7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Habit 3

Put First Things First – or as I like to say….”Do your important things first.”

My first memory of Stephen R. Covey was many years ago watching the video clip I’ve linked here where he gives an example of Habit #3 called Big Rocks. There is a strong relationship between this example and his 4 Quadrant Time Management Matrix theory. I summarize this relationship as follows:

  • Big rocks represent the key activities (Quadrant II), therefore they matter most because they are strategically important and not urgent.
  • Small rocks (not used in this video), represent smart activities (Quadrant I), therefore are strategically important and urgent.
  • Pebbles represent busy activities (Quadrant III), therefore matter least. They are not strategically important but often appear urgent.

The Time Management Matrix is a resource to help us make decisions and prioritize the conflicting daily demands we encounter.

Time Management Matrix

I enjoy asking two questions of Stephen Covey’s Big Rocks example:

  1. What is the point of this exercise?
  2. Why are the big rocks not urgent?

Two answers are:

  1. It’s not that we can always fit more into our schedule (a recipe for burn-out).  The point is that if we don’t put the big rocks in first we will never get ALL rocks and pebbles in (with room to spare if planned correctly).  The things that matter most should never be at the mercy of the things that matter least.
  2. The big rocks are not urgent because we are proactive.  The strategically important tasks are days, weeks, months in the future and we have broken the work into sizable chunks than can be managed in a timely, controlled way.

Habit #3 is about choosing to make Habit 1 (Empowerment), and Habit 2 (Vision) part of our daily behaviour.

Recap from previous posts:

Habit #1 Personal Empowerment. We can choose to act/respond.
Habit #2 Make Thoughtful Decisions.  We are responsible for our decisions, vision and values.

Unfortunately, most of us spend most of our time in Quadrant III. This doesn’t make our work important… it just makes us busy, stressed and less effective with our truly important tasks.


You are a professional body builder and your peak physical productivity is in the morning. So, to be most effective you would do your hardest workouts in the morning… not leave the workout to end of day.

If you are a professional executive I can almost guarantee your peak creativity productivity is in the morning – therefore you should do your creative, strategic work in the morning. Leave routine – low priority work like email to the afternoon.  I know answering a hundred email feels rewarding… but most of our email is busy work – it can wait a few hours until our important / strategic work is done.

It’s all too easy to push aside Quadrant II work because the due date of that deliverable will be in the future.

Habit #3 (and Habit #1), of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People means we can choose to ‘Act, not be Acted Upon’.

How To Move Forward

You have the power to reinvent how you approach your day.

At first you may want to adopt Habit #3 slowly – perhaps the first (most important), 2 hours of your day. Don’t allow interruptions. Go work in a conference room if you need to – certainly, turn off email.

Focus on your big, important, non-urgent tasks. Prioritize what you, your boss or shareholders measure.  These items should remain non-urgent (Quadrant II), because you will keep them under control. If they become urgent it probably means you’ve let them slide in favour of other “Busy Work”.

Every week – revisit your true key 3 or 4 goals and use your creative imagination and a well implemented plan to succeed.

The Importance Of Saying No

Get used to saying no (or at least not now), to in favour of your Quadrant II (non-urgent but important), activities.

We all struggle with conflicting daily demands. Some non-strategic things we need to say no to… or at least say not now.  If these small activates threaten our ability to do our important work then it is our choice to succeed or fail.

To change we have to break our habits in favour of new habits – we can’t stop smoking if we keep lighting up. 

Habit #3 of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is not a quick fix. Do First Things First is called a ‘habit’ for a reason.  This is a long-term life skill commitment to things that matter most. It’s a habit to help us achieve the priorities and quality of life and success we want.

At home it might be as simple as stop watching TV and instead pull out a book or play a game with our child.

At work we might re-arrange our work schedule so we have dedicated “Help Others with their URGENT items” time between 3PM and 4PM in the afternoon… not in the morning when our personal productivity is at its peak.

What do you want to achieve?
Habit #2 asks – how do you want to be remembered by people close to you?


Quadrant II is deeply important and not urgent; it is where we want to spend our time / resources. Quadrant II is the quadrant of quality and personal leadership – where we:

  • Plan
  • Give creativity and brainstorming space
  • Broaden our minds
  • Prepare for important meetings
  • Delegate
  • Listen to our partners
  • Act

Unfortunately, most people spend most of their time in Quadrant III and IV – which means our leadership / life-changing activities are not being addressed.

One Day At Work

A typical day integrating Best Time Management Practices might look like this.

Quadrant II is our most important quadrant.  It depends on us knowing our objectives based on our future planning / envisioning work we did in Habit #2. 

Happy, safe and healthy communicating.

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I’d enjoy reading your comments on this post.

Reference Material:

  • Stephen R. Covey: 7 Habits of Highly Effective People ©
  • My experience

About Bruce Mayhew
Bruce Mayhew is a Leadership Coach, Keynote Speaker and Corporate Trainer who builds strong client and co-worker relationships that give clients a competitive advantage. Our training and development programs include: ■Generational Differences ■Effective Business Email Writing ■Email Etiquette ■Phone Etiquette ■Behaviour Event Interviewing (BEI) ■Mindfulness ■Using Linkedin to Build Client Relationships ■Objective Setting Made Easy

2 Responses to 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Habit 3

  1. anyta86 says:

    My life became very busy since I moved to the United States. At the very young age I realized that I need to manage my time effectively to survive in this environment.
    I have been using the approach of doing the important thing first for many years. In most cases I was able to finish urgent and non-urgent activities by the due date. Now it is my habit to work this way.
    I believe your article is very informative and helpful to people that need to improve their time management skills and become successful. Thank you.

    • Bruce Mayhew says:

      Thank you for your comments.
      Sounds like you have found a few Time Management techniques that work well for you and have benefited through success and peace-of-mind as a result.
      Well done.

I’ll enjoy reading your thoughts and your experiences.

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