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The 7 habits of highly effective people: put first things first

Welcome to the third installment in our series about The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

If you missed the first installment, you can read it here. In it, we discuss the first habit in Stephen Covey’s bestselling book: being proactive. Being proactive is all about taking a self-starter’s response to life’s challenges. In other words, you take the initiative. Instead of waiting for opportunities to come to you, you step forward and create your own opportunities. The result? A powerful paradigm shift that allows you to see how much you truly have influence over in your life.

The second installment, which you can read here, is all about the second habit: beginning with the end in mind. Stressing that our time here on earth is finite, Covey encourages readers to gain clarity on what their true values and principles are. “By keeping that end clearly in mind,” writes Covey, “you can make certain that whatever you do on any particular day does not violate the criteria you have defined as supremely important, and that each day of your life contributes in a meaningful way to the vision you have of your life as a whole.”


Today, we’re going to discuss the third habit of highly effective people: putting first thing first.

For the most part, this particular habit deals mainly with matters of time and life management. Have you ever wondered why, despite the fact that we’re all given 24 hours each day, some people simply seem to achieve more? They get further faster? They accomplish more in one year than the average person accomplishes in a life time?

A lot of it has to do with how they prioritize the precious commodity each of us is gifted with: our time.

Highly effective people recognize that all of their activities can be categorised under two labels: urgent and important.

Urgent matters are those issues that require your immediate action: the fire in your kitchen, your car’s flat tire, etc. More often than not, these are issues that are unplanned and that act upon us. In the grand scheme of life, they are typically insignificant when we take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

Then there are the important matters. These are the things that you accomplish based on your higher purpose and mission. These are the things that bring meaning and significance to your life. You want to achieve greatness when pursuing them because they contribute to the values by which you live and bring you closer to your high-priority goals.

Here’s the important thing to keep in mind: a reactive person only does what’s urgent. They confuse busy-ness with productivity, and so keep themselves occupied, believing this will bring them meaning or that it’ll contribute toward what they want to ultimately achieve. Unfortunately, the activities they tend to focus on aren’t actually important nor are they effective.

The secret to true productivity is to locate the sweet spot where you aren’t pushing deadlines or constantly putting out random fires. Instead, you’re being proactive, which gives you the freedom to do what matters most to you without any of the stress.

How do you accomplish this? By learning to say “no” to activities that aren’t aligned with your highest priorities. Indeed, in several past articles, we’ve discussed how ‘saying no’ is one of the habits of highly productive leaders. Saying no frees up your time so that you can focus it instead on those activities that bring you the most fulfillment and joy. It also ensures that you don’t spread yourself too thin over too many projects, which will only leave you mentally exhausted and creatively bankrupt.

One of the easiest ways to determine what the big YES’s are for you is to consider the Pareto principle. This principle states that 20% of your invested input is responsible for 80% of the results obtained. In other words, what 20% of your activities will give you 80% of the results you want? This will guide you in ridding yourself of any other time-wasting activity that isn’t contributing as largely to your end goal.

Finally, Covey encourages planning one week at a time in the following 4 steps:

  • Identify your key roles. (i.e. individual, spouse, parent, manager, etc)
  • Select your goals. (What are one or two results you would like to accomplish in each of your roles during the next seven days?)
  • Schedule your goals. (Take our your calendar and actually schedule out blocks of time to work on each goal listed above)
  • Daily adapting. (Finally, be sure to take a few minutes each morning to review your schedule and progress and to reconnect with your value-based decisions)


Being a highly effective person requires managing your time and organizing your life in a way that allows you to be more productive. With the tips above, you’ll be better equipped to gain better clarity on how you currently spend your time and how you can begin to shift your schedule to focus more hours on those activities that are in alignment with your purpose and goals as an individual.

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