Put First Things First

Early in my career I sometimes felt like I was reacting to events throughout the workday. The direction of my day could easily be altered by an interruption from a colleague stopping by my office or an email that someone else thought was urgent. As a result, I found myself working longer hours to accomplish what needed to get done.

Then I found and began using Stephen Covey’s time management matrix from his best selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. As depicted in the matrix below, you’ll see that two factors define any activity: urgency and importance.

Let’s briefly explore each quadrant in this matrix.

Quadrant I: Urgent and Important

Spending too much time in this quadrant results in stress and burnout. Covey likens it to getting pounded by waves, “A huge problem comes and knocks you down and you’re wiped out. You struggle back up only to face another one that knocks you down and slams you to the ground.”

Quadrant II: Not Urgent and Important

Quadrant II is the key to effective self management. You can reduce the time you spend in Quadrant I by spending more time in Quadrant II. The outcome of time spent here is perspective, balance, discipline, control, and few crises.

Quadrant III: Urgent and Not Important

Too many people spend time in Quadrant III thinking they are in Quadrant I. Covey writes, “But the reality is that the urgency of these matters is often based on the priorities and expectations of others.”

Quadrant IV: Not Urgent and Not Important

Covey doesn’t hold back when he says that you are being irresponsible if you spend too much time in Quadrant IV. The result of too much time here could mean you are depending too much on others or your organization for basics and that could result in eventual termination from your responsibilities.

A few years ago I read about the most important task (MIT) technique. Likely inspired by Covey, the idea is to identify and spend your time on two or three important tasks each day (Quadrant II). To remind me to focus on my most important task, I have MIT written down on a small sheet of paper next to my desk.

Reflection Questions from Stephen Covey

  • What one thing could you do (you aren’t doing now) that if you did on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your personal life?

  • What one thing in your business or professional life would bring similar results?


Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 habits of highly effective people. Simon & Schuster.

Covey, S. R., Merrill, A. R., & Merrill, R. R. (1995). First things first. Simon and Schuster.

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