First Things First


I've learned that the good is the enemy of the best when the first things in our lives are subordinated to other things. My daughter, Maria, recently had a new baby. A few days after she delivered, I visited with her, expecting to find her happy. Instead, I found her frustrated. She told me, "I have so many other projects and interests that are important to me. But right now, I have to put everything on hold. I'm spending all my time just meeting the physical needs of this new baby. I can't even find time to be with my other two children and my husband."

Seeking to understand, I replied, "So, this new baby is consuming you?" She continued, "I have other work to do. I have some writing projects that need my attention. I have other people in my life." I asked her, "What does your conscience tell you to do? Maybe right now there is only one thing that matters: your baby." She said, "But I have so many other projects and plans." She showed me her organizer. "I schedule time to do these other things, but then I'm constantly interrupted by my baby." I talked to her about the concept of a compass, not a clock. "You're being governed by your internal compass, your conscience, and you're doing something of enormous good. Now is not the time to be controlled by the clock. Throw away your planner for a few weeks. Only one thing is needful. So, relax and enjoy the very nature of this interruption to your life."

"But what about life balance and sharpening the saw?" she asked, knowing I teach these principles. "Your life is going to be imbalanced for a time, and it should be. The long run is where you go for balance. For now, don't even try to keep a schedule. Forget your calendar; take care of yourself; don't worry. Just enjoy the baby, and let that infant feel your joy." I reminded her: "The good is often the enemy of the best. You won't get much satisfaction from fulfilling scheduled commitments if you have to sacrifice first things and best things. Your satisfactions are tied to your role expectations. Maybe the only role that matters this entire day will be mothering your new baby. And if you fulfill that role well, you will feel satisfied. But if you schedule other commitments when you have no control of the demands your baby is going to make, you'll only be frustrated." Maria has since learned to relax and enjoy her baby more. She has also involved her husband and other children more in caring for the new baby, sharing with them all that can be shared.

Identify Your First Things

What are the first things in your life? One good way to answer that question is by asking other questions: "What is unique about me? What are my unique gifts? What is it that I can do that no one else can do?" For instance, who else can be a father to your child? A grandparent to your grandchildren? Who else can teach your students? Who else can lead your company? Who else can be a mother to your baby? In a sense, we all have our "babies," meaning some demanding new project or product.

Each of us has unique talents and capabilities and an important work to do in life. The tragedy is that our unique contribution is often never made because the important "first things" in our lives are choked out by other urgent things. And so some important works are never started or finished. In our new book, First Things First, co-authored with Roger and Rebecca Merrill, we suggest that the path to personal leadership follows the stepping stones of vision, mission, balance, roles, goals, perspective, and integrity in the moment of choice. It's an ecological balancing process. We invite readers to think very carefully through this process. "What are my responsibilities in life? Who are the people I care about?" The answers become the basis for thinking through your roles.

Your goals are then set by asking, "What is the important future state for each relationship or responsibility?" Setting up win-win agreements with people and maintaining positive relationships is not an efficient process; in fact, the process is usually slow. But once a win-win agreement is in place, the work will go fast. If you're efficient up front, you might be taking the slowest approach. Yes, you might drum your decision down someone else's throat, but whether or not he is committed to live by that decision and to carry it out is a different matter. Slow is fast; fast is slow.

Peter Drucker makes the distinction between a quality decision and an effective decision. You can make a quality decision, but if there isn't commitment to it, it won't be effective. There has to be commitment to make a "quality decision" effective. An executive may be highly efficient working with things, but highly ineffective working with people. Efficiency is different in kind from effectiveness. Effectiveness is a results word; efficiency is a methods word. Some people can climb the "ladder of success" very efficiently, but if it's leaning against the wrong wall, they won't be effective.

Efficiency is the value you learn when you work with things. You can move things around fast: you can move money, manage resources, and rearrange your furniture quickly. But if you try to be efficient with people on jugular issues, you'll likely be ineffective. You can't deal with people as if you're dealing with things. You can be efficient with things, but you need to be effective with people, particularly on jugular issues. Have you ever tried to be efficient with your spouse on a tough issue? How did it go? If you go fast, you'll make very slow progress. If you go slow and get deep involvement doing what is necessary through synergistic communication based on a win-win spirit you'll find that in the long run it's fast because then you have total commitment to it. You also have a quality decision simply because you have the benefit of different creative ideas interacting, creating a new solution that is better and more bonding.


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About the Author

Stephen R. Covey

Over his lifetime, Stephen inspired millions with the power of universal principles. As he traveled the globe many times over, his message was a simple one: for true success and meaning in life, we must be principle-centered in all areas of life. A teacher at heart, he often taught, "There are three constants in life: change, choice and principles." From the oval office, the board room, community halls and to the school house and family room, Stephen taught the mindset, skillset and toolset found in The 7 Habits of Highly effective people, his seminal work. His legacy is woven in The 7 habits, and, just as these habits are universal and timeless, so is Stephen R. Covey, who is admired around the world for his simple, yet powerful, universal, timeless teachings. Recognized as one of Time magazine’s 25 most influential Americans, Stephen R. Covey was one of the world’s foremost leadership authorities, organizational experts, and thought leaders.

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