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Put First Things First

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Having a to-do list is an important step towards the goal of getting most out of your time. It is very important to break things down into small steps and to assign priorities to your tasks. But how do you decide what’s getting the highest priority?

Stephen R. Covey suggest a little exercise in the  7 Habits Book to find out:

Write down on a piece of paper what to you are the most important things. The first things in your life. What are your first things? Just list five or six. Now continue this prioritization. What do you think is number one, number two and so forth? One effective way is to just cut out one – what would it be? Then cut out another one until you get down to that which is most important.

Family, health, relationships , financial basis, career, education,…? What are your most important priorities?

Once you have identified what is important in your own frame of reference you can use Stephen’s four-quadrant time management matrix to further categorize your tasks. Tasks fall into one of four quadrants:

Stephen R.Covey four-quadrant time management matrix

  • Quadrant  1 contains urgent and important things. This is called the quadrant of necessity, and includes things like crises, pressing problems, deadline-driven projects, meeting preparations, medical emergencies, etc. The strategy: Do now!
  • Quadrant  2 contains the items that are not urgent, but are important things. This is called the leadership quadrant  and includes planning and preparing, prevention, building relationships, renewing yourself, exercising, recreation and empowerment. The strategy: Schedule time
  • Quadrant  3 contains urgent but not important things. This is called the quadrant of deception, mostly because things in this quadrant look a lot like Quadrant  1 issues, but really aren’t. These are things like interruptions, unnecessary reports, email, meetings, phone calls, and other peoples minor issues. The strategy: Delegate, say no
  • Quadrant  4 contains items that are neither urgent nor important. It is called the quadrant of waste and includes busywork, trivia, irrelevant phone calls/email, various time wasting activities, excessive TV, web surfing etc. The strategy: Eliminate

Many people spend lots of time on Quadrant 1 and Quadrant 3 tasks. The challenge is to get Quadrant 2 as big as possible. The idea behind putting first things first is to prioritize important things first instead of urgent things. All it takes is realizing that it’s all right to say no when necessary and then focus on your highest priorities. Focus on activities that matter to you and say no to the rest.

Further reading / listening:

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People - Audio CD

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