Get More Done by Putting First Things First

a month ago   •   5 min read

By Zero Machina

If you struggle to get things done, the principle of "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.”

It's a simple concept, but can be difficult to put into practice. And if you're having trouble identifying the most important tasks on your to-do list and prioritizing them, we can help.

This article breaks down the importance of putting first things first, and provides tips on how to make it happen.

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 meaningful action aligned to the principles most valuable to you, rather than being swayed by outside forces and other people’s agendas.

As we mentioned above, the habit of 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).

Habits 1 and 2 are about personal leadership–figuring out where you want to go. Habit 3 is about personal management.

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 bring you closer to your 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 time management strategy to make tough decisions about what he needed to focus on each day.  It helped him evaluate tasks and prioritize them.  And it can help you too.

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, take all the items on your to-do list and sort them into four quadrants.

"7 habits decision-making matrix," licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Let's briefly cover them.

Quadrant 1: Urgent-Important Tasks

These 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

These tasks are important but aren't urgent. To get them done, you need to schedule them into your calendar.

Important tasks that aren't urgent require more initiative, more 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

These 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

These tasks are neither urgent nor important.

There are forces surrounding you that are trying to monopolize your attention. But 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 scrolls on social media, checking email too frequently, and most TV shows.

How to Put First Things First

Now that you understand the Eisenhower Matrix, let's look at how to put first things first.

By using these tips to create your own personal management habit, you'll 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.

This helps you get clear on what needs to get done for the day, 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 both 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 would be naive and 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 First

Working backward is useful.

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.

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.

Sign up today to try it out, it's free!

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