If you struggle to get things done, "putting first things first" can help maximize your time and productivity.
This is a foundational skill for success. Stephen R. Covey lists it as the third habit in his book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” Though it’s simple in theory, it’s difficult to execute. This principle is useful when you want to identify and prioritize the most important tasks on your to-do list.
This article breaks down the importance of putting first things first, and how to use it in your life.
What Does It Mean To Put First Things First?
According to Stephen R. Covey, putting first things first means “organizing and executing around your most important priorities." This involves taking action aligned to the principles most valuable to you, rather than being swayed by outside forces and other people’s agendas.
As mentioned above, putting first things first is the third of Covey's 7 habits for being highly effective. It's the practical fulfillment of the first two habits: being proactive and beginning with the end in mind.
Why Should We Put First Things First?
When you put first things first, you reclaim your schedule and avoid wasting valuable time on things that don’t matter.
You work smarter.
When used correctly, you'll feel confident knowing your time management is dialed in. You won't be wasting time on things that don’t move the needle forward or block you from reaching long-term goals.
Everyone can benefit from putting first things first. But it’s especially helpful for entrepreneurs and business leaders.
As a busy professional, you understand how it feels to be overwhelmed by a growing to-do list. It can be hard to discern which tasks are actually important and deserve your attention.
If you put first things first, you can avoid spinning your wheels or being frozen by decision fatigue. You can hit the ground running and trust that you’re tackling the tasks that will have the biggest impact.
It'll make a tremendous positive difference in your life.
The Eisenhower Matrix
“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” ― Dwight D. Eisenhower
The Eisenhower Matrix is also known as the Urgent-Important matrix. It's a time management strategy developed by Covey and inspired by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The 34th president used this strategy to make tough decisions about what he needed to focus on daily. It helped him evaluate tasks and prioritize them.
The matrix focuses on two key factors for making decisions: urgency and importance:
- Urgent things act on us and require immediate attention.
- Important matters have to do with results and impact.
Now, let's take all the items on your to-do list and sort them into four quadrants.
Let's briefly cover them.
Quadrant 1: Urgent-Important Tasks
Quadrant 1 tasks are urgent matters that impact your results.
They must be done now and can't be delayed. They are high-priority items that require your immediate attention and action. This is the equivalent of putting out fires.
Examples include a crisis, last-minute deadlines, emergency meetings, and unforeseen events.
Quadrant 2: Not Urgent-Important Tasks
Quadrant 2 tasks are important, but aren't urgent.
They probably won't get done unless you schedule them into your calendar. These types of tasks require more initiative and proactivity.
These tasks contribute to your long-term goals. Examples include deep work, creative thinking, planning, learning, and relationship building.
Quadrant 3: Not Important-Urgent Tasks
Quadrant 3 tasks are urgent, but not important.
They're distractions that steal your time and attention away from more impactful tasks. Given the nature of these activities, it's wise to delegate them to others. At the very least, batch them to maximize efficiency.
Examples include tedious reports, unimportant emails, minor issues, and irrelevant meetings.
Quadrant 4: Not Important-Not Urgent Tasks
Quadrant 4 tasks aren't urgent or important.
There are forces surrounding you that are trying to monopolize your attention and waste your time. They don't contribute to your long-term or short-term success. To be most effective, you'll want to eliminate or minimize these distractions.
Examples include mindless scrolling on social media, checking email too frequently, and excessive entertainment.
How to Put First Things First
Now that you understand the Eisenhower Matrix, let's look at how to put first things first.
Using these tips to create your own personal management habit will make a tremendous positive difference in your work and life.
1. Start Each Day with a New Matrix
Use the Eisenhower Matrix as a planning tool at the beginning of each day.
You'll get clear on what needs to get done, what needs to be scheduled, and what needs to be delegated or avoided altogether.
2. Balance Your Quadrants
The rule of thumb is to spend as much time as possible on important tasks (quadrants 1 and 2). Delegate, batch, or avoid unimportant ones.
From here, you have important tasks that are urgent and non-urgent. How do you choose between the two? In an ideal world, you’re spending the majority of your time being proactive in quadrant 2 (working on non-urgent and important tasks). This is what moves you closer to your long-term goals. But neglecting your urgent and important tasks in quadrant 1 is unrealistic. Urgent matters will always need to be addressed, so aim for a balance between the two.
Try to set yourself up for long-term success (non-urgent and important tasks), while handling your short-term responsibilities (urgent and important tasks).
3. Eliminate Where Possible
Working backward helps.
Start by identifying the items that are time-wasters and eliminating them from your to-do list (quadrant 4). Then, it’ll be easier to work with what’s left and decide which quadrant each task belongs to.
4. Separate Personal and Professional Tasks
Create separate matrixes for personal and professional tasks. This ensures you’re not using work time to handle tasks in your personal life, and vice versa.
5. Keep Your Matrix Accessible
Make sure you always have easy access to your matrix throughout the day. Keep it on your desk, or have a virtual version handy on your phone.
This helps you stay focused on what matters most. It also ensures your top priorities are taken care of by the end of the day.
Next Steps: Maximize Your Time and Put First Things First with Undock
If you start to put first things first, you’ll be amazed at how well your time management improves. Keep these tips in mind so you can prioritize your tasks and maximize your time.
Does scheduling meetings and finding time to meet with others consume an unreasonable amount of your time? If so, Undock can save you time and help you put first things first. It suggests meeting times based on your availability, scheduling behavior, and meeting preferences.
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