| May 30, 2018

Last updated: October 19, 2018

A Man's Life

The 7 Habits: Put First Things First

Welcome back to our monthly series that summarizes, expands, and riffs on each of the seven habits laid out in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.

Covey’s first two habits are big picture and abstract.

Habit #1 — “Be Proactive” — is about changing your mindset from someone who is acted upon to someone who acts. It’s about reminding yourself that you are in charge of your life and how you respond to it.

Habit #2 builds off of the first. It instructs you to marshal the power of personal agency and “Begin With the End in Mind” — the “end” here being nothing less final than the grave. When you look back on your life from your deathbed, what do you want to see and how do you want to feel? Once you know that, you create a personal mission statement based on timeless principles and your own core values that helps you develop and practice these “eulogy virtues.”

Habit #3 is where the rubber meets the road.

As Covey argues, Habits 1 and 2 are about personal leadership — figuring out where you want to go and what you want to do in life — while Habit #3 is about personal management. It’s about taking the big picture, the abstract, the idealistic, and turning them into the day-to-day, the concrete, the practical. It’s about taking external actions that match your internal convictions.

As Covey puts it, “While leadership decides what ‘first things’ are, it is management that puts them first.”

Big Rocks vs. Small Rocks

In Covey’s book First Things First, he fleshes out this habit even more and introduces the analogy of big rocks vs. small rocks (I did a video on this several years ago that may be helpful to watch). 

Imagine that you have a pile of sand and small rocks, a pile of big rocks, and a jar into which you must put both piles. Let’s say you filled the jar first with the sand/small rocks; you might find that they took up so much space that you ultimately didn’t have room for the big rocks. But, let’s say you instead first filled the jar with big rocks, and then put in the sand and small rocks; the sediment will settle in the cracks of the big rocks, allowing you to fit everything in from both piles.

Your life is like the jar. The small rocks are the urgent, but less important things in your life — the endless to-dos and fires to put out. The big rocks are the most important things in your life: activities that don’t have hard deadlines but help you achieve your principle personal, school, and work goals, as well as your overall mission as a man. Big rocks concern spirituality, health, relationships, and professional purpose — the things that ultimately develop the eulogy virtues.

When you tackle life’s “big rocks” first, you end up having time for everyday life maintenance tasks, as well as for relaxation and fun. But when you put the small rocks — the merely urgent or meaningless — first, the more important things in life get crowded out. Your life can simultaneously feel both super busy and frustratingly stagnant; your days feel crammed, but you don’t seem to be making any progress on your goals, and in becoming the man you want to be.

So we know why it’s important to put first things first, but how do we do it? What are the best “management” practices to help us properly order our priorities?

Frontloading Your Life, or, You Are Your Morning Routine

Habit #3 is the one I’ve previously written about more than any other, and I could simply re-take you through the two practices Covey recommends for its implementation, and that I’ve already covered in-depth: sorting your tasks into a 4-quadrant decision matrix and planning your week.

I’ve found both of these practices really helpful in my own life, but, to be honest, my weekly planning tends to be somewhat sporadic, and I don’t typically think of the decision matrix on a day-to-day basis.

So, while the practices are certainly useful, I don’t think the great majority of people will even try them, much less stick with them. They’re a little involved, and basic human nature being what it is, they’re hard to permanently incorporate into your life.

Therefore, I instead want to strip things back to the very basics, and suggest an approach to living this habit that’s both crazy accessible and crazy effective.

I’m going to do that by treating the maxim of “first things first” quite literally.

If you want to make sure you accomplish the most important things in your life, then you need to literally make them the first things you do each day.

You need to make your big rocks part of your morning routine.

How do you decide what tasks you need to schedule for first thing in the morning? It comes down to an intersection of your personal purpose and a line of dominos. Here’s what I mean, using my own life as an example.

First, think about your purpose. Mine looks something like this:

  • Strengthen my relationship with God
  • Be the best possible husband to Kate
  • Be the best possible father to Gus and Scout
  • Create content on AoM that improves men’s lives
  • Increase my physical strength

Okay, so I know my priorities, my big rocks. So then the question becomes, of these planks of my purpose, how should their practice be ordered, at least in terms of my daily schedule? And that’s where the dominos come in.

In looking at the practices attendant to your purposes, you want to ask yourself: “Which of these, if I complete them first, will facilitate the completion of the others?” If your day-to-day tasks are like a line of dominos, then you want to carefully choose your very top priority — the domino that will sit at the front of the line — as one which will successfully kickstart the energy that’ll send one domino into another (this is an idea inspired by Gary Keller’s The One Thing).

So in my own life I know I’m not going to be able to do anything else very well — work or relationship wise — unless I get my mind right. Creating a mindset of calm, centered focus is thus my first, first thing. It’s foundational for everything else. It’s my first domino.

What that means practically is that the very first thing I do when I get out of bed each day is to engage in a set of mental and spiritual exercises: I pray, read my scriptures, meditate, and do an exercise from the Foundations of Well-Being, which I’ve found helps mitigate my tendency towards depression and irritable moodiness.

When I say I do this first thing in the morning, I mean that quite literally; I used to first check my phone when I woke up, but I found this set my mind up for a day of triviality and distraction. Sometimes I got lost on my phone, which ate up the time for my mental/spiritual exercises; or I saw something that affected my mood, so that even though I still did the exercises, they were less focused and effective. It just made me generally twitchier that day. Now, I don’t touch my phone until my mental/spiritual exercises are done. I have to say, this small, simple change has been absolutely game-changing. First things first.

My spiritual/mental exercises set my mind right for everything else I’ll do that day, including the next step in my morning routine: my workout.

My daily workout is not only enhanced by the mindset exercises I do beforehand, but further enhances their effect — strengthening the positive, confident attitude with which I approach the day. There’s nothing like hefting pieces of iron to leave you feeling sharp and grounded. It ensures that the momentum of the falling dominos continues on.

Once my morning routine is over, and I’m feeling both centered and energized, it’s time for work. Within my workday, I utilize the same principle of first things first: I tackle my most important tasks at the start of the day, knowing that if I do so, I’ll not only have ensured that the most value-creating things get done, but that I’ll be able to fit the “urgent,” smaller rocks in later.

My morning routine sets me up for workday success, and the continued employment of the “first things first” principle ensures that the workday is productive.

Of course I haven’t directly tackled any relational things yet — anything related to my purpose as a husband and father. But the fact that my mood is positive, and that my workday has been productive primes me to bring my best self to these roles. The fact that a healthy mindset will improve my relationships is obvious, but having accomplished what I needed to with work goes a long way too. When you spend the day dicking around, once more letting the hours slip away from you, you feel terrible — restless and irritable. You not only infect your family with these negative vibes, you may also only give them part of your attention, as you try to catch up on work on your phone. But when you spent your work time well, you can disengage from work mode without guilt, and immerse yourself in fully present play.

How you start your day will be how you end it, and as days become weeks, which become years, how you end each day will ultimately be how you end your life. You are your morning routine.

So frontload what’s most important to you in the a.m. Put first things first.

Read the Whole Series

  1. Be Proactive, Not Reactive
  2. Begin With the End in Mind
  3. Put First Things First
  4. Think Win/Win
  5. Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
  6. Synergy (Beyond the Eye-Rolling Buzzword)
  7. Sharpen the Saw
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