Put First Things First

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Put First Things First is Habit # 3 of Stephen Covey’s book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

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Do you put your first things first? Putting first things first means doing to the most important things in life. It means being clear about your priorities and acting on them.


That sounds pretty easy and intuitive, but many people unconsciously fall into the trap of getting caught up in non-important things. They neglect the larger life priorities until it becomes too late to act on them. To become a master of your time, you need to first be aware of your priorities in the larger context of your life. The framework which I will be sharing with you later in this article – Time Management Matrix – (from Covey’s book) is tremendously valuable in helping you achieve that. It will help you structure out your daily activities in accordance of importance and urgency and deal with them accordingly.

The Time Management Matrix is actually the fourth generation in the series of time management systems developed to give us more control of our lives. Each system builds on the one before it to move us toward greater control.

First Generation – Reminders

The first generation of system is about “reminders” of our tasks through notes and to-do lists. While these are generally helpful, there are two downsides. Firstly, commitments may not be kept, because people do tasks as they appear as on the list or according to whatever may seem important at the time. Secondly, there is a lack of long-term vision. Using lists do not enable us to look ahead or get to the truly important tasks.

Second Generation – Planning and Preparation

The second generation improves on that. It is about “planning and preparation” – looking ahead, identifying deadlines and scheduling future events accordingly. Tools used include calendars and appointment books. With this system, we now have personal accountability since our tasks are tied to a certain deadline. We can also be more organized and prepared, such as for meetings and appointments.

However, the downside is we become fixated on what is in the calendar. In our focus to complete our tasks, we may tune out ‘distractions’, such as a call from friends or general family time, even though we may genuinely value people and relationships!

Third Generation – Prioritizing, Planning and Controlling

The third generation addresses that, somewhat. It is about “Prioritizing, planning and controlling” – including clarifying of values and goal setting based on those values. Daily tasks are subsequently planned in accordance with these goals. Examples include personal organizer and electronic or paper-based planners.

Most of us use this system today. When I was studying in business school, most people were operating by this system. Everyone’s common goal was to have a successful career in a reputable company; Subsequently our daily tasks revolved around getting good grades, project work, studying, etc.

However, the system does not factor in deeper values such as relationships, spirituality, inner peace which are more important in the bigger picture. While people become highly successful in goal achievement with third generation, they eventually reach a point where there is a conflict between their goals and what gives them deeper meanings. An example would be overachieving corporates who feel a sense of emptiness despite a successful career.


Fourth Generation – Quality and Personal Leadership

The fourth generation system addresses this gap – It focuses us on developing deeper value tasks and accomplishing results. This is done via using Covey’s framework to first classify our daily activities, then dealing with them in a certain way based on which quadrant they fall in.

Time Management Matrix: The 4 Quadrants

Our daily activities can be broken down into 4 quadrants, by urgency and importance:

Time Management Matrix

4 quadrants of the Time Management Matrix along with examples (Image © Personal Excellence)

Quadrant 1: Quadrant of Necessity

You will find your crises or emergencies listed here. This quadrant screams for our attention because of its urgent and consequential nature. However, many people fall into the trap of getting caught up in Q-1. By spending all our time here, we become consumed with firefighting every day instead of crisis prevention. Side effects include stress, burn-out, constant firefighting and resolving problems instead of preventing them in the first place. We often see working level employees, advertising executives, accountants, etc getting consumed by this quadrant.

Quadrant 3: Quadrant of Deception

Some people spend a lot of time dealing with Q-3 tasks and confusing them with Q-1 tasks. They think the tasks are important when it is otherwise. For example, you may be spending a lot of time on a certain report which does not have any implication in your overall job performance or appraisal. Or you may be constantly attending meetings which have no value-add. This is why Q-3 is called the Quadrant of Deception. Many times, the urgency of these tasks are due to others’ priorities or needs.

A good way to differentiate Q-3 from Q-1 task is to ask yourself: “Is this task related to my goals? Does doing this make any difference to me?” Focusing on Q-3 results in short-term vision and myopia, being out of control in life and not being able to stick through with your own goals and plans.

Quadrant 4: Quadrant of Waste

This is called the Quadrant of Waste, and for good reason – it contains all your time wasters. People living unconsciously have a tendency to hover around primarily Q-3 and Q-4. After resolving Q-3 tasks, they fall into auto-pilot mode and spend time doing Q-4 tasks. This can be because they have nothing better to do or they are procrastinating on things they should be doing. This quadrant puts no value in our lives whatsoever. Focusing on Q-4 results in irresponsible behaviour and dependency on other people.

Quadrant 2: Quadrant of Quality and Personal Leadership

Q-2 is magic quadrant we need to focus on – It is the most important, yet most often neglected. Q-2 is all about having personal leadership and focusing on the important tasks that matter. Q-2 tasks should reflect your life goals and desires, which are laddered down from your life purpose. To correctly define them, you need to be clear on your life purpose first – so if you have not discovered your life purpose, please read my 7-part series on Discovering Your Purpose!

There are two reasons why Q-2 tasks are often neglected. Firstly, Q-2 tasks never become urgent until it is too late. For example, taking care of your health or pursuing your dreams. Secondly, compared to other quadrants, these tasks require more investment of energy and time for results, which conflicts with society’s obsession with instant results nowadays.

However, Q-2 tasks also reap the most reward in the long run. Think about it as sowing seeds for harvest in the future. Imagine you are a lawyer whose dream career is to be a literature teacher (Q-2 task). While working as a lawyer, you may start studying for a degree in literature. You may also take up teaching courses. While these will take a few years till completion, you have planted the seed. You know it is only a matter of time before you will enjoy the harvest – being a full-fledged teacher. Another example would be relationships. You may desire to get into a rewarding, long-term relationship (a Q-2 task). Acting on the Q-2 task means starting the conscious search for your prospective partner now. Even though it may take you a while before you find someone you desire, you will be able to experience benefits earlier than if you procrastinate on it.

After you plant your seeds, you will need to continuously put in time and effort to manage your plants. However, it is simply a matter of time before you can reap the rewards of your labor. On the other hand, if you keep on putting off these Q-2 tasks, the status quo will remain the same, whether 5, 10, 20 years from now. Focusing on Q-2 will result in vision, perspective, balance and control.


Think about all the activities you engage in a typical day. Now, classify them into their respective quadrants. How time and effort do you spend on each quadrant? Are there any tasks in Q-2 which you are neglecting? Strengthening your relationship with your family perhaps? Finding your life partner? Your health? Or investing in personal development?

To become effective, you need to consciously alter your behaviour to the following key principles:

  1. Q-1 Tasks: Manage immediately to get them out of the way. Spend the required effort needed such that they do not blow out of portion
  2. Q-2 Tasks: Focus disproportionately due to the high payoff from the investment.
  3. Q-3 Tasks: Delegate to other people due to their urgent nature, but get minimally involved in them as they are not important
  4. Q-4 Tasks: Dump them as they are neither important nor urgent

The table below illustrates a breakdown of how effective people would allocate their time. The bigger the size of the quadrant, the more the time spent:

Time Management Matrix — Ideal allocation across 4 quadrants

An ideal allocation of time across the 4 quadrants, with 0% of time going into Q-4 (Image © Personal Excellence)

Notice that Q-2 takes up the bulk, followed by Q-1. Q-3 takes up a minimal proportion. Q-4 tasks are completely out of the picture.

Applying Time Management Matrix to my life

If you are living in an unconscious manner, you will find majority of your time spent in Q-1, Q-3 and Q-4, in varying proportions. When I first knew about the framework two and a half years ago, I was surprised to know that many of my Q-2 tasks were neglected. Most of my time was spent in Q-1, followed by Q-3 and finally Q-4. For example at work, I would be spending majority of the time firefighting and dealing with crises. This was especially so since I was in project management, where delivery against timelines was critical. I was also unconsciously investing in Q-3 tasks and thinking that I was being productive, such as writing unnecessary reports, attending unimportant meetings, dealing with others’ requests.

After I was done with Q-1 and Q-3 tasks at work, I would feel too tired to do any brain work. I would move to Q-4 tasks, which were basically mindless. These included random web surfing, rewatching drama series, shopping and playing games. On the other hand, I had Q-2 tasks such as eating healthier, exercising, pursuing my passion in helping people, improving my relationship with my family, etc. While I recognized them as important, they were always last on the to-do list simply because they did not seem urgent at the moment. If I ever do plan to do a Q-2 task, I almost never get to it because Q-1 and Q-3 tasks always take centerstage. Q-2 tasks were always left for tomorrow or next time, since they were not urgent.

About a year ago, I reviewed the framework again. Guess what I found? There was almost no change in how my time was spent across the 4 quadrants! Despite investing so much time and being incredibly efficient in Q-1 and Q-3 tasks, my life not seem very different vs. a year ago. Despite wanting to work on Q-2 tasks, they kept moving to the back burner because there were always new, ‘pressing’ things emerging every day, taking up my time and attention. By constantly allowing myself to be embroiled in urgent tasks, I did not leave any time for Q-2, the most important areas of my life. It became clear that unless I consciously prioritize my Q-2 tasks, nothing is ever going to happen in this area.

Understanding that was a powerful epiphany for me. From then on, I started to be more proactive in my Q-2 tasks. I clearly articulated my Q-2 goals in a document. I started developing strategies and plans toward achieving those goals. For every activity that I do, I would evaluate first to see which quadrant it lies under before doing it. Depending on the quadrant, I would either do it myself (Q-1), spend disproportionate time/effort (Q-2) delegate it (Q-3) or dump it (Q-4).

It was not entirely easy too – When I first started this, there were many times I would slip into my previous response model. However, as time passed, I started seeing the benefits of investing in Q-2 tasks. For example, after I started working on eating healthier and exercising more often, I was visibly losing weight. It further reinforced to me the importance of sowing the seeds of Q-2 goals. Today, I find myself naturally orienting toward Q-2 tasks. The realization that Q-2 is essentially a ‘gold mine’ makes me prioritize it over every other activity. My natural behaviour toward Q-1, Q-3 and Q-4 tasks is to get them out of the way so that I can go back to focusing on Q-2, because I know this is what will give me the biggest rewards in the long run. 😀

Next Step: Apply the model to your life

Try adopting this model for a few months and see how it works for you. 🙂 The next time you do something, evaluate which quadrant it falls under. Is it Q-1, Q-2, Q-3 or Q-4? Are you adopting the right mode of action for a task of this quadrant? What are the Q-2 tasks you are neglecting in your life? Start working on them today and in time to come, you will find yourself reaping the fruits of your labor.


This is part of the Maximizing Productivity series. Check out the full series:

Images: Clock; Time Management Matrix images by Personal Excellence