Lessons Learned – “First Things First” by Stephen Covey


Time management is something I’ve always struggled with. No matter how productive I am, there never seems to be enough time for the things that really matter. Plans change. Work gets in the way. Distractions are abundant. It’s almost as if I’m being pulled along by the moving stream of life, unable to free myself from its current.

In the three weeks since I started reading “First Things First” by Stephen Covey, that feeling of being “pulled along” has practically vanished.

How I discovered this book was pretty fortuitous. I was coming home from Starbucks one day, driving through a residential neighborhood close to the beach, when I saw a red wagon full of books with a sign that said “FREE BOOKS!”  It just so happens that ‘free’ and ‘books’ are two of my favorite words, so I pulled over and had a look.

Riley's Red Wagon Book Swap
Riley’s Red Wagon Book Swap (Definitely check it out if you live near Long Beach, CA)

In the pile were quite a few religious books, some novels, and a few self-help gems. I naturally went for the self-help books, grabbing two that stood out to me. The first was “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” by Richard Carlson. I had seen this book a few times growing up, and I figured it would be worth a read.

The second book was “First Things First.” When I saw the author’s name I immediately got excited. Stephen Covey is the author of the hugely influential book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” which I had just finished reading a few months ago. I knew instantly that this would be a great addition to my library.

It took me about three weeks to finish the book, though part of that was because I took notes on each chapter.  It’s by no means a difficult read, and you could probably gain some value from it if you just skimmed through a few of the chapters. Of course, I think it’s worth reading from start to finish.

Here are what I consider the top three lessons from this book:

1) The Importance of Principle-Based Living

Covey talks a lot about principle-based living in both “First Things First” and “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” While this idea isn’t directly related to time-management, it’s the foundation on which Covey’s time-management philosophy is based.

We all have things we want to accomplish in our lives. They are based primarily on what we value. If we value fulfilling friendships, then we might want to make building a great social circle a goal. If we value physical health, then we could make it a goal to get in great shape. How we go about achieving these goals is where what Covey defines as true north principles come into play (I’ve also described them as universal principles in previous blog posts). He explains this concept in the following quote:

“What we are talking about are the true north realities upon which quality of life is based. These principles deal with things that, in the long run, will create happiness and quality-of-life results. They include principles such as service and reciprocity. They deal with the processes of growth and change. They include the laws that govern effective fulfillment of basic human needs and capacities.”

He mentions the principles service and reciprocity in that quote, but here are some more I noticed throughout the book:

  • Patience
  • Thinking win-win
  • Process orientation
  • Empathy
  • Proactivity

Some of these are principles that make up Covey’s “Seven Habits.” According to him, acting in accordance with these principles will not only help us achieve our goals but give us peace of mind as well.

At first glance, these principles seemed like common sense to me. Of course things like service and proactivity are good. Yet when I considered what methods I was using to achieve my goals, there was clearly a disconnect. How often had I procrastinated on my goals instead of being proactive? How many times had I been completely focused on my own feelings instead of practicing empathy? The fact of the matter was that I was not acting in accordance with true north principles.

This is because true north principles usually don’t produce instant results.

Covey emphasizes this when he talks about the Law of the Farm. This law basically states that we can’t have a successful harvest without first planting our seeds and cultivating them over time. In other words, we cannot get the results we want without following the correct principles. There is no such thing as a quick-fix. (Here’s a link to a more detailed explanation of this law, straight from the book: http://www.theteamvision.net/the-law-of-the-harvest.html)

After reading this, I was encouraged to think hard about what principles will bring me closer to my goals, and then commit to living by them.

2) Goal-Setting by Roles

All of us play a variety of roles in our lives, whether it be as a parent, employee, or even a world-traveler. A great suggestion this book gives is to organize our goals based on those different roles.

Covey advises we try to narrow our roles down to around seven, with the addition of physical, mental, spiritual, and social roles.

I considered this and decided on seven basic roles for myself. Some of them are roles in the traditional sense and others are just areas of my life that I feel are important. Here they are:

  1. Writer/Creator
  2. Dating
  3. Wealth
  4. Traveler
  5. Friend
  6. Family Member
  7. Employee/Teacher

I then looked at these roles and figured out what I wanted to accomplish in each. As someone who has a tendency to set very broad goals – most of which never get accomplished – this really helped me get specific about what I wanted.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been setting weekly goals in each role and then working to accomplish them (following true north principles, of course). Maybe it’s just a placebo effect, but I’ve accomplished more in this time than I have in months. I feel way less scattered and a lot clearer on what actions I need to take.

What’s even cooler is that my roles tend to build off each other. The more I accomplish in one role, the more clarity I tend to gain in others.

3) The Difference Between Urgent and Important

In my opinion, effective time management really comes down to this one concept.

Covey explains that most people live their lives with an addiction to urgency. This means they prioritize activities and tasks that are urgent, but not necessarily important.


He categorizes how we spend our time according to four different quadrants. In the image above you can see what activities each quadrant contains.  According to him, most people spend the majority of their time in either Quadrant 1 or Quadrant 3. Quadrant 2 is where they should be spending their time. This is the quadrant where true growth happens. In it, we prioritize the long-term over the short-term.

This was a revelation for me. Thinking about how I spent most of my time, I was a little ashamed to admit it was primarily in Quadrant 3 and 4. Aside from dealing with the occasional visa issue or job application, I had very few “crises” in my life. Yet I was always more than happy to spend hours dicking around on my computer or watching Netflix. In the rare moments that I felt like I was being productive, I was really just spending time on things in Quadrant 3, running errands and completing inane tasks.

For me, Quadrant 2 activities include things like writing new blog posts, reading, researching investing, and going to yoga. These are all things that don’t have to be done today or even tomorrow, but would make the biggest difference in my life.

To Illustrate this whole concept, Covey gives the analogy of trying to fit a bunch of small and large rocks in a bucket. If we put all the small rocks in first, there won’t be enough room for the large rocks. This is what happens when we prioritize activities that aren’t in Quadrant 2. We get so busy focusing on unimportant things that the truly important stuff gets left undone. But if we put the big rocks in first, there’s usually more than enough space for the little rocks to fit in the gaps. (Here’s a link to Covey’s full explanation http://www.appleseeds.org/big-rocks_covey.htm)

I’ve noticed some pretty awesome results since I started implementing this advice. By becoming conscious of what activities are really important to me, and then making them my top priority each day, I end up with plenty of time for them AND many of the less important things I want to do.

A Conscious Approach to Time Management

Underneath all the different time management strategies, I think the main message this book offers is the importance of living consciously.

As I read, it became clear that most of my issues with time management were a result of not really thinking about how I was spending my time. Sure, I was adept at making to-do lists and checking them off, but my days never felts like they were moving me towards the life I wanted. I was accomplishing things, but there never seemed to be any progress. It wasn’t until I took the time to connect with the vision I had for my life – and really consider what actions I needed to take in order to move towards that vision – that I started to gain that feeling of progress.

Now, I take time each Sunday to sit and consider what I want to accomplish, both long-term and in the coming week. I then organize my week based on Quadrant 2 activities, filling in my extra time with everything else.

So far this has worked well for me, but I definitely recommend you read this book and see if it can have similar effects in your life.