Covey habit #3 – put the first things first

Covey habit #3 – put the first things first

Putting first things first

Everybody has tasks s/he does not like. Recognizing when these tasks are so important they have become ‘the first thing’ and doing them first is what disciplined people do. But being disciplined is also about not doing tasks when they do not have priority.

Covey thinks we should discipline ourselves. Does being disciplined make the tasks more fun? No!

Only with a clear direction in mind will we find the strength to do the things we do not like and create time for those things we actually want to do.

Climbing the right ladder is the first step. Once we are on the right ladder, the right technique might help us move faster.

Habit number three is about how to climb once we know for certain we are climbing the right ladder. It is about living habit one and two every day.

The urgent versus the important

You should question yourself regularly whether the matter you are turning your attention to is urgent or important, or maybe both.

Urgent matters are usually visible, they press on you. They are calling for action. You should wonder if the matter is urgent to you, or to other people. And if it is urgent to other people, do you want to put time and effort into it?

Important matters are directed to your goals and values. Goals and values are less visible and hence less pressing. That is why you need more proactivity to get closer to your goals. It is about preparation and being prepared. It is about looking for opportunity instead of solving problems.

Time management

According to Covey the first generations of time management tools (notes, checklists, calendars and prioritization) are focused on those things that are urgent.

These tools probably give you the feeling of being too scheduled, not having time left for unexpected opportunities, or be spontaneous.

Planning should not be about time management, but about self-management. This is why Covey focuses on enhancing and preserving relationships and on accomplishing results and not so much on getting your tasks done.

Making the urgent less urgent

Realize that whenever you say ‘yes’ to one thing, you will no longer have time for something else. Time is the most valuable and least replaceable of all resources.

Things that appear urgent will most likely trigger a ‘yes’ if you are asked to help out. It is useful to understand that saying ‘no’ is also a very legit option.

Covey suggests that you become more aware of your internal drive, values and goals. This makes it easier to say ‘yes’ to the actions that are based on them. This way, our values and goals are less often overruled by (non-important) urgent matters.

The important – Six qualities to focus on

Here you find the six guidelines to make the important – and not the urgent – a bigger part of your everyday life.

1. Coherence: Keep a list in your planner naming your short- and long-term goals, and the roles you have.
2. Balance: Your roles and goals, your health, family and development should be balanced in your schedule.
3. Focus: Organize on a weekly basis so you can check if all roles are included in your week. You can still shift some during your day or as the days pass. Weekly planning provides a better overview.
4. Subordinate schedules to people: When people and relationship come in play, you need to realize their importance over the scheduled activities.
5. Flexibility: “Your planning tool should be your servant, never your master,” says Covey. Plan as it suits you and how you are, not as you think you should.
6. Portable: Keep your schedule with you most of the time. You might want to check the schedule, or the goals on it. Or to compare what you planned with new opportunities.

Applying the six qualities into your week schedule

Tips to get you going.

  • Define your roles. Think about your different roles during the upcoming week.
  • Select your goals. Which goals do you want to accomplish within each of the roles you defined? Write down one or two as part of your schedule.
  • Schedule your week. Start with filling those hours that can only be spent during office hours, or on Saturdays.
  • Adapt daily. With your schedule written down, daily planning becomes daily adapting. Take a few minutes each morning to reconsider your current schedule.

Covey is right but not complete

I generally agree with Covey this time. The one thing I want to add is that you want to make it a habit to be:

1. Making a schedule every week on a specific time and
2. Check your schedule at least two times a day on specific moments. For example the moment you start your workday and after lunch.

Two tips from me after I tested scheduling like this the last nine weeks:

  • Leave room for urgent matters in your schedule. Make it at least one hour a day.
  • In the beginning you will tend to plan too much. Do not get frustrated, just learn from it (or try to avoid it).


Excerpt From: Stephen R. Covey. “The 7 HABITS of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic.” RosettaBooks, 2009

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/




Innovation and Research Officer at Sugar Habits
Judith studied behavioral change (applied social psychology) and is currently finishing her masters in philosophy with special attention for philosophy of action and intentionality. She works for SugarHabits a social media platform that helps people unlock more of their potential through learning new habits.

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5 Responses to “Covey habit #3 – put the first things first”

  1. leedo daniel says:

    Really great read Judith. SH was first called 7 Habits. Since so many ideas came from this book.
    Today I scheduled an ongoing reminder in my agenda that seems similar to your final 2 tips.

    One of my favourite concepts in life is that doing the “important” will ultimately reduce the amount of “urgent”. Really great read. Any ideas for books to read for people who want to master the art of prioritization? Thanks!

  2. Judith says:

    Hi Leedo,
    Thanks for your comment.
    I think that ‘do it tomorrow’ by Mark Foster might be an interesting read. It is partly about planning tomorrow instead of today, which will make the urgent less urgent (and hence leave more room for the important).

    • leedo daniel says:

      Thanks for recommending. I will get this book!
      The blogs look great. Keep it up.

  3. Bas Leijssenaar says:

    Great read, but I just can’t stop thinking why the habit “Put first things first” is habit #3 :D

    • Judith Martens says:

      Haha, that sounds funny indeed.

      We need to know what is first, before we can put it first. Habit #1 and #2 are to help you figure this out, hence it comes in third place.