Habit 3. Put first things first.

Stephen Covey expands his discussion on this third habit on his website:

“To live a more balanced existence, you have to recognize that not doing everything that comes along is okay. There’s no need to overextend yourself. All it takes is realizing that it’s all right to say no when necessary and then focus on your highest priorities.

Habit 1 says, “You’re in charge. You’re the creator.” Being proactive is about choice. Habit 2 is the first, or mental, creation. Beginning with the End in Mind is about vision. Habit 3 is the second creation, the physical creation. This habit is where Habits 1 and 2 come together. It happens day in and day out, moment-by-moment. It deals with many of the questions addressed in the field of time management. But that’s not all it’s about. Habit 3 is about life management as well–your purpose, values, roles, and priorities. What are “first things?” First things are those things you, personally, find of most worth. If you put first things first, you are organizing and managing time and events according to the personal priorities you established in Habit 2.”

Does this sound a bit abstract? Covey makes it more concrete and actionable in his book, where he tells us: “Don’t prioritize your schedule; schedule your priorities.”

Back in the 1970’s, when I was a newbie federal manager, and the government was sending me to short-courses, I would hear the following phrases (or variations), which expressed the same idea:

“The urgent drives out the vital.”

“The vital never has a deadline.”

The instructors were saying “Look at all those things that matter in your life – or that part of your life that is your work. Major projects. That potentially paradigm-shifting research on earthquake prediction. The restoration of 30 square miles of underwater habitat. The buyout and teardown of floodplain housing in your city and the establishment of a riverfront park. Writing that book. Learning that second language…”

Then they’d say, “All that gets chased out of your head when the phone rings.”

They’d ask, “What are the chances that phone call matters? That it’s going to move the ball forward on any of your life goals? Or even what you’re working on at the moment? Between slim and none. Chances are far higher that it’s a distraction from your life purpose. You will postpone progress towards world peace in order to answer a call from an office supplier who wants to sell you copier paper”

[For you younger folks. This was before Caller-ID. Voicemail was not yet universally available. You couldn’t yet protect yourself from telemarketing (you still can’t…not fully). But there was also no e-mail, no text-messaging.]

The instructors would conclude: “The ringing of that phone gets your adrenalin flowing. It compels your answer – now! Dozens of times a day, you stop working on those projects where only you can make a difference, those projects you see as life- and career defining…to handle trivia.”

In the context of this blog, what those instructors were saying is that corporately, all of us providing food and water for a hungry, thirsty world, keeping the lights on , protecting the environment and ecosystems, and making the public safer are willing to postpone these efforts indefinitely and at almost any time, just to answer the phone.

An exaggeration to be sure. But only an exaggeration, not a complete misstatement. [Oh, and by the way, before you and I make that call, we might weigh what we’re interrupting on the other end.]

Were they recommending you and I never answer the phone? Of course not. By answering those calls and responding to those e-mails, we’re often helping dozens of other people along toward their life goals, getting our job done. But our instructors are inviting us to recognize what we’re doing. And out of that awareness will come an extra measure of preserving our daily focus on what will matter to us (and to others around us) for a lifetime.

Covey and others, offer further advice along these lines. They note that most of us keep a calendar. But it shows only meetings, teleconferences, appointments, etc. When someone calls with a request, we look at the calendar, with all its empty hours…and we drop what we’d been doing and take on a new chore.

But suppose we took the trouble each month, each week, each day (pick your time frame) to pencil-in work towards those major projects and long-term goals in some or all of those empty time slots on the calendar? This would accomplish two things. First, we’d be able to match this time allocation against that major job. We’d have a better feel for whether those goals and projects are in fact achievable in a particular time window.

Second, when that call comes in, we’d know what we’re giving up – what economists call the opportunity cost.

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