HABIT 3: Put First Things First

By Hazel Bernez


My former mother-in-law imagined herself as a genteel lady, adopting an air of dignified nonchalance. She struggled to cope in the brash world around her and wistfully spoke of a forgotten era of grace. When the modern world interrupted her memories with the simple intrusive jangling of a phone call, it was comical to see her cultivated façade evaporate as she raced through the house, attempted to leap over furniture, push other family members aside, jostle with her elbows, and rudely yell at anyone close to the phone “I’ll get it!” Her voice quivering with exertion, answering the phone before the third ring became her priority and no-one got in her way!  When she achieved her goal, the satisfied light of success in her eyes entirely changed her face. The family knew what the mission meant to her and stepped aside to let her succeed for each phone call. Answering the phone was the single most important aspect of her day.


Although this lighthearted example might seem to have little to do with Steven Covey’s 3rd habit, it is an example about priorities or elements we deem important.  My mother-in-law’s dedication to her task was something to be admired, odd though it seemed.  Her drive to achieve her goal has occasionally popped into mind when I realise how much of my workday has not gone according to plan, where I have allowed my ‘priorities’ to be supplanted by other seemingly urgent, but in the end, unimportant tasks. 


In the section entitled “Put First Things First”, Covey asks:

  • What one thing could you do (you aren’t doing now) that if you did on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your personal life?
  • What one thing in your business or professional life would bring similar results?


Like so many other questions Covey asks, the answers are never quite as easy to come up with as they seem at first glance. Habit #3 goes on to provide a wonderful matrix to help plot a response:


Habit 3


Decisions can be classified as Important and Not important.  Within each of these classifications, we find things which are urgent, and things which are not. In the end, it doesn’t matter if something is urgent if it ultimately falls under the Not Important heading.  Not important = not important; as simple as that!  Put first things first is about clarity of purpose and pursuance of only those principles that add value to your life rather than catering to the agendas and clamouring attention of people and things that are not. It is also based on your perspective, and not the perspectives of other people.


I often find myself squarely in quadrant 3 and resisting the urge to drift into quadrant 4 in both my personal and work life (hangs head in disappointment).  I imagine the positive impact of having a finger on which quadrant each of my tasks falls into and ensuring a healthy balance between them. Life lived constantly in quadrant 1 would become stressful; the key is handling all of the important and urgent tasks because I KNOW WHAT THEY ARE and then handling some important not-urgent ones before they become urgent. 


Reflecting on Habit 3, share with us where you see yourself in your day-to-day life. Have you, like my mother-in-law, found your ‘ringing phone’, the thing that brings purpose to your life?