, husband, and volunteer. Where is the overlap there? Most of the time, it feels like there isn’t any, and thus it often feels like there isn’t enough time to really fill all of the roles.

The key is to find things that fulfill multiple roles. For example, let’s say that my wife and I take our son to the park and we spend our time there walking around picking up trash and cleaning the park, and also talking to each other and playing a bit. That one activity fills the roles of father, husband, and volunteer. Let’s say, also, that my wife and I are having a serious discussion on a particular finance issue, so I get out my laptop and start taking notes that express both of our perspectives, and later am able to convert this into an article or two. I’m being a husband and a writer there, so it’s worthwile for me personally to occasionally plan for such talks with my wife, where we plan out where our money is going.

One useful way to do this is to look at who you’re responsible to in each role. For example, as a parent I’m primarily responsible to my son and daughter, while as a husband, I’m primarily responsible to my wife. When I have opportunities to spend quality time with my children and with my wife, I fulfill both roles. As a volunteer, I’m responsible to the group I volunteer for, but as a writer, I’m responsible to my audience. Thus, when I find ways to translate volunteer work into material for an article (I’m betting that if you look around The Simple Dollar much, you can probably figure out a few), I’m being responsible to both roles.

7. The Power Of Goals
I often talk about setting goals on The Simple Dollar, even going so far as to have a “goals week” a while back, so I found this chapter to be quite interesting. Covey brings up the interesting point that quite often our goals aren’t very synergistic. For example, I might have goals that are focused entirely on my role as a writer, but they don’t touch at all on other roles in my life.

The solution? Invest some serious time in setting goals. This means not only coming up with them and planning them, but evaluating their real worth in the overall context of your life. For each long-term goal that you are thinking of setting for yourself, ask yourself what precisely the goal is, why you want to achieve it, and how you’re going to get there.

Covey also advocates setting week-long goals by going through each role you’ve identified and asking yourself What are the one or two most important things I could do in this role this week that would have the greatest positive impact? Although I haven’t formally adopted the entire philosophy behind this book, I find it really worthwhile to ask myself this question at the start of each week and jot down a goal or two for each area. Keeping them in mind makes me feel substantially more productive during the week and I usually feel as though I’ve really accomplished something when I meet all or most of the goals.

8. The Perspective Of The Week
Another challenge is the gap between the close up view of life (urgent things, immediate needs and tasks) and the long term view (fundamental needs, long term direction). This chapter offers a multitude of ways to ensure that the close up view never overshadows the long term view of life with the key being that you look at things in the intermediate term (again, a week at a time).

The best way to do that is to actually spend some time thinking about how you’re spending your life. Covey strongly encourages spending a portion of time each week focusing on the goals of the coming week and making sure that they’re in line with your long-term goals. He even advocates spending an entire day each week for renewal, reflection, and recommitment – perhaps a bit much, but it is worthwhile to set aside some time each week for this.

9. Integrity In The Moment Of Choice
A lot of choices are made in the heat of the moment, and we often make gut responses to them that might not necessarily be in line with our big picture. I know that many of my split-second choices are made without really thinking about it (a la Blink).

Covey’s philosophy is that the more time you spend in a relaxed reflection mode, carefully considering your goals without pressure, the better you become at making quick choices that are really in line with your overall goals and values. This is very true – I tend to make better choices when I have more time to focus on those things that are really important to me, because I find that it triggers change in what I like to call my “short term values.”

10. Learning From Living
This final chapter of the second section focuses on how to review a week that has passed as you begin to prepare for the coming week. It’s a nice collection of suggestions on how to turn your reflections on events passed into the foundation for planning the week to come.

One particularly powerful part of the chapter for me was a lengthy list of questions to ask yourself about the week just past. Covey encourages answering these questions in the form of a journal entry about the week. This seemed like a bit “much” to me, but I gave it a try and I actually found it to be quite useful – it spelled out for me the things I did well and the things I could work on in the future, and it really did provide a foundation for the coming week.

Section Three – The Synergy Of Interdependence

This section moves from the meat and potatoes of the previous section and moves into looking at how this philosophy affects your interaction with others.

11. The Interdependent Reality
Anything worth creating is a collaboration between people, not things. That’s the premise of this chapter, which goes on to basically argue that the real power is in the collaboration itself and that the product produced is merely an expected result of a good collaboration. For some, this is a hard thing to swallow (I know it was for me), but if you view the human process as the important part and look at how to improve the human part of the equation, almost everything you do will have a better result.

12. First Things First Together
This is basically an application of the individual patterns from the previous section to a group environment. In effect, it condenses the material and merely points out how it can be used effectively in a team.

Basically, teams should have weekly meetings that are focused around the philosophies spelled out earlier, that of carefully defining goals and actually working towards long term ideals rather than just focusing on the immediate. If people disagree, focus on having everyone understand both sides clearly and then look for solutions that incorporate the logic behind both arguments.

13. Empowerment From The Inside Out
Obviously, many organizations can’t deal well with such a philosophy. This chapter focuses on the traits of an organization capable of handling this type of workflow: trustworthiness (and trust), accountability, self-direction, and willingness to look for the best solution.

I know from personal experience that many environments are lacking some of these pieces, and Covey offers a ton of specific advice on how to handle environments where pieces are missing – and how to find them. This is a great chapter for a manager and not quite as applicable to others.

Section Four – The Power And Peace Of Principle-Centered Living

The book concludes with some examples of how applying this overall philosophy can really change one’s life. There’s not much meat on the bones in this ending portion, merely a lot of examples for people who work well seeing examples.

Buy or Don’t Buy?

I actually found First Things First to be much more profound and also more applicable to my life than The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (and that’s probably why this review went on so long). This book is really stuffed with a lot of good ideas to think about that are much closer to day-to-day life than the material in 7 Habits.

I would recommend this book to anyone who regularly feels like they’re just running in place doing little tasks that really don’t add up to much of anything. There have been points in my life where I strongly feel that way (luckily, I think I’ve moved away from that point) and this book really, really speaks to that frame of mind.

This is a book where it’s worthwhile to read a chapter, spend a day or two thinking about it, then read the next one. That’s actually how I read it – there was so much content stuffed into each chapter that I had to take some breaks to process it. It’s one of the most compacted personal development books I’ve ever read – there’s a lot of meat on every single page.

In short, I definitely found it to be one of the better books I’ve read on personal development and substantially better than The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (which I liked as well). This one is worth picking up.

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