Priorities and the Time Management Matrix with Stephen Covey’s “First Things First”

Reading Time: 14 Minutes

If you’ve ever felt like you’re perpetually running on the productivity treadmill but not getting anywhere meaningful, check out Stephen Covey’s First Things First. Expanding on principles from Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, it covers time management principles that will help you prioritize long-term goals.

This article summarizes the most important information from the book. You will learn:

The Clock and The Compass

Our lives are torn between the “clock” – our appointments, schedules, and tasks – and the “compass” – our mission, vision, and values.

In your life, do you put urgent things first (the clock)? Or do you put important things first (the compass)?

Stephen Covey says that the compass must come before the clock. This is because what you’re doing matters more than how fast you get there.

When you’re doing what’s important, you should experience:

  • Organization
  • Productivity
  • Good follow-through
  • Fewer crises
  • Work-life balance
  • Peace of mind

The Urgency Addiction

Many of us fall prey to the adrenaline rush of tackling urgent but often unimportant tasks. But reacting to the most urgent matters means you’re always putting out fires and rarely focusing on what genuinely matters.

How to Tell When Something is Urgent But Unimportant

Tasks or issues that are urgent but unimportant often:

  • Focus on minor issues rather than the big picture
  • Have short-term impact rather than leading towards meaningful achievements
  • Distract from your goals, because they arise from external sources
  • Don’t advance your profitability or market position
  • Can be handled by AI or a virtual assistant with minimal training

Avoid Responding to Everyone Trying to Sell to You

Many professionals today get nonstop spam email, calls, and LinkedIn messages.

Here are some strategies to deal with the spam you already get:

  • Create Gmail filters to block out unwanted email, or use an email filter like SaneBox.
  • Don’t click on unsubscribe in spam emails. This can confirm to the spammer that your email is active. Instead, use your email provider’s “Report Spam” button. Keep reporting spam until you have an inbox that aligns with your goals, not other people’s goals.
  • Try autosorting. Autosorting can organize your remaining mandatory email (like privacy policy updates) so you can quickly delete or respond to email in batches.
  • Turn on call filtering. You can avoid unwanted calls on iPhone and Android.

Here’s how to avoid spam (unwanted business interruptions) in the first place:

  • Reject LinkedIn connections from people you don’t know. This is how spammers get your email. Only accept requests from people you know or who are directly relevant to you.
  • Avoid prize giveaways. Marketers use these to collect your data.
  • Always uncheck opt-in boxes when signing up for services or free WiFi. When you’re in a hurry, it’s easy to miss an opt-in box that says, “I’d like to receive promotions and marketing communications”.
  • Use 4 email addresses. The first email is for your personal communications. The second email is for your work messages. The third email is for receiving email from organizations you want to hear from. And the fourth email is for spying on your competitors’ email funnels.
  • Be cautious with free, downloadable content. Marketers use ebooks, white papers, and other resources to lure you into sharing your email address. Give them your third or fourth email address instead of your personal or business email.
  • Don’t share your email address publicly. Avoid listing your email openly on websites, forums, or social media.
  • Register your business domains privately so that your personal information stays private.

Quick Fixes for More Non-Critical Tasks

Every time we analyze our clients’ schedules, we see huge amounts of unnecessarily lost time. Here’s a quick summary of the time wasters we see most often, along with our most common quick fixes.

Time WasterQuick Fix
Answering non-critical emailsUse email filters or SaneBox, as discussed above.
Attending unscheduled meetingsClarify to yourself and your team what is and isn’t worth a meeting. Use Slack to manage your team asynchronously with minimal meetings.
Dealing with technical issuesOutsource IT support or leverage Spiceworks.
Responding to social media notificationsWork with a fractional CMO to manage your marketing more effectively. They will likely choose to hire a social media manager if they get too many notifications.
Doing processes manuallyAutomate tasks with Zapier or IFTTT. Talk to your CMO or CTO about tasks that you can automate. Many businesses are still doing tasks manually out of habit when they should be handled automatically.
Handling routine tasksCreate SOPs in Google Docs, Google Sheets, or Notion to help your team handle routine tasks for you.
Answering requests for informationDecide what requests you actually want to respond to. Create email templates to respond to requests you see more than once a month. Look for ways to monetize every type of request – you never know where a new revenue stream will come from.
Taking too many meetings with sales peopleSet up different types of meetings in Calendly. Add qualifying questions to make sure you’re only meeting with people who meet your criteria. Instead of taking unscheduled calls, set up a voicemail that directs people to text you or use your website to request a meeting or place an order.

Of course, every business is different. Deliberate Directions can help you evaluate where time is going for you or your employees, and find ways to boost your organization’s productivity. That way you can spend more time doing what actually matters.

The Paradigm Shift

Now that you have some ideas for reducing the unending clutter that overwhelms many professionals, it’s time to dig into Stephen Covey’s bigger ideas.

In First Things First, Covey leads us to transition from focusing on urgency to focusing on priorities.

The Problems with Focusing on Urgency

Being time-focused means you’re driven by the clock. You chase deadlines, not goals. Your day is packed with tasks, aiming to check off as many as possible.

This approach often leads to a reactive lifestyle, where immediate demands dictate your actions. You might find yourself jumping from one meeting to another, responding to emails as they come, all because they’re “urgent.”

However, urgency doesn’t equal importance. An urgency mindset can trap you in a cycle of busyness, where quantity overshadows quality.

The Benefits of Focusing on Priorities

Being priority-focused means you align your actions with your principles. Not every task is worth your time; only those aligned with your mission, vision and values.

For example, instead of answering emails first thing, you might prioritize strategic planning for your business, because long-term growth aligns with your mission.

Or perhaps you will focus on creating a marketing strategy rather than attending yet another unproductive meeting because it serves your overall vision. This approach fosters a proactive lifestyle where you control your day, not the other way around.

Introducing the Time Management Matrix

Now that you have some ideas to get rid of time wasters, let’s get into the real takeaways from Covey’s First Things First.

In his book, Covey introduces a Time Management Matrix. In this matrix, he splits our activities into four quadrants based on urgency and importance.

Take a quick look at the matrix, then we’ll discuss each quadrant in more detail.

Quadrant I: Urgent and Important

Think of the first quadrant as “firefighting”. You’re dealing with crises, pressing issues, and deadline-driven tasks. You are under pressure to “put out the fire”.

Examples:

  • Important customer calls
  • Giving feedback to a direct report
  • Last-minute assignments

If you neglect these problems, you will be in trouble. Therefore, you must do these tasks.

Quadrant II: Not Urgent but Important

Think of the second quadrants as “leadership”. Your leadership is critical to your ability to achieve your mission. At the same time, none of these tasks are due tomorrow.

Examples:

  • Market strategy
  • Relationship-building
  • Long-term planning
  • Mentoring
  • Professional development
  • Broad and deep reading
  • Physical exercise
  • Recreation
  • Self-care

If you neglect these, you might not be in trouble today. But you will be in trouble later. Or you’ll survive but never come close to your potential. Consequently, you need to plan time for these tasks.

Quadrant III: Urgent but Not Important

The third quadrant consists of busywork – work that is important to others, but not important for you.

Examples:

  • Interruptive emails and calls
  • Unplanned meetings

In this quadrant, you’re reacting to other people’s urgency. Salespeople will try to make you feel urgency for yourself, too. The smarter they are, the better they will be at it.

Learn how to recognize and resist when others try to take control of your agenda. Get comfortable delegating, declining, or deprioritizing.

If an opportunity can legitimately help you, but is still not important, then it’s best to delegate it to someone else in your organization.

Quadrant IV: Not Urgent and Not Important

This is the quadrant of waste.

Examples:

  • Casual internet surfing
  • Social media consumption
  • Workplace gossip
  • News & TV
  • Busy work (tasks that might help you someday, but are not the tasks you need to do today)

From a time management standpoint, you want to eliminate all waste.

Why do we waste time?

In reality, most people don’t want to entirely eliminate waste. Waste can be fun, or it can fulfill other personal needs. But you do need to give yourself a quota for time that you’re willing to waste. You need to track the time that you’re wasting. And you need to compare the time you waste to the quota you set for yourself.

Typically, I see waste occur when people are seeking an escape, or procrastinating because they’re not engaged in the work at hand. This is often because their work is tedious, hard, or unmeaningful. Many times in executive coaching, we discover that a client or their employee doesn’t have enough direction to confidently engage, and this is something we can address together.

There are many factors that need to align to motivate you or your employees to fully engage. For more information, read our guide on employee engagement or schedule a free strategy session.

How to Use the Quadrants to Manage Your Time

Think of one activity that will bring about phenomenal success if you do the task well and consistently. Perhaps it’s weekly meetings with your project managers or networking with referral partners. (More on this in just a minute.)

These activities are probably not urgent, but they are important. They belong in Quadrant II – the quadrant where you want to spend your time.

To find time for these important tasks, you need to avoid tasks that are not important – Quadrant III and Quadrant IV. It doesn’t matter if the tasks are urgent to someone else. If they’re not important to you or your organization, don’t do them.

Use the time you save to focus as much energy as possible on Quadrant II tasks.

The more time you spend doing important and non-urgent tasks, the less time you’ll need to spend doing important and urgent tasks. Put another way, the more time you spend working proactively in Quadrant II, the less time you’ll spend firefighting in Quadrant I.

In sum: Focus on what’s important, and be proactive.

How to Identify Important Quadrant II Tasks

Here are 5 questions you can ask yourself to find your job’s 3-4 most important and non-urgent tasks.

  1. What are my recurring tasks and responsibilities? (List them out.)
  2. Which tasks have the greatest impact on my long-term goals and growth? (Circle them.)
  3. Are there important tasks that contribute to my growth that don’t have pressing deadlines? (Underline them.)
  4. Do these tasks align with my core principles? (Highlight them.)
  5. How can I schedule these tasks in my daily and weekly calendar so I prioritize them? (Go to your calendar and time block them.)

If you’d like help for yourself or your employees, schedule an appointment with an executive coach. We can then work through this process with you.

Examples of Quadrant II Tasks (Important, Not Urgent)

  1. Weekly Planning for Project Managers: Allocate time each week to plan upcoming projects, setting milestones and deadlines to ensure smooth progress.
  2. Strategic Networking for Sales Professionals: Dedicate hours each month to build relationships with key industry contacts, creating opportunities for future sales.
  3. Professional Development for Software Developers: Schedule regular coding workshops or online courses to stay ahead with the latest technologies and methodologies.
  4. Market Analysis for Marketing Managers: Conduct a monthly analysis of market trends and competitor strategies to adapt and refine your marketing approaches.
  5. Financial Forecasting for CFOs: Regularly review and adjust your financial forecasts based on current business trends and economic conditions. That way, you can make stronger strategic decisions.
  6. Client Relationship Management for Consultants: Set aside time each week to check in with clients, learn more about their needs, and get feedback to improve your service.
  7. Operational Review for Operations Managers: Organize quarterly reviews of operational processes to identify inefficiencies and implement improvements.
  8. Team Development for HR Managers: Plan and execute monthly training sessions or team-building activities to enhance your team’s cohesion and skills.
  9. Product Research for Product Managers: Allocate time to research emerging technologies or materials that you can incorporate into future products.
  10. Content Strategy Planning for Content Creators: Spend time each month planning a content calendar that aligns with your business goals and your audience’s needs. This way, you’ll have consistent, strategic output.

Three Types of To-Do Lists

In his book, Stephen Covey’s shares three generations of to-do lists.

Read through the summaries we provide below, and think about which system you typically use.

First Generation

The simple list is the first generation of to-do lists. You simply jot down tasks as they come to mind.

  • There’s no prioritization. Everything gets the same weight.
  • It’s reactive. You’re more likely to tackle what’s urgent, not necessarily what’s important. This makes it easy to get overwhelmed or focus on the wrong tasks.

Second Generation

Calendar and appointment books are the second generation. You schedule tasks for specific dates and times.

  • You prioritize. However, deadlines still drive your day. It’s easy to get lost in minutia and fail to allocate time to make progress on your long-term goals.
  • Still, it’s reactive. You’re managing time, not necessarily making time for what’s truly important. So you have order, but you’re a slave to your calendar, often at the expense of your bigger goals.

Third Generation

Values-drive prioritized lists are the third generation. With prioritized task lists, you identify roles and goals and you assign tasks for each goal. You can find a good example of this type of list with the Full Focus Planner.

  • You prioritize based on importance, not urgency. What tasks align with your long-term goals?
  • You’re proactive. You focus on what’s truly important to you, not just what’s pressing. This ensures your daily actions are aligned with your deeper values and long-term objectives.

Shifting to values-driven planning reduces the time you spend reacting and increases the time you spend proactively designing the life you want.

The Power of Principle-Centered Living

Do you remember the idea of the clock and the compass?

Your compass will depend on overarching principles along with your personal mission, vision and values.

  • Principles are universal truths and laws that govern outcomes and consequences. Covey considers principles to be natural laws that are timeless and unchanging, like honesty, integrity, and respect.
  • Values are personal beliefs. They’re qualities that you hold dear and prioritize in your life. They guide your behavior and choices. While principles are consistent across humanity, values vary among individuals.
  • Mission refers to your overall purpose—the “why” behind your actions and decisions. It’s a broad statement of what you aim to achieve in life, embodying your core reason for being.
  • Vision is a specific, tangible depiction of what achieving your mission looks like. It provides you with a picture of success that you can vividly imagine. A good vision is a target that will motivate you.

Universal Principles to Consider

Here is a list of principles along with examples of how they may manifest in your career.

PrincipleExample
IntegrityYou admit a mistake to a client, ensuring transparency and building trust.
FairnessDuring negotiations, you offer terms that are beneficial for both parties.
HonestyYou provide honest feedback to a team member, supporting growth and improvement.
ServiceYou prioritize customer support, solving issues beyond the minimum expectation.
ResponsibilityYou take ownership of a project failure, learning from it to improve future outcomes.
RespectYou listen actively to all team members’ ideas, valuing diverse perspectives.
TrustworthinessYou keep a client’s confidential information secure, strengthening client relationships.
CommitmentYou follow through on promises to stakeholders, showing reliability.
CourageYou make a difficult decision, aligning with high ethical standards despite pushback.
Continuous ImprovementYou invest in professional development for your team, promoting lifelong learning.

Following Principles Builds Trust

Because principles are universal, choosing to adhere to principles will build trust within your organization. On the other hand, choosing not to adhere to principles will diminish trust from employees, customers, and/or shareholders.

Covey writes that every interaction you have with someone is either a deposit that builds trust or a withdrawal that depletes trust. Here are some examples:

InteractionDeposits That Build TrustWithdrawals That Deplete Trust
AttentivenessActively listening shows you value the other person’s thoughts and feelings.Not listening or otherwise ignoring someone’s needs shows a lack of empathy.
FaithfulnessKeeping promises demonstrates reliability.Breaking promises damages reliability and trust.
IntegrityApologizing when you’re wrong shows humility.Lying or hiding the truth destroys trust.
KindnessActs of kindness significantly increase goodwill.Being overly critical or harsh erodes trust quickly.
SupportivenessBeing there in times of need builds strong bonds.Neglecting a relationship shows a lack of care.

Craft Your Own Values, Mission, and Vision

Covey starts with principles because they are universal and unchanging. This makes them a reliable basis for developing personal values, which then inform your mission and vision.

After you consider universal principles, it’s time to find your individual “compass”. Here is a suggested process:

  1. Ask yourself what 3-5 principles matter most to you or your organization? These will become your core values.
  2. Define your mission based on your values. This will show your purpose. Many people find that it helps to think about the legacy they want to leave. What would you like people to say at your funeral? What mission is most important to you?
  3. Image a vision of your future where you achieve your mission. What does success look like for you?
  4. Write it all down. What you come up with will guide your daily actions, so it’s important to write concrete text you can refer to.
  5. Prioritize tasks that align with your values, mission, and vision. Let these guide your day. To protect your time and energy, say no to tasks that conflict with your values.
  6. Reflect daily. Are your actions moving you closer to your vision? Do they still reflect your values?
  7. Revisit your compass annually or with major life changes. You can adjust what you wrote to reflect your evolving values and goals.

You can go through the same process for yourself or for your organization. (The values, mission, and vision are most likely going to differ, although you will ideally see some alignment.)

4 Essential Time Management Tips from Stephen Covey

Even with the best intentions, obstacles will appear.

1. Practice Saying No

Learning to say no is crucial so that you can focus on your goals.

  • Be clear but polite. State your unavailability directly. You can still add a polite touch: “I appreciate the offer, but I can’t commit right now.”
  • Offer an alternative. If possible, suggest another solution or person: “I can’t, but [name] might be interested.”
  • Refer back to your priorities. Explain your focus on certain priorities if necessary: “I’m concentrating on a few key projects at the moment.”
  • Express gratitude. “Thank you for considering me.”
  • Stay firm. If pressured, repeat your stance calmly: “As I mentioned, I can’t take this on.”

2. Take Care of Each Dimension of Your Life

Covey stresses the importance of self-renewal across four dimensions: physical, mental, social/emotional, and spiritual.

One of the easiest dimensions to neglect is your social and emotional needs. Much of our life satisfaction comes from our relationships, yet many people relegate relationships to a bottom priority.

To avoid this trap, make sure to regularly renew and balance each dimensions to stay at your best.

3. Leave Your Comfort Zone

Quadrant II activities often require you to develop or enhance your skills. Exposing yourself to new ideas, challenges, and opportunities is essential for growth. The calculated risks you experience will turn you into a more versatile and capable professional.

  • Set challenging goals. Seek out projects that stretch your abilities.
  • Learn new skills. Pursue knowledge outside your expertise. Online courses are great for this.
  • Ask for feedback. Ask people, “What can I improve on?”
  • Take on new responsibilities. Volunteer for tasks that scare you a bit.
  • Network broadly. Connect with people outside your immediate circle.

4. Use Weekly Planning

Instead of relying on daily to-do lists, focus on weekly planning. Weekly planning helps you prioritize so that your daily activities align with your long-term objectives. This way, you don’t neglect important Quadrant II tasks.

  • Identify roles. List your roles each week (for example: parent, manager, mentor).
  • Set goals for each role. What do you want to achieve in each role this week?
  • Plan the big rocks. Schedule time for the most important tasks first.
  • Be flexible. Allow space for unexpected tasks and opportunities.
  • Reflect and adjust. End the week by reviewing your accomplishments and areas for improvement.

Use the Full Focus Planner® to Plan Your Day

One product I have used for years and passionately recommend to my clients is Michael Hyatt’s Full Focus Planner.

The planner links your daily tasks to long-term goals. It’s structured around goal setting and reflection, helping you stay productive and aligned with your biggest objectives.

Key Features of the Full Focus Planner

  1. Daily Big 3: Identify three critical tasks daily. This ensures you prioritize tasks that advance your goals.
  2. Weekly Preview: Reflect on the past week, adjusting priorities to ensure tasks support your roles and goals.
  3. Quarterly Goals: Set SMARTER goals every quarter. These goals should be ambitious yet achievable.
  4. Ideal Week: Design your week, balancing professional and personal time. This helps you live by your values.
  5. Rituals: Establish morning and evening routines that energize you and reflect your values. It’s about starting and ending your day aligned with what’s important.

The Full Focus Planner makes Covey’s ideas practical. It merges strategic planning with daily actions, helping you mange your time well and put into practice everything we just discussed.

The planner is a small investment. But in my experience, it is worth every penny.

Enjoy a Fuller Life

As you reshape your days around what truly matters, you’ll discover life’s richness.

It’s one thing to read about these principles, another to practice them, and still another to master them.

If you’d like personalized guidance, schedule a free strategy session with Allison Dunn. Our executive coaching will help you focus on what’s essential so you can achieve outsize results in your career.

Remember, productivity is not about being busy; it’s about being effective.

I'm Allison Dunn,

Your Business Executive Coach

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