Habit 3: Put first things first

This post discusses Habit 3: Put first things first, it is part of a larger series looking at the science (or not) of Stephen Coveys’ 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

The science that seems most important here in terms of supporting Coveys’ ideas is the goal hierarchy work discussed in Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind


I enjoyed reading and listening to Covey’s thoughts on Habit 3, it felt sensible and inspiring.

So what does he say – well – using the metaphor of photography he says:

  • The wide-angle lens is the big picture, our large goals, values etc.
  • The telephoto lens is all the details and detritus of life, you know: pick up the kids, pay the bills, stop at the red light.
  • The standard lens is a bit like a calendar week.  Almost like a wee subset or even case study of your life.

Covey argues (I don’t think a single one of us would disagree) that when we live at the telephoto lens perspective day in and day out – we are pushed and pulled and rushed and stretched, running from crisis to crisis like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off.

The week is a great place to practice putting first things first.  By focusing on a week in the life of us, we are neither the autumn leaf nor the mountain range, we are both.

The suggestion is to take 20-30 minutes out before your next week begins, and plan it out like this:

  1. Clarify your important life roles e.g. parent, worker, runner, preacher, researcher, project manager, carer, friend, sister, self-carer……
  2. Choose your big rocks i.e., one meaty thing to achieve in each role for the upcoming week – ask yourself “what is the most important thing I could do in this role this week, that would make the most positive difference?”
  3. Schedule these big rocks
  4. Then, and only then, schedule the rest of your week.

Goal Hierarchy Say’s

The discussion and approach above is very consistent with a published concept mentioned briefly in Habit 2, called goal hierarchy.

Understanding the goal hierarchy is best done interactively, so try this, I dare you:

First get a large piece of paper and some pens (more than one colour, hell you can justify a guilt-free trip to smuggle if need be).  Now find a quiet time and place.


  1. In a row along the top, in boxes write your core 5-7 values (here’s a list of useful value words if you are stuck)
  2. One row down, write your major roles in life
  3. Below that write your major project goals (include work and life e.g. get a massive bonus, renovate the laundry, lose 10kgs)
  4. Finally, list out your day-to-day tasks, not everyone put them in categories e.g. fitness tasks, or report writing.

What you have should look something like this, without all the crazy lines.

Now draw lines where there are connections between levels.  You can add more granularity by indicating stronger connections with thicker lines and negative connections in a different colour (go the new smuggle pens! I hope you got a red one?).

Now think about what you learnt, go on write it down, you know you want to.

If you did these tasks (with even a little enthusiasm) you will understand deeper the point made in the post on habit 2, that a goal alone is not enough to get you ….. anywhere much.

In preparing this post I reviewed and updated my personal goal hierarchy and had three wee epiphany’s (yes I realise the oxymoronic nature of that but bear with me*).  I understood why I feel so stretched just now.  Secondly, I understood why someone in my inner circle (who shall not be named) was feeling neglected.  There were not many linkage lines connected to their box and they did not appear at all in day-to-day tasks – ouch!  I also discovered I have many tasks that are not connected to ANY higher-order things (values, roles or goals) what Covey would call Quadrant 4 activities.

Coveys’ Quadrant

Coveys 4 quadrant model is probably the one that has endured most over the years, both for me personally and in conversations with clients.

Working up this post has made me realise it might be time to actually get my tasks on the quadrant to help with that feeling of overwhelm, tasks that are currently in notes on my phone, the fridge, the car, that Siri has made for me in random places (with spelling worse than mine). It’s one thing to be a list person, it is another thing altogether to be drowning under the weight of so many roles, goals and lists that you struggle to breathe.

So here it is … simple and easy …. draw this quadrant with ‘urgency’ one side and ‘importance’ on the other and write your to-do list down.  Then treat each quadrant differently.  I for one will make a wee ceremonially fire and burn quadrant four …. or call the cleaner (bless you Dee, you rock!)

Take out

My take out from rereading content for this post (as well as my experience of executive coaching) is that it seems logical that putting first things first is a critical success factor (hate that buz phrase but it fits here) for well …. success.  However putting first things first isn’t always clear or easy, especially with so much information coming at us every second of every day trying to tell us it is important and urgent.  We must be ever vigilant, policing our own attention and activity all the time.

Next week we will be thinking win-win.

Links, References and all that Jazz.


Unsworth K, et al. Goal hierarchy: Improving asset data quality by improving motivation. Relaib Eng Syst Safety (2011), doi:10.1016/j.ress.2011.06.003

*Did you ask – doesn’t she mean ‘bare with me’? Well, actually no that is a common, but incorrect use of a homophone and would literally mean ‘uncover with me’, which could also be interesting but let’s not.

This is part of a larger series on Stephen Covers 7 Habits, being:

  1. Be Proactive
  2. Begin with the End in Mind
  3. Put First Things First
  4. Think Win-Win
  5. Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the Saw