Habit Three: First things First!

One of the most popular baby toys I remember from my childhood was a red and blue ball that had cutouts for different shapes that you could put inside it like a puzzle. In fact, most people give simple puzzles to their toddlers, and have done for decades. There’s something inherently good in learning about how things interact in our world, and how we can make things fit if we use our sense of space, our vision, and our ability to move things around. We cheer our children on when they get it right, and encourage them to persist when they’re struggling to make things fit. This week’s habit is all about how important it is to keep working on that skill as an adult, and especially as a leader or business owner.

If you’ve been following along so far, you’ve started to take more control of your day-to-day life, and you’re starting to really develop your vision for the future. And today, we get to think about how we put things in place that will move us towards this vision we are developing.

Question: What are the first things?

Life is full of opportunity, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed with all the choices we have to make. The term “decision fatigue” is used to describe how we tend towards a lower quality of decision making throughout the day. The idea builds on “ego depletion”, which suggests that we have a limited pool of mental resources for decision making and self regulation. Many public leaders including Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and even Barack Obama limited their wardrobe purely so they would not spend any time or energy thinking about what to wear on a given day.

For the most part it is easy to recognize the trivial decisions we make and the time-wasting tasks that we give our attention to throughout the day. You may already know which tasks are the most important ones to give your attention to (because you’re actively avoiding them!), but you may struggle to identify which are truly important. This is where Covey’s famous time matrix comes into play.


Use this tool to focus your work on things that are most effective, put them in your diary. And honestly, if you’re not using a calendar, scheduling tool or diary of some kind you might as well just stop reading and give up now. You are nowhere near as organized as you think you are, and you’re not as determined as you’d like to believe. And if you are, using a diary to plan things out ahead of time will only magnify your incredible power!

Use this time matrix and decide how much time you’re going to give to each quadrant. Then fill in the squares with the tasks you need to take action on THIS WEEK. Then put it in your diary, and go do it. There’s no need to over-complicate it – it will take you less time and effort to practice doing it now than it would to finish reading this article.

If you think about what your vision is, you should be able to come up with a few tasks that will move you towards that goal. I recently listened to an excellent podcast by James Altucher with his guest Frank Shamrock, in which Frank shared how he changed his whole life around with nothing more than a manila folder and some determination. His method was essentially to write on the front of the folder what his current state was. He used words like “liar”, “cheat”, “criminal”. On the back of the folder, he wrote what he wanted to become – who he wanted to be in the future. He used words like “World Champion”, “honest” – you get the idea. The thing that stood out for me though, was how he would use that folder to motivate his decision making. He’d ask himself “does this move me towards the front of this folder, or towards the back?” He filled that folder with decisions, commitments, and I’m sure a whole lot of other things – but they were his motivation and proof of change. That’s what gave him confidence when he’d encounter self doubt about who he was – because he could see where he was going, and he could see how far he’d already come.

Essentially it doesn’t matter what tools you use to prioritize your life, but if you’re trying to work it out on the fly, you’re almost guaranteed to be leaving important things out. Spend 20 minutes at the end (or start if that’s your thing) of each week (yes, book it in!) to use some tool to think about your progress. Share it with someone to keep you accountable to it, and to be encouraged in how you’re progressing.

And keep in mind – these things take practice, so don’t expect it to be a super simple 5 minute job if it’s the first time you’re doing this. Spend the time to get good before you try going fast. A lot of managers hear about how important speed is in decision making, and we want to rush things to prove how effective we are. Slow down. Spend the time to get it right, and you’ll see the benefits build up over time as you continue to push yourself to improve in your ability to plan the first things first.

If you’ve missed it, here’s the post for Habit One and Habit Two.

If you still don’t have the book, why not? Get it here.



  1. Pingback: Habit Four: Think Win-Win | Strategic Ventures

  2. Pingback: Habit Five: Understand First | Strategic Ventures

  3. Pingback: Habit Six: Synergize | Strategic Ventures

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *