First Things First Summary
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First Things First Summary and Review | Book by Stephen Covey

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First Things First: To Live, To Love, To Laugh, To Leave a Legacy offers simple solutions for corporate and family life. It’s all about balance while still meeting your goals. Covey distinguishes his ideas from traditional time management theories. He 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. On top of this, Covey reveals a step-by-step pathway for living with fairness, integrity, honesty, and human dignity. These are principles that give us the security to adapt to change. Plus, provide the wisdom and power to take advantage of the opportunities that change creates.

Stephen Covey’s Perspective

Stephen Covey is the well-known author of the seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He is an internationally respected leadership authority, family expert, teacher, organizational consultant, and author. He is also one of Time Magazine’s 25 most influential Americans. Dr. Covey holds the Jon M. Huntsman Presidential Chair in Leadership at the Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People has now sold over 20 million copies.

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

– 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.”

– Stephen Covey

The clock and the compass are not about doing things right. Instead, they are about doing the right things. Covey starts with a personal example. His daughter, feeling frustrated while taking care of her third child, asks for advice. His answer is to 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. The author reveals that our struggles 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, and activities. Plus, what we do with and how we manage our time. If the clock guides us, we are guided by making decisions daily, hourly, and moment-to-moment. The clock governs most people. They are guided by the urgency of tasks rather than the end goal. The effect of being governed by the clock is a reactionary, urgent lifestyle that leads to work and life stress, burnout, and crisis management. An easy way to tell if you live your life by the clock is considering whether you are focused on daily planning and prioritization. If you are doing this, you live with emergencies and crises as your foundation. You are pushing out important, but not urgent, activity through daily planning.

The Compass

The compass represents our vision, values, principles, mission, conscience, and direction. It constitutes what we feel is vital 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 despite their success. Therefore, if you focus more on your compass, you will come to notice your principles are governing your daily, hourly, and moment-to-moment decisions. 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.”

– Stephen Covey

Most people relate to one of the three generations of time management. The first generation is based on reminders and is characterized by simple notes and checklists. The second generation is 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 a positive impact. However, the gap between what is deeply important to people and how they spend their time remains. There’s a need for a fourth generation. We need to move beyond time management to life leadership. This fourth-generation would create results for a better quality of life. Some of us get used to the adrenaline rush of handling crises. Essentially, we become dependent on crises for a sense of excitement and energy. Urgency addiction is a self-destructive behavior that temporarily fills the void created by unmet needs. Urgency addiction is as dangerous as other dependencies, such as addiction to chemical substances, gambling, or overeating. It is essential to realize that urgency itself is not the problem. Instead, the problem is that importance isn’t the dominant factor in our lives when urgency is.

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
The Eisenhower Decision Matrix
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The Four Quadrants

According to the author, we spend time in one of the four quadrants in the diagram above. Quadrant one represents things that are both urgent and important. Quadrant two includes essential activities that are not urgent (the quadrant of quality). Quadrant three includes urgent things, but not critical things (the quadrant of deception). Quadrant four is non-urgent and non-important activities (the quadrant of waste). The fundamental concept of the book is spending most of our time in quadrant 2. We have to ask ourselves, ‘What are first things’? To answer this question, we must first examine humans’ needs and principles.

The Four Human Needs

Stephen outlines the four human needs within the book’s title. Fulfillment of the four human needs is captured in the phrase, ‘To live, to love, to learn, to leave legacy.’ 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 being left unmet can drive you to urgency addiction. The key to meeting an unmet need is in addressing rather than ignoring the other needs. The way we seek to fulfill these needs is as essential as fulfilling them.

Examples of the Four Quadrants

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 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 not related to your principles or goals. Often these tasks will waste your time with few rewards.

True North Principles

“Principles govern consequences, and values govern behavior, therefore, value principles!”

– Stephen Covey

How to Incorporate True North Principles

True North principles are a prevailing theme within First Things First. True North principles are a character ethic. They are universal and timeless, meaning the principles are independent of us. These principles deal with things that create happiness and quality of life results. The quadrant two organizing process is the process of putting first things first. It is like a garden which needs a gardener. We have to plant, water, cultivate and weed it regularly if we want to enjoy the harvest. According to Covey, daily planning gives us a limited view. At the same time, weekly organizing provides a broader approach to what we do. When you organize the coming week, the first step is to connect with what is most important in your life. List three or four things you would consider ‘first’ things in your life. Then, identify your roles at work, in the family, and in the community. Much of our pain in life comes from the sense that we succeed in one role at others’ expense. The next step is to select quadrant two goals in each role and create a framework for the week. Start with a big rock, followed by pebbles, and fill the rest with sand. Your daily tasks should keep first things first while navigating through the day’s unexpected opportunities and challenges. Equally important is the balance of roles. Each role is vitally important.

Do Not Compensate with Your Success

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. Balance leads to abundance. We may plan our week perfectly. However, unexpected things happen all the time. Therefore, we need to choose how to repeatedly 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.”

– Stephen Covey

The synergy of interdependence is about how our character and competence affect our ability to work with people. Our greatest joy and our most overwhelming pains come from relationships with others. Our roles are interdependent: we are husbands, wives, parents, friends, bosses, employees, co-workers, friends, citizens. Interdependence redefines importance. The fourth-generation paradigm puts people first and things second. Leadership first and management second. Effectiveness first and efficiency second. Purpose first and structure second. Vision first and method second.

Principle-Centered Living

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

– Stephen Covey

Questions to Guide Your Life

The author explains that our thoughts are first thing to change. If we live in a quadrant-true way, we can see our daily tasks more clearly. 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 useful approach would be to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Which of these activities is most important?
  • What can I safely postpone?
  • What can I delegate?
  • What can I get out of doing?
  • What can I do more quickly?

The Fourth Generation Approach

The fourth-generation approach is different. Rather than focusing on 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 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, frustration arises. We see people as interruptions, and we view change as the enemy. However, great things can happen if your expectations change. We should see problems as opportunities to help others. Plus, view each day as an exciting new adventure. Through adopting these approaches, some of our choices become turning points in our lives. These are times when putting first things first makes all the difference. Our two greatest gifts are time and freedom of choice. The key is not spending time but investing it in people, empowerment, meaningful projects, and causes. Like any capital resource, if we spend it, it’s gone; if we invest it, we increase our inheritance.

The principle-centered living theory is all about shifting our mindset from time management to individual leadership because of these fundamental features. 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. In turn, you can 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 independently of others. However, we must also accept that we are interdependent. Becoming interdependent won’t mean you 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 fulfill 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 shared sense of urgency will be produced if any of these needs are unmet.
  2. As spoken about earlier, True North is a metaphor for eternal principles that remain across time and society’s changes. These include integrity, humility, courage, justice, service, and reciprocity. You must hold onto these principles and consider how they apply to your life.
  3. It would help if you considered your 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.

Examples of Developing Human Endowments

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

  • Try to keep a personal journal. This is a high-level quadrant two activity.
  • You need to continue to learn throughout your life. So, listen to others, especially those different from you. Respond to points made by people productively. Plus, try to 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 maintain 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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Editor’s Note

This article was first published in October 2020. It was updated in February 2022.

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