Habit 3-Put First Things First


Let’s face it. You’ve got a lot to do and there just isn’t enough time. Habit 3, Put First Things First, can help. It’s all about learning to prioritize and manage your time so that your first things come first, not last. But there’s more to this habit than just time management. Putting first things first also deals with learning to overcome your fears and being strong during hard moments. In Habit 2, you decided what your first things are. Habit 3, then, is putting them first in your life.

Sure we can have a nice list of goals and good intentions, but doing them, putting them first is the hard part. That’s why Habit 3 is the habit of willpower (the strength to say yes to your most important things) and won’t-power (the strength to say no to less important things and to peer pressure.)

The first three habits build upon each other. Habit 1 says, “You are the driver, not the passenger.” Habit 2 says, “Decide where you want to go and draw up a map to get you there.” Habit 3 says, “Get there! Don’t let roadblocks knock you off course.”


Packing More Into Your Life


Have you ever packed a suitcase and noticed how much more you fit inside when you neatly fold and organize your clothes instead of just throwing them in? The same goes for your life. The better you organize yourself, the more you’ll be able to pack in-more time for family and friends, more time from school, more time for yourself, more time for your first things.

I’d like to show you a model called the Time Quadrants that can help you pack more in (especially important things). It’s made up of two primary ingredients, “important” and “urgent.”

Important-your most important things, your first things, activities that contribute to your mission and your goals.

Urgent-pressing things, in-your-face things, activities that demand attention.




Not Urgent


1. The Procrastinator

2. The Prioritizer

Not Important

3. The Yes-Man

4. The Slacker

In general, we spend our time in four different time quadrants. Each quadrant contains different kinds of activities and is represented by a type of person.


  1. Important/urgent-The Procrastinator: exam tomorrow, friend gets injured, late for work, project due today, car breaks down (Q1)
  2. Important/not urgent-The Prioritizer: planning, goal setting, essay due in a week, exercise, relationships, relaxation (Q2)
  3. Not important/urgent-The Yes-Man: unimportant phone calls, interruptions, other people’s small problems, peer pressure (Q3)
  4. Not Important/not urgent-The Slacker: too much TV, endless phone calls, excessive computer games, mall marathons, time wasters (Q4)


If you haven’t noticed already, we live in a society that is addicted to urgency. It’s the NOW generation. That’s why we have instant pudding, Minute rice, crash diets, fast food, and so on. Urgent things aren’t bad, necessarily. The problem comes when we become so focused on urgent things that we put off important things that aren’t urgent, like working on that report in advance, going for a walk in the mountains, or writing and important letter to a friend. All these important things get pushed aside by urgent things, like phone calls, interruptions, drop-ins, deadlines, other people’s problems, and other “in your face do it now” things. As we dig deeper into each quadrant, ask yourself, “What quadrant am I spending most of my time in?”


(Q1) Important/urgent-The Procrastinator


There will always be Q1 things that we can’t control and that must get done, like helping a sick child or meeting an important deadline. But we can also cause many Q1 headaches because we procrastinate, like when we put off doing our homework and then have to cram all night for a test. The motto of the procrastinator is, “I am going to stop procrastinating-some time soon.” The procrastinator is addicted to urgency. Planning ahead is simply out of the question for the procrastinator because it would ruin the excitement of doing everything at the last possible moment. The results of too much time in Q1 are: stress and anxiety, burnout and mediocre performance.


(Q2) Important/not urgent: The Prioritizer


We’ll save the best for last.


(Q3) Not important/urgent- The Yes-Man


Q3 represents things that are urgent but not important. It is characterized by trying to please other people and responding to their every desire. This quadrant is deceptive because urgent things have the appearance of being important. In truth, they’re often not. Q3 is loaded with activities that are important to other people but not important to you-things that you would like to say no to but can’t because you’re really afraid you might offend someone. He tries so hard to please everyone that he usually ends up pleasing no one, including himself. He often caves into peer pressure because he likes to be popular and he wouldn’t want to stand out. His motto is, “Tomorrow, I’m going to be more assertive-if that’s okay with you.” Q3 is one of the worst quadrants to be in because it has no backbone. It’s fickle and will blow whichever way the wind is blowing.


(Q4) Not Important/not urgent-The Slacker


Q4 is the category of waste and excess. These activities are neither urgent nor important. He loves anything in excess, like too much TV, too much sleep, too many video games, or too much time on the Web. He is a professional loafer. Going to the movies, chatting on the Web, or just hanging out are part of a healthy lifestyle. It’s only when they’re done in excess that they become a waste of time. You’ll know when you cross that line. Watching that first TV show might just be exactly what you need to relax, and that’s okay. But then watching the second, third, or even fourth show (a rerun that you’ve seen six times) until 2AM turns a relaxing evening into a wasted one. The results of living in Q4 are a lack of responsibility, guilt and flakiness.


(Q2) Important/not urgent-The Prioritizer


Q2 is made of things that are important but not urgent, like relaxation, building friendships, exercising, planning ahead, and doing homework…on time! It’s the quadrant of excellence-the place we want to be. But are Q2 activities urgent? No. And that’s why we have trouble doing them. Although the prioritizer is by no means perfect, he’s basically got it together. He takes a look at everything he has to do and then prioritizes, making sure his first things get done first and his last things last. Because he has the simple but powerful habit of planning ahead, he’s usually on top of things. By doing his homework on time and writing papers in advance, he does his best work and avoids the stress and burnout that come from cramming. He makes time to exercise and renew himself, even if it means pushing aside other things. The people who matter most in his life, like his friends and family, come first. Although it’s a struggle, staying balanced is important to him. He’s learned to say no with a smile. When his friends dropped by unexpectedly one evening to go to a party, he said “No thanks. I have a huge test tomorrow. But how about Friday night? Let’s get together then. “ His friends were okay with that and secretly wished they had the courage to say no as well. He’s learned that resisting peer pressure appears unpopular at first, but that people come to respect him for that.


So, in which quadrant are you spending the majority of your time? Since, in reality, we all spend some time in each quadrant, the key is to shift as much time as possible into Q2. To start with using a planner of some sort that has a calendar and a space to write appointments, assignments, to-do lists, and goals is highly valuable. With a planner you’ll no longer have to worry about forgetting things or double-booking yourself. A planner is not meant to be your master but a tool to help you live your life.


Plan Weekly


Take fifteen minutes each week to plan your week and just watch what a difference it can make. Why weekly? Because we think in weeks and because daily planning is too narrow a focus and monthly planning is too broad a focus.

Step 1: Identify Your Big Rocks. At the end or beginning of each week, sit down and think about what you want to accomplish for the upcoming week. Ask yourself, “What are the most important things I need to do this week?” We will call these your big rocks. They are sort of like minigoals and should be tied into your mission statement and longer-term goals. You might come up with a list of big rocks that looks something like this:


My Big Rocks for the Week



Step 2: Block out Time for Your Big Rocks. During your weekly planning, block out time for your big rocks by booking them in your planner. It’s like making a reservation. If you block out time for your big rocks first, the other everyday activities will fit in as well.

Step3 Schedule Everything Else. Once you have your big rocks booked, schedule in all of your other little to-dos, daily tasks, and appointments. You may also want to look ahead in your calendar and record upcoming events and activities, like a vacation or birthday.


Adapt Daily

With your weekly plan in place, adapt each day as needed. You’ll probably need to rearrange some big rocks and pebbles now and then. Try your best to follow your plan, but if you don’t accomplish everything you set out to do, no big deal. The point is: The simple act of planning ahead each week will help you focus on your big rocks and consequently accomplish so much more.


The Other Half

Time management isn’t all there is to Habit 3. It’s only half of it. The other half is learning to overcome fear and peer pressure. It takes courage and guts to stay true to your first things, like your values and standards, when the pressure is on. As Edmund Hillary, the first person to climb Mount Everest, put it, “It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” So the next time you want to:

Or even if you want to sing in public…Do it!…even when all your fears and doubt scream out, “You stink!” Never let your fears make your decisions. You make them.


Be Strong in the Hard Moments

Hard moments are conflicts between doing the right thing and doing the easier thing. They are the key tests, the defining moments of life-and how we handle them can literally shape our lives forever. They come in two sizes, small and large.

Small hard moments occur daily and include things like getting up when your alarm rings, controlling your temper, or disciplining yourself to do your homework. In contrast to small hard moments, larger ones occur every so often in life and include things like choosing good friends, resisting peer pressure, and rebounding after a major setback.


The Common Ingredient of Success

In the final analysis, putting first things first takes discipline. It takes discipline to manage your time. It takes discipline to overcome your fears. It takes discipline to be strong in the hard moments and resist peer pressure. Successful people are willing to suck it up from time to time and do things they don’t like doing. Because they know these things will lead them to their goals. In other words, sometimes you just gotta exercise your special human tool called willpower to get things done, whether you feel like it or not.



Habit 3 Put First Things First – Worksheet


1. Define willpower: ______________________________________________________________________________________


2. Define won’t-power: ______________________________________________________________________________________


3. What is the motto of the Procrastinator: “____________________________________________________________________________________.”


4. What is the motto of the Yes-Man: “____________________________________________________________________________________.”


5. The results of living in Q4 are a __________________________________, ____________________, and _________________________________________________________________________________.


6. In which quadrant do you think you are spending the majority of your time? ______________________________________________________________________________________.


7. Identify your biggest time wasters. Do you really need to spend two hours on the phone, or watch the sitcom rerun?

My biggest time wasters: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________.


8. Think of something you’ve procrastinated for a long time but that’s important to you. Block out time this week in your planner to get it done.

Items I’ve procrastinated forever: ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________.


9. Note your five most important big rocks for the upcoming week. Now, block out time on your schedule to accomplish each one.

  1. ________________________________________________________________________________
  2. ________________________________________________________________________________
  3. ________________________________________________________________________________
  4. ________________________________________________________________________________
  5. ________________________________________________________________________________


10. Identify a fear that is holding you back from reaching your goals. Decide right now to jump outside your comfort zone and stop letting that fear get the best of you.

Fear that’s holding me back: ______________________________________________________________________________________.


11. How much impact does peer pressure have on you? Identify the person or people who have the most impact on you. Ask yourself, “Am I doing what I want to do or what they want me to do?”

Person or people who most influence me: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________.