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Stephen Covey, the well-known author of the seven Habits of Highly Effective People, was an internationally respected leadership authority, family expert, teacher, organizational consultant and author, and is also recognized as one of Time Magazine’s 25 most influential Americans. His book, first things first: to live, to love, to laugh, to leave a legacy, examines further the third of the Seven Habits’ how to focus on what is really important. The book offers profound yet simple solutions that will work perfectly in both corporate and family life. It’s all about balance, while still meeting your goals. Covey distinguishes himself from traditional time management theories. Instead of basing decisions around the efficiency of a task or its urgency, Covey compares the difference between efficiency and setting priorities with a compass and a clock: how fast you go is not as important as where you´re going.

“what we believe about ourselves and our purpose has a powerful impact on how we live, how we love, and what we learn.”

book summary of First Things First by Stephen Covey

The clock and the compass

“Basing our happiness on our ability to control everything is futile. While we do control our choice of action, we cannot control the consequences of our choices.”

The clock and the compass is not about doing things right, it’s about doing the right things. Kofi starts with a personal example. His daughter, feeling frustrated while taking care of her third child, asks for advice. His answer is just relax…relax and enjoy the nature of this new experience. Don’t even keep a schedule; forget your calendar; this baby is the first thing in your life right now. The author reveals that our struggles, but first things first, can be characterized by the contrast between two powerful tools that direct us: the clock and the compass. 

The clock

The clock represents our commitments, appointments, schedules, goals, activities, what we do with and how we manage our time. If we are guided by the clock we are guided by making decisions on a daily, hourly, and moment-to-moment basis. Most people are guided by the clock, guided by the urgency of tasks rather than the end goal. The effect of being guided by the clock, according to Covey, is a reactionary, urgent lifestyle that leads to work and life stress, burnout, and crisis management. An easy way to tell if you are living your life by the clock is if you are focused on daily planning and prioritisation. By definition, if you are doing this you are living with emergencies and crises as your foundation. You are pushing out your important, but not urgent, activity through daily planning.

The compass

The compass represents our vision, values, principles, mission, conscience, direction, what we feel is important in how we lead our lives. The struggle comes when we sense a gap between the clock and the compass. The pain of this gap can be more or less intense. It can make some people feel empty, in spite of their success. Therefore, if you focus more on your compass you will come to notice your daily, hourly, and moment-to-moment decisions are being governed by your principles. You will start to learn greater humility and understand you are not always in control. In doing so, you can create a highly educated conscience and, ultimately, keep your first things first.

Generations of time management

“When we talk about time management, it seems ridiculous to worry about speed before direction, about saving minutes when we may be wasting years.”

Most people relate to one of the three generations of time management. First generation is based on reminders and is characterized by simple notes and checklists. Second generation is one of planning and preparation, characterized by calendars and appointment books. The third generation approach is planning, prioritizing and controlling. These three generations of time management have made a positive difference, but the gap between what is deeply important to people and the way they spend their time remains. There’s clearly a need for a fourth generation. We need to move beyond time management to life leadership, to a fourth generation based on paradigms that will create quality of life results. Some of us get used to the adrenaline rush of handling crises that we become dependent on it for a sense of excitement and energy. Urgency addiction is self-destructive behavior that temporarily fills the void created by unmet needs. It is as dangerous as other dependencies, such as addiction to chemical substances, gambling, overeating. It is important to realize that urgency itself is not the problem, the problem is that when urgency is the dominant factor in our lives, importance isn’t. 

The Eisenhower decision matrix

“I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”-Dwight D. Eisenhower

According to the author, we spend time in one of these four ways. Quadrant one represents things that are both urgent and important. Quadrant two includes activities that are important, but not urgent (the quadrant of quality). Quadrant three includes things that are urgent, but not important (the quadrant of deception). Quadrant four is reserved for activities that are not urgent and not important (the quadrant of waste). The key concept of the book is spending most of our time in quadrant 2. If we want to move from urgency to importance we encounter the question, ‘what are first things’? To answer this question we must first examine humans’ needs and principles. The four human needs. The fulfillment of the four human needs is captured in the phrase, ‘to live, to love, to learn, to leave legacy’, and due to its importance is in the title of the book. The need to live is our physical need for food, clothing and shelter. The need to love is our social need to relate to other people. The need to learn is our mental need to develop and grow. The need to leave a legacy is our spiritual need to have a sense of meaning, purpose, and contribution. Any of these needs, unmet, can drive you to urgency addiction. The key to meeting an unmet need is in addressing rather than ignoring the other needs. As important as fulfilling the needs is the way we seek to fulfill them. 

Put simply, here are the four quadrants with examples:

  1. Important/Urgent tasks should be done immediately and personally. Examples of these tasks would be personal crises, tight deadlines or tough problems
  2. Important/Not Urgent tasks should have an end date and will also be done personally. Examples of these tasks would be relationships, planning and recreation
  3. Unimportant/Urgent tasks should generally be delegated to other people. Examples of these tasks would be meetings or activities that are neither personal nor critical
  4. Unimportant/Not Urgent tasks should always be dropped. Examples of these tasks would be trivial activities that are not related to your principles or goals, or tasks that will waste your time with little rewards

True North Principles

“Consequences are governed by principles, and behavior is governed by values, therefore, value principles!”

Here comes the concept of True North principles. They are based on a character ethic and are universal and timeless, like the north is a reality that is independent of us. These principles deal with things that, in the long run, will create happiness and quality of life results. The quadrant two organizing process. The process of putting first things first is like a garden which needs a gardener. We have to plant, water, cultivate, and weed it on a regular basis if we are going to enjoy harvest. According to Covey, daily planning gives us a limited view, while weekly organizing provides a broader concept to what we do. When you organize the coming week, the first step is to connect with what is most important in your life, as a whole, with your vision and mission. List three or four things you would consider ‘first’ things in your life. Then, identify your roles at work, in the family, in the community, etc. Much of our pain in life comes from the sense that we are succeeding in one role at the expense of others. The next step is to select quadrant two goals in each role and create a framework for the week; starting with a big rock, followed by pebbles, then filling the rest with sand. The daily task is to keep first things first while navigating through the unexpected opportunities and challenges of the day. Equally important is the balance of roles. Each role is vitally important. Success in one role can’t justify failure in another. Business success can’t justify failure in marriage. Success in the community can’t justify failure as a parent. Success or failure in any role contributes to the quality of every other role in life as a whole. Balance leads to abundance. We may plan our week perfectly, but unexpected things happen all the time and we need to choose over and over again how to react to the call for urgency. The moment of choice is the moment of truth. A testing point of our character and competence. Over time, our choices become habits of the heart and affect our time. The integrity in the moment of choice includes three parts: asking with intent, listening without excuse, and acting with courage. 

The synergy of interdependence

“There’s no way we can escape accountability. We do make a difference—one way or the other. We are responsible for the impact of our lives.”

 The synergy of interdependence is about how our character and competence affect our ability to work with people in every dimension. Our greatest joy and our greatest pain comes in a relationship with others. Our roles are interdependent: we are husbands, wives, parents, friends, bosses, employees, co-workers, friends, citizens. Interdependence redefines importance. Fourth generation paradigm puts people first, things second; leadership first, management second; effectiveness first, efficiency second; purpose first, structure second; vision first, method second. 

Principle-centered living

“Principles are the simplicity on the far side of complexity.”

The author explains that when we choose to live in a quadrant-true way, what changes first is our thoughts: the way we see the daily tasks. We realize that we provide an opportunity for growth and improvement. On a typical Monday morning, you see your list of things and must decide how to handle the tasks. One good approach would be to ask yourself ‘which of these activities is most important? What can I safely postpone? What can I delegate? What can I get out of? What can I do more quickly’? The fourth generation approach is different. Rather than activities and appointments, you see your day in terms of people and relationships. It’s not only a matter of when to do things, but whether or not to do them at all. Most of us expect to be able to go through a day and accomplish what we planned. As a result, when an unexpected challenge comes up we are frustrated, and we see people essentially as interruptions. We view change as the enemy, but great things can happen if the expectation changes. If we see problems as opportunities to help others, and each day as an exciting new adventure, some of our choices become turning points in our lives. Times when putting first things first makes all the difference. Our two greatest gifts are time and the freedom of choice. The key is not in spending time, but investing it in people, in empowerment, in meaningful projects and causes. Like any capital resource if we spend it, it’s gone, if we invest it, we increase our inheritance.

Because of these fundamental features, principle-centred living theory is all about shifting our mindset from time management to individual leadership. So, instead of just solving daily challenges, you build strong bonds and relationships. On the back of this, you can unveil the opportunity to reorganize your thoughts and reduce the amount of thinking required to solve a problem. You must also be aware that your principle must be under constant improvement, though. We must accept our uniqueness. We must accept that we function independent of others. However, we must also accept that we are interdependent. Becoming interdependent won’t mean you just delegate tasks to others or treat them as separate. Principle-centered living provides unity, richness, communication, connectivity, spontaneity and happiness. 

The fundamentals of determining the ‘first things’ in your life

In this book, Covey provides three concise ways of determining the first things in your life. They are the following:

  1. You need to fulfil the four human needs, based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. They are: live (physical), love (social), learn (mental) and legacy (meaning and purpose). A common sense of urgency will be produced if any of these needs are left unmet
  2. True North, as spoken about earlier, is a metaphor for lasting principles that remain across time and changes in society. These include integrity, humility, courage, justice, service, and reciprocity. You must hold onto these principles and consider how they apply to your life
  3. You must consider your personal endowments, which ultimately allow us to decide between stimulus and response. These endowments, including self awareness, conscience and creative imagination provide us with the power to choose and change. 

Then, Covey, provided clear, actionable examples of how you can develop your own human endowments:

  • Try and keep a personal journal. This is a high level quadrant 2 activity.
  • You need to continue to learn throughout your life. So, listen to others, especially those different to you. Respond to points made by people in a productive manner. Plus, try and read as much as you can.
  • Make promises to yourself and others. Importantly, make sure you always keep them where possible.
  • Meditate and listen to your inner voice. Let it guide you and help you keep a True North.
  • Develop a creative imagination through visualization of ideas and the future. Make sure these visualizations incorporate your true principles. 

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