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25 de agosto de 2013

Put First Things First

The third habit of highly effective people, according to Covey is “put first things first”. The first habit says “you are the programmer”, the second says “you write the program”, the third says “you run the program”. The second habit addresses first creation, the mental creation, using imagination and conscience. The third habit addresses physical creation, using independent will. This is the habit of getting things done.

Effective people are used to getting what they mean. They usually apply discipline, pushing with big drive and effort. These people do the talk. They don’t necessarily like doing what they do, but their purpose is stronger than their disliking. When we say a person outstands at effectiveness, this doesn’t mean they do every task, or than they do much more tasks than the rest —don’t confuse efficiency with effectiveness. These people have developed the habit of getting done the things they consider important overall, but not just sometimes, but regularly.

According to Covey, effective people usually work on not urgent but important tasks —see quadrant II of figure next page. Any task could be categorized as: urgent and important (quadrant I); not urgent but important (quadrant II); urgent but not important (quadrant III) and not urgent and not important (quadrant IV). Tasks of quadrant I have to be done right now, they are needed. If you stay too much on quadrant I you get stressed and get the feeling of being reactive. Task of quadrant III should be delegated. If you work too much on quadrant III you get disappointed —these tasks maybe are important to others, not for you. Quadrant IV tasks should be avoided because they waste our precious time. You can get a simple performance indicator of your effectiveness just measuring how long and how many tasks you close on quadrant II.

How can you move your balance to quadrant II? You need to anticipate, to plan your time. You are familiar with to-do-list, aren’t you? You enumerate things ahead and you cross tasks out as you close them. When you get rid of the last item of the day gives you a feeling of achievement and personal satisfaction. This is our daily image of effective self-management.


Unfortunately, in this era of Information Society, for knowledge workers, a simple to-do-list is a valid tool no longer. The cause is mainly electronic mail. Nowadays is considered normal if you get between 100-200 daily emails, most of them relevant for your job. If this is the case, chances are your email inbox is your to-do-list properly. You feel stressed. The urgent outpaces the important. Your job consists of basically on putting out fires. You got down by a wave in the beach, you get up and another wave get you down again and again.

In this context effectiveness is possible. You should first schedule time for the task really important and not urgent (big rocks). Other quadrants’ tasks will continue entering, but chances are you close a good number of big rocks. Conversely, if you deal with big rocks after other tasks, chances are you never start with them. Your email inbox with 100 new emails a day will always have another email to get into, won’t it? 
At this point, before continue, I’d like you to see a video by Stephen Covey called “Big Rocks”, that brilliantly illustrates the analogy between time management and the technique to fill a jar with big and little stones. What would you put first?

According to Covey, last generation personal planning tools should have these features:

  • They must connect personal mission and values, personal roles as complete person, long term goals and day to day tasks.
  • Long term goals should be structured throughout intermediate steps.
  • Personal planning should be developed in the timeframe of a week. When planning an effective life, it is agreed that weeks are better management units than days. Common advice is to devote time once a week (on Friday afternoon? Sunday?) to design our weekly compass, by answering questions like: As a worker, father, spouse, friend, what is the important thing you have to do this week? What do you have to do to sharpen the saw —that is: to increase my long term production capacity? This way you can deduce your big rocks for the week.
  • Then you have to schedule tasks or meetings to address, in the physical plane, goals and big rocks. For the whole set of pending tasks, it is important to prioritize according to importance level (vital -A-, important -B-, optional -C-) y assign a number according priority. For instance: B2 tasks have more priority than B4 or C1, but less priority than A4.
  • Since most knowledge workers today use email client to manage their agenda, tasks and meetings, another important feature is that personal planning tool could be integrated with email client.

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