Put First Things First


Question: What one thing could you do – which you aren’t doing now – that If you did it regularly,
would make a tremendous difference in your business or personal life?

The next habit involves self-leadership and self-management: putting first things first. Leader
ship decides what the “first things” are, and management is the discipline of carrying out your

As Peter Drucker has pointed out, the expression “time management” is something of a
misnomer: We have a constant amount of time, no matter what we do; the challenge we face
is to manage ourselves. To be an effective manager of yourself, you must organize and
execute around priorities.

We don’t manage time. We can only I manage ourselves.

Instead of trying to fit all the things of our lives into the time allotted, as many time management
plans do, our focus here is on enhancing relationships and achieving results.
We all face the same dilemma. We are caught between the urgent and the important.
Something urgent requires immediate attention, it’s usually visible, it presses on us, but may
not have any bearing on our long-term goals. Important things, on the other hand, have to do
with results – they contribute to our mission, our values, our high- priority goals. We react to
urgent matters; we often must act to take care of important matters, even as urgent things
scream for our attention.

People get “harried” away from their real goals and values by subordinating the important to
the urgent; some are beaten up by problems (in quadrants I and HI on the “Time-Management
Matrix”) all day, every day. Their only relief is in escaping once in a while to the calm waters of
quadrant IV.

To paraphrase Drucker again, effective people don’t solve problems – they pursue
opportunities. They feed opportunities and starve problems. They have genuine quadrant I
emergencies, but by thinking and acting preventively, they keep their number down.
With the time-management quadrants in mind, consider the question you answered at the
beginning of this section. What quadrant do your answers fit in? My guess is quadrant H:
deeply important, but not urgent And because they aren’t urgent, you don’t do them.

I put a group of shopping-center managers through the same exercise. The thing they said
would make a tremendous difference was to build helpful personal relationships with their
tenants – the owners of the stores inside the center – a quadrant II activity.
We did an analysis of how much time they spent on that activity. It was less than 5 percent of
their time. They had good reasons: urgent problems, one after the other. Reports, meetings,
calls, interruptions. Quadrant I consumed them. The only time they did spend with store
managers was filled with negative energy: when they had to collect money or correct
advertising practices that were out-of-line.

The owners decided to be proactive. They resolved to spend one-third of their time improving
their relationships with tenants. I worked with the organi7 a year and a half, and saw their time
spent with tenants climb to 20 percent They became listeners and consultants to their tenants.
The effect was profound. Tenants were thrilled with the new ideas and skills the owners
brought them. Sales in the stores climbed, and so did revenues from the leases. 

Quadrant II activities are very powerful, because they are closely tied to results. Your
effectiveness will increase dramatically with a small increase in those activities; your crises will
be fewer and smaller.

To say “yes” to important things requires you to learn to say no to other activities, some of
them urgent Keep in mind that you are always saying “no” to something. If it isn’t to the
urgent things in your life, it’s probably to the more fundamental, important things.

To pursue quadrant II:
• Identify your key roles: business, family, church – whatever comes to mind as
important. Think of those you will act in for the coming week.
• Think of two or three important results you feel you should accomplish in each role
during the next seven days. At least some of these goals should be quadrant II
• Look at the week ahead with your goals in mind, and block out the time each day to
achieve them. Once your key goals are in place, look how much time you have left for
everything else! How well you succeed skill depend on how resilient and determined
you are at defending your most important priorities.