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)

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

This is an oldie, but a goodie! It took me a while to discover The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. It wasn’t recommended to me by anyone. I was simply browsing a local bookstore and the title caught my attention. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to read it because I was feeling particularly ineffective at the time! The holidays were approaching and I was looking for a book to read on the beach at Byron Bay. All I remember now, is feeling that this book must have been written about me. It identified at least seven areas that I needed to change… urgently!

Since this time, over 20 years ago, I’ve reread this book or parts of it numerous times. I still believe it’s one of the most helpful ‘personal organisation/time management/self help’ type books available. So if you’re feeling a little disorganised, don’t have enough hours in the day or days in the month, feeling overworked and underproductive, then I recommend dipping into the 7 habits.

This book stands apart from many contemporary ‘success’ or ‘personal management’ books, in that it focuses on character and principle-centred living. It’s not full of techniques, tricks, or tools, for getting ahead. Rather, it pushes the reader to focus on what matters matter most, so as to ensure that these values shape the way we live. This book deals with internal personal transformation as well as external interpersonal relationships. It seeks to help us reshape our lives so as to create sustainable changes for the better.

I will introduce each of the 7 habits, before offering some reflections on the usefulness and limitations of Covey’s approach.

Habit #1  Be Proactive

We have a tendency to see life as the product of our circumstances. We inherit traits from our parents and grandparents. The environment we grow up in, learn in, work in, live in, is said to determine how we will deal with the stuff that comes our way. Covey critiques this reactionary outlook on life, reminding us that we have the freedom to choose what happens between stimulus and response. Proactive people are driven by principles rather than circumstances. They have response-ability. The proactive person is focused on their circle of influence which is a subset of their wider circle of concern. There are somethings we can’t change and there is no point being all consumed with these. Rather we become more effective as we focus our energy in areas where we have direct or indirect control.

Habit #2  Begin with the End in Mind

Covey illustrates the second habit by asking the reader to envisage their own funeral. We are invited to imagine the eulogy. How will we be remembered? What do we want people to be saying about us? What type of a person are we? We’re encouraged to look to the end and ask what we need to do in order to get there. The suggestion is made to develop a personal mission statement as a guide to a principle-centred life. This exercise pushes us to consider what matters most, what we value in life, what shapes and drives our choices.

It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in an activity trap, in the busyness of life, to work harder and harder at climbing the ladder of success only to discover it’s leaning against the wrong wall. It’s possible to be busy – very busy – without being very effective.  (p98)

Habit #3  Put First Things First

This habit challenges traditional ways of looking at time management. It moves beyond ‘to do’ lists, calendars and diaries, and even priority listing. Covey describes his approach as fourth generational time management that includes people and relationship needs alongside efficiency and results. He suggests we identify our key relational roles, set goals in each area, schedule weekly to address our goals, and adapt daily as required.

All activities can be defined as either important or unimportant, and urgent or non-urgent. Covey introduces a matrix to illustrate these variables and help us to put first things first. He argues that the more time we spend in quadrant 2, on non-urgent and important activity, the less time we need to spend on urgent matters, the less we experience burn out, and the more our personal effectiveness increases.

Habit #4  Think Win/Win

Relationships, work, ministry, teams, and life itself, will inevitably involve us in situations of disagreement and conflict. In many cases this ends very badly in a win/lose or even a lose/lose outcome. Unlike a game of rugby where win/lose is the desired outcome for players and fans (unless you’re on the losing side) win/win is the desirable goal for interpersonal relationships. Covey calls individuals and organisations to encourage and reward win/win solutions. He suggests following a four-step process:

First, see the problem from the other point of view. Really seek to understand and give expression to the needs and concerns of the other party as well as or better that they can themselves.

Second, identify the key issues and concerns (not positions) involved.

Third, determine what results would constitute a fully acceptable solution.

And fourth, identify possible new options to achieve those results.  (p233)

Habit #5  Seek First to Understand, then to be Understood

It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about marriage or work or international diplomacy, good communication is essential to good relationships. Seeking first to understand represents a paradigm shift for most of us. We typically want to be understood first and foremost. Instead of listening with the intent to understand, we listen with the intent to reply. Covey illustrates this with a quote:

A father once told me, “I can’t understand my kid. He just won’t listen to me at all.”  (p239)

I trust you can see the problem! In order to understand another person we need to listen to them. Empathic listening is required. We listen so as to understand, and then we get to communicate so as to be understood. In fact, we will do a far better job of communication if we’ve made the effort to understand the listener before we express our views.

Habit #6  Synergize

What is synergy? Simply defined, it means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It means that the relationship which the parts have to each other is a part in and of itself. It is not only a part, but the most catalytic, the most empowering, the most unifying, and the most exciting part.  (p262-263)

synergyIn order to achieve synergy, there needs to be high levels of trust and high levels of cooperation. This opens the door to creative outcomes and solutions. When there’s a lack of trust and cooperation, conflict, deadlock or compromise, may be the best that can be achieved. Synergy is achieved through the application of putting first things first, seeking to understand before seeking to be understood, and looking for win/win solutions. Covey describes the search for synergy as fishing for the third alternative. His more recent book entitled The 3rd Alternative examines this in much more detail.

Habit #7  Sharpen the Saw

This habit is focused on personal renewal. It’s illustrated by the story of a wood-cutter who takes a couple of minutes each hour to sharpen his saw, resulting in far greater effectiveness than the one who perseveres long and hard with a blunt saw. Covey identifies four dimensions to the self: physical, mental, social/emotional, and spiritual. He argues that a balanced lifestyle, that cares for and nurtures the self, will have a profound impact on personal effectiveness.

The physical dimension translates into issues of diet, exercise, rest and relaxation, and there are no quick fixes. He identifies such factors as prayer, meditation, religious literature, and music, in the spiritual dimension. The mental dimension means investing in the mind, strengthening and enriching it by reading, study and continued education. The social and emotional dimensions are tied together because of the significant impact of relationships on our emotional wellbeing. All four dimensions are important and the neglect of any will impact the other three.

Personal reflections

This book had a profound influence on me, especially as I sought to juggle or balance many important roles and responsibilities in life. How could I make investments in being a husband, a dad, a team leader, a pastor, a sports chaplain, a preacher/teacher, a trainer, and various other things all at the same time? I seemed to keep spending my life dropping one ball after another. I’d ignore some areas (often of vital importance) simply because other things had become more pressing.

Covey’s approach encouraged me to pay attention to each of my major roles every week. It urged me to focus on quadrant 2, non-urgent and important, activities. These are the activities that reap the greatest rewards down the track and they help keep us from being run ragged by the urgent. It also helped me understand why I often found myself in quadrant 4, the non-urgent and unimportant. This is the burnout zone, where you hide when you can no longer cope with all the demands upon you.

I followed this guide on a regular basis and encouraged our staff and trainees to do the same. It was very helpful. The emphasis on effectiveness over efficiency was especially important. I made sure I was investing in personal renewal areas. I’d keep developing long-term important goals and working towards them. I’d set aside time to reflect and examine how things were going, to plan and set a new course for the future. I even purchased a Seven Habits Diary to help me get it all together!

As a Christian I found that much of this book resonated with me, and it offered a framework for personal and time management that I could use consistently with my beliefs and values. My understanding is that Stephen Covey was not a Christian, but a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. While I’m certainly not a Mormon, and do not follow Mormon teaching, I found there was much in this book that I could apply to my life without compromising or abandoning my own beliefs.

But herein lies an important issue. We need to be clear on what our beliefs are. How can we assess the importance or relevance of these particular habits? What do we value? What really matters in life? What is the end that we should be heading towards? Covey’s book won’t answer these questions. If we have no clear principles, then we’re not going to find them by reading this or many other self-help type books. 7 Habits makes assumptions and claims about what matters matter that are based primarily on observation and experience. Some will read them and agree, others will look in other places.

I look to the Bible for my answers to these significant questions. I find my compass for life, as I trust in Jesus Christ and seek to follow his lead. The Bible offers me a guiding light for life and decision making. It shows me that wisdom is to be found by respecting God and honouring him in my thoughts, words and actions. Jesus provides the supreme example of one who truly began with the end in mind and followed this all through his life. He came to seek and to save the lost, knowing fully that it would cost him his life. He put the needs of others above his own. He depended on his heavenly Father and made time to escape the heavy demands upon him to spend time in prayer. He entrusted himself to God, in the face of of opposition and execution, for the greater goal of offering forgiveness and reconciliation to all.

If your life feels out of control, if you’re running on empty, dropping important balls all over the place, drowning in endless tasks, or dissolving into trivia… can I encourage you to take a step back and look at who you are and where you’re headed. I recommend you take a good look at the Bible, as I’m persuaded that it offers you the most accurate compass to follow. And if you’ve got that worked out, then I think you could do a lot worse than thinking through each of these 7 habits.