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  • Writer's pictureJacob Curtis

How to Put First Things First

Take a moment and write down one thing you're currently not doing that, if you did consistently, would positively impact your life. Just and think about it for a moment, write it down, then read on.

Now take another moment and write down one thing you're currently not doing that if you did consistently, would positively impact your professional or work life. Again, pause and think about it for a moment, write it down, then go on.

Did you do it? Did you write your answers down? Because we'll come back to this in a few moments. But before we talk about Stephen Covey's third habit from his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, let's quickly recap what we have covered in previous blogs.


The definition of a habit is "a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up."

The definition of effective is "successful in producing a desired or intended result."

So, we are reviewing the seven hard-to-give-up practices that make you successful in producing what you want.

We are answering the questions: What must I do to accomplish what I want today, tomorrow, and for my life? How do I live a fulfilling life?

The first habit is "Be proactive." You have the ability to choose how you act and react. You have independent will and are responsible for your choices. The first habit says, "You are in charge."

The second habit is "Begin with the end in mind." You use your imagination first to form a plan (a type of being proactive). As you make your plan, you account for the consequences of your plan. Remember, you reap positive consequences if your choices and plans align with correct principles and values. You reap negative consequences if your choices and plans do not align with correct principles and values.

The Third Habit

Now for the third habit, "Put first things first." This habit is the natural next step. You have shifted how you see things and accepted that you can make your own choices. You have discovered (or are discovering) correct principles and values to base your choices and plans on. Now, you put that plan into action. But how? What are "first things," and how do we decide what to put first? These are great questions and what we are going to talk about today.

In a 1954 speech, Dwight D. Eisenhower—the 34th President of the United States and a five-star general during World War II—quoted an unnamed university president when he said, "I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent." Covey used his words to develop the now-popular task management tool, the Eisenhower Matrix.

The Eisenhower Matrix is a helpful tool for managing your time and tasks. It helps you prioritize by distinguishing between urgent and important matters so that you can work more efficiently. The matrix is made up of four quadrants:

  1. Important and urgent

  2. Important but not urgent

  3. Not important but urgent

  4. Not important and not urgent

Although "urgent" and "important" may seem interchangeable, understanding the distinction between the two is essential. By categorizing matters as urgent or important, you can prioritize which things require your immediate attention and which things you can delegate to other team members.

Urgent matters are usually easy to identify as they require immediate attention. Urgent matters must be completed within a specific timeline to avoid negative consequences. Delaying these can lead to increased stress and potential burnout, so it is best to address them promptly.

Examples of urgent matters may include:

  • Finishing a project with a last-minute due date

  • Handling an urgent customer request

  • Fixing a busted pipe in your store or house

Important matters may not be urgent, but they are crucial for achieving your long-term goals. Don't underestimate their importance just because they don't require immediate attention. Planning and allocating your resources is vital to tackle these efficiently.

Examples of important matters may include:

  • Planning a long-term project

  • Professional networking to build a customer base

  • Regular chores and maintenance projects

By learning to differentiate between urgent and important, you can effectively categorize everything you do into the four quadrants.

We react to urgent matters. On the other hand, important matters that are not urgent require us to be proactive and take the initiative. If you don't practice Habit 2 (begin with the end in mind) and have a destination in mind, you can be easily diverted and distracted.

Do what's Important not Urgent

For you to grow and your quilt shop to grow with you, you need to spend most of your time doing the important but not urgent things. But that can be hard since most people spend 90 percent of their time doing important and urgent things--or putting out fires all day.

If you feel stressed, burned out, in crisis management mode, and always putting out fires, you spend too much time doing important and urgent things. This is where most small business owners live.

If you are short-term focused, in crisis management mode, see goals and planning as worthless, feel victimized and like things are out of your control, and feel like your relationships are suffering, you spend too much time doing only urgent things.

If you are not getting anything done and depend on others for everything, you spend too much time on unimportant things.

If you have a vision and perspective, are building relationships, setting goals and planning, taking time to prepare, exercise, and do preventative maintenance (like going to the dentist before your toothaches), you have a balanced and fulfilling life, you spend the right amount of time on the right things, you are putting the first things first.

Make the Switch

Now, what were the two things I asked you to write down when we started? I would bet that your answers are things that are important but not urgent. When I answered those questions, my answers were exactly that--important but not urgent.

So, how do you make the switch? From putting fires out all day to setting goals and planning? And what if you only have a few employees or are the only employee?

The short answer is time, whether that is giving yourself time to grow or making better use of your time.

If you are the only team member or have a few team members, be patient and continue to work hard. As you build a strong foundation and increase sales, you will have more resources to delegate, allowing you more time to focus on important, long-term things.

If you have an entire team, the only way to get more time to focus on the important-but-not-urgent things is to stop doing other things.

You and I only have 24 hours in each day: no more and no less. But how we choose to spend those hours makes the difference between someone who gets the results they want and those who don't. To say "yes" to important priorities, you must learn to say "no" to other things, sometimes apparently urgent things.

You say "yes" and "no" to many things daily. A center of correct principles and a focus on your mission empowers you with the wisdom to make those judgments effectively. Without a principle-based center and a mission, you do not have the necessary foundation to sustain your efforts for long.

The intent of putting the first things first is to manage your life effectively from a center of sound principles, from a knowledge of your mission, with a focus on the important as well as the urgent, and within the framework of maintaining a balance between your production and your capacity to produce.

Find your System

Now, this is an ambitious objective. To help you develop this habit, you need a system. And this system needs to ensure coherence between your goals, mission, vision, and principles.

The system also needs to balance all of the roles you juggle, from mom and wife to leader and business owner.

The system needs to motivate and encourage you. To help you spend more time doing important priorities like prevention rather than crisis management. The key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule but schedule your priorities.

The system needs to deal with people, not just schedules. You need to think in terms of effectiveness with people rather than the efficiency of time.

The system should be your servant, never your master. It should be tailored to you and your preferences.

Lastly, the system needs to be portable and easily accessible so you can review it when you feel discouraged or overwhelmed.

This system is your "First Things First" system. The system works best on a weekly basis, accounting for your monthly, quarterly, and annual goals and your mission. A pro tip: Have these written down and where you can see them daily.

The first step, and before your week begins, is to list all the roles you will fulfill this week–from mother to wife, business leader, friend, etc. Include all your roles from all areas of your life, from home to work, church, and community.

The next step is to think of two or three important results you want to accomplish for each role during the coming week. These are your weekly goals. Ideally, these tie back to your longer-term goals and mission.

Step three, with your goals in mind, review the week ahead and schedule time to achieve them. For example, if one of your goals is to write the first draft of your mission statement, you may want to schedule two hours on Sunday (or some other day of the week) when things are quiet and you have time to think and seek inspiration.

As you review the week and what you want to accomplish, you may realize that some things can only be scheduled on certain days or at specific times. And sometimes, you may need to cancel or move something to have an effective week and accomplish your goals.

Step four is to review your day each morning and make adjustments as needed. Be flexible, but always prioritize the important. And remember, importance is a scale. Some things are more important than others. But also, remember not to confuse urgent with important.

By planning weekly and prioritizing daily, you give yourself focus. But trying to prioritize without knowing how things relate to your mission and long-term goals is not effective. You may be prioritizing and accomplishing things you don't want or need to do at all.


By putting first things first and using this system to manage your life, you will be more effective in five ways:

First, you'll be principle-centered. You'll be empowered to see what is really important to you.

Second, you get to organize your life to be in harmony with your deepest values.

Third, you are reminded of your mission, principles, and long-term goals giving you purpose and direction in how to spend each day.

Fourth, it helps you balance your life by identifying your roles and the results (or goals) you want to accomplish each week.

And fifth, it gives you greater context through weekly organizing, rising above the daily fires, and keeping out of the "someday" clouds.

I would love to hear from you as you apply these habits. E mail me at and tell me how it's going.

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