First things first

One of my favourite preachers is famous for using the line ‘the good is the enemy of the best’. Another is famous for saying ‘the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing’. These two pithy proverbs are simply different sides to the same issue. There are so many good things demanding our time, attention and resources that we’re often prevented from focusing on what’s truly best. We need to focus, not simply on getting more done, but on the things that are most worth doing. This idea is developed extensively in First Things First by Covey, Merrill & Merrill. It builds on Covey’s earlier important book, The 7 habits of highly effective people.

Traditional time management helps us to become more efficient, but what we really need is to become more effective. There’s no point getting much done, if what we’re doing is unimportant. The approach of the authors is to transcend the typical faster-harder-smarter strategies by examining what it is that we really want to be achieving. They overlay the clock with the compass because where we’re headed is much more significant than how quickly we get there.

This book touches a nerve with many of us by identifying the gap between how we spend our time and what really matters to us. It’s so easy to have our lives ruled by the demands of others and the tyranny of the urgent. In fact, many of us are addicted to urgency, living off the adrenalin rush of handling crisis after crisis. Unfortunately, I know this experience all too well. We feel useful and successful because we’re solving immediate problems. This may be okay when the issues are important, but if we make it a habit, then we find ourselves doing anything urgent just to keep busy. The end result is a pattern of reactivity and often serious burn out.

First Things First illustrates a time management matrix around an urgency-importance axis. The strategy for effectiveness is to maximise the time spent in Quadrant II – the quadrant that includes activities that are ‘important but not urgent’. This puts the emphasis on things like preparation, prevention, values clarification, planning, relationship building, ‘true’ recreation and empowerment. These are the proactivities that enable us to spend our energies on the things that matter most. The more time and effort spent in this quadrant the less we are ruled by the urgent and the more satisfying life becomes.

This is a most helpful book because it takes us deeper than many other management tools. It should strike a chord with those who have strongly held convictions and want to see them lived out. It shows us a means to work from the inside out – to move from our convictions to our actions. It moves from theory to practice, providing simple and practical tools for implementation. My only trap was that once I became sold on the ideas, I fell easy prey to the myriad of other resources designed to make it all happen!

This book helped me to identify many of the factors that had been creating stress in my life. All too often I’d find myself having dropped the bundle in one or more areas of life while I concentrated on others. The main reason was that I was consistently reactive. I hadn’t put in the ground work, thinking ahead and planning without pressure. Unless something was urgent it didn’t always get my immediate attention. The problem was that once something became urgent it was often already a crisis of major proportions. When the areas included my marriage, family and key areas of ministry this became a major struggle. The ideas in this book helped remind me of the need to be proactive in all these important areas. In other words, to keep putting my first priorities first. And it offered tools to help me achieve this.

When I first became a devoted follower of Covey, I must confess to taking on board these ideas hook, line and sinker! I’ve since read over the book a number of times, implemented specific strategies, and adopted ideas for training leaders and running workshops on time management. I introduced this material to our staff and co-workers at church and on campus, and it was required reading for a number of years… until I got busy and distracted by other things!

In my opinion, one of this book’s most obvious weaknesses is the assumptions it makes about people. It has a very optimistic view of human nature that fails to acknowledge or integrate an understanding of selfishness or sin. It offers universal principles on which we can build our lives without any substantiation of their validity. This is not to completely undermine the validity of the points made, but they should be digested carefully. We need to pick out the bones and swallow the meat.

As a Christian reflecting on the thesis of this book, I’m reminded of the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, written in the 1640s. It opens with the following question and answer:

Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

In other words, What are the first things that people should put first? The words of the catechism aim to reflect the message of the Bible. If the follower of Jesus is to put first things first, then they will seek first to honour God and to find their ultimate joy in him. It’s an awesome privilege to be able to glorify God!

11 Teach me your way, Lord,
that I may rely on your faithfulness;
give me an undivided heart,
that I may fear your name.
12 I will praise you, Lord my God, with all my heart;
I will glorify your name forever.
13 For great is your love toward me;
you have delivered me from the depths,
from the realm of the dead.  (Psalm 86:11-13)

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.  (1 Corinthians 10:31)

“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honour and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being.”  (Revelation 4:11)

And it’s an amazing promise from God that because Jesus has defeated sin and death, therefore we can enjoy him forever.

Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest secure,
10 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
nor will you let your faithful one see decay.
11 You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.  (Psalm 16:9-11)

Let me ask you, are you keeping the main thing the main thing? Or is the good becoming the enemy of the best in your life? What are the matters that matter most to you? And are you putting first things first?

If it’s even possible that the message of Christianity could be true, then I reckon it’s worth carefully considering these words of the Apostle Paul:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living…
(1 Corinthians 15:3-6 emphasis mine)

2 thoughts on “First things first”

  1. Dave have you read David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” really aligned with Covey, and very practical on the execution side.

    1. Yes, I’ve used GTD. The last couple of years I utilised Omnifocus which applies it. May review the book sometime. It wouldn’t hurt me to read it again! Dave

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