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First Things First - critical summary review

First Things First Critical summary review
Career & Business and Productivity & Time Management

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: First Things First - To Live, to Love, to Learn, to Leave a Legacy

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 9780671864415

Publisher: Mango Media

Also available in audiobook, download now:


Critical summary review

Whether it’s parents rushing to leave their children at school, or employees rushing to meet this week’s deadline – it seems like everyone’s in a rush nowadays. And how can they not be?

There are so many tasks on everyone’s lists today that, often, having 24 hours in a day doesn’t seem enough to cross them off, let alone to make some space for ourselves or our families. 

But, wait a moment! Why shouldn’t it be the other way around? Why should you and your hobbies – or your family and loved ones – come last? Why should your job or that “vital” meeting with your CEO tonight be the first thing you put on your list?

First Things First,” a collaborative work by Stephen R. Covey, A. Roger Merrill and Rebecca R. Merrill, is a book about priorities.  Its main idea is that you can’t easily move from a sense of chaos and urgency to a state of peace and a reasonable degree of productivity simply by employing the correct time management techniques. 

You need something much more than that, something that lies beneath the necessity for a time management system, something that starts way before you start writing down your daily to-do list.

And that is precisely where we think we should start our summary!

The clock and the compass

Here’s a great question: if someone were to wave a magic wand and suddenly grant you a 20 percent increase in efficiency as compared to the one you have today (or even the one promised by traditional time management techniques), would you accept that offer? Would this solve your time management concerns?

Few would answer “no” to the first question, even though many would give precisely that answer to the latter one. You know why? Because life seems to have become an endless list of tasks, and no amount of efficiency will ever help you take control of your life or bring you the peace and fulfillment you’re looking for.

And yet, this is what most traditional self-help books prescribe, what almost all of them strive to teach you: how to be faster, harder, and smarter, how to be able to do more in less time. In other words, they are offering you another clock, when what you really need is a compass: after all, much more important than how fast you’re going is where you’re headed.

The contrast between these powerful life-directing tools – the clock and the compass – is what characterizes our main struggles in life.

The clock, as you’ve already sensed, represents our commitments, appointments, schedules, goals, activities – it stands for how we manage our time and what we do with. The compass, on the other hand, represents our vision, values, principles, mission, conscience, direction – what we feel is important and how we lead our lives.

The struggles you experience in your life are nothing more but a sense of realization of the gap between the clock and the compass. Put simply, when what you do (the clock) doesn’t contribute to what is most important in your life (the compass), you get the feeling that instead of living your life, your life is being lived for you.

This is why you never feel fulfilled. It is also the reason why you will never be able to find peace, no matter how efficient you are at what you’re doing.

The three generations of time management

Due to something the authors of “First Things First” refer to as a “popcorn phenomenon” – the increasing heat and pressure of the culture creating a rapidly exploding body of literature – there are thousands of time-management books and tools available today.

They all fit within three categories – or, rather, generations – of time management that illustrate the evolution of the field and can be briefly summed up thus:

First Generation. The first generation of “time management” is based on “reminders” and is characterized by notes and checklists. The point is simple: keeping track of the tasks that you want to execute during the day so that you don’t forget to do them once you find enough free time. If the tasks in question are left unaccomplished, you put them on your list for the next day.

Second Generation. The second generation is one of “planning and preparation” and characterized by calendars and appointment books. In this generation, you are your own secretary: you write down commitments, identify deadlines, make appointments, note where meetings will take place. This generation is all about efficiency, personal responsibility, and achievement in goal setting, planning, and scheduling future activities and events. 

Third Generation. The third generation is one of “planning, prioritizing, and controlling” and characteri,,zed by a wide variety of planners and organizers – electronic as well as paper-based – with detailed forms for daily planning. Daily prioritization, in this case, is the result of setting long, medium, and short-range goals, which, in turn, are the answer to the question “What do I want in x many years?” 

As can be evident from even this summary, time management has evolved: the three generations of time management have brought us a long way toward increased effectiveness in our lives, and such things as efficiency, planning, prioritization, values clarification, and goal setting have made a significant positive difference.

However,  Covey and the Merrills write that more than an evolution, we need a revolution. We need time management different not by degree, but in kind. One that instead of being structured by urgency and efficiency, will be organized by importance and quality of life.

The pitfalls of the urgency addiction

As essential as it is, this revolutionary step from urgent to important isn’t a simple one, mostly because, in the modern world of today, people often fail to recognize the difference between urgent and important things. 

Moreover, even when they do, they seem to favor the urgent tasks before the important ones. Here’s an anecdotal (but, unfortunately, perhaps also all-too-true) example of how this works in reality.

Say, since you’ve been working on a large project for the past several weeks, you’ve barely seen your wife lately, and your children have already started wondering if everything’s fine with you.

To make things better – and add some meaning to your life – as soon as you find some free time, you organize a nice little evening out with your family. Unfortunately, an hour in the evening, your boss calls you and tells you that urgently needs you at a nearby restaurant. After all, the boss is  out with the investors, and they have some important questions about the project only you can answer.

What do you do? Most people, guided by a sense of urgency, would choose to leave the family dinner to attend the business one: there is always time for your wife and kids, and there will always be another opportunity for that dinner.

But, provided you keep making this choice – that is, provided you keep preferring urgency to importance – will there?

Unfortunately, most of the modern people are so addicted to the urgency that it has become a symbol of status: unless you’re not stressed out by work and flooded by hard-to-meet deadlines, you’re not actually working.

And we didn’t opt to use the word “addicted” for no reason: according to the authors of “First Things First,” there is such a thing as “urgency addiction,” and it is every bit as dangerous as other commonly recognized addictions, say, to such things as gambling, overeating or chemical substances.

It has the same effects and can be boiled down to the very same definition: “a self-destructive behavior that temporarily fills the void created by unmet needs.”

The problem with most time management tools is that, instead of dealing with the addiction, they feed it. When you think about it, what daily planning and to-do lists actually accomplish is keeping us focused on prioritizing and doing the urgent. 

And the more urgency we have in our lives, the less importance we have.

The four basic human needs, the four human endowments, and the reality of “true north” principles

And here’s where that compass (you know, the one we mentioned in the first section of our summary) should come in handy!

As we’ve already demonstrated, time management shouldn’t be about the clock (or, at least, not entirely about it) – it should be about subordinating the clock to your values and your vision, about shifting your focus from what is “urgent” to what is “important.”

And there’s a big gap, practically a chasm, between these two concepts, at least as they are understood by most people today. After all, have you ever heard of someone wishing to have spent more time at the office at deathbed?

Because of this, the fundamental question that lies at the heart of the fourth generation of time management is “what is important?” and the answer lies somewhere between the three fundamental ideas that empower us to tackle it.

1. The fulfillment of the four human needs and capacities

Whether we acknowledge them or not, four basic needs are fundamental to human fulfillment. If these four needs aren’t met, no matter how efficient you are in check-marking things on your to-do list, you’ll always feel empty and incomplete.

The subtitle of "First Things First" captures the essence of these needs – “to live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy.”

  • The need to live is our physical need for things such as food, clothing, shelter, economic well-being, and health.
  • The need to love is our social need to relate to other people, to be accepted by them, and to belong somewhere.
  • The need to learn is our mental need to develop and grow.
  • And finally, the need to leave a legacy is our spiritual need to have a sense of meaning, purpose, and contribution.

2. The reality of “true north” principles

The way we seek to fulfill the four needs listed above is as important as the needs themselves.Try to fulfill these needs the wrong way, and, once again, you’ll end up feeling empty and worthless. And the wrong way is the way most prefer: the shortcut, the bypass, the “quick fix.” 

That way, instead of a lasting relationship, most people fulfill their need for love via one-night stands, and instead of acquiring knowledge slowly and steadily, most students cram a semester’s worth of learning in a night.

In the short run, this may sometimes work. But, in the long run, it is yet another form of addiction.

The reason is simple: some laws govern  the social systems (say, fairness), just as there are laws that govern the natural systems (say, gravity). These laws are called “true north” principles, because, just like the cardinal directions on the compass, they are not social conventions, but realities that exist separate from humans.

Fail to take them into account, and you’re failing to take into account your happiness.

3. The potentiality of the four human endowments

Instead of merely reacting, humans can act, because, for us, there is always a space between the stimulus and the response. It is this space that makes humans different from animals.

The four human endowments reside in this space. They create the compass that empowers us to align our lives with “true north” principles and put first things first. The four endowments are these:

  • Self-awareness: our capacity to stand apart from and examine ourselves.
  • Conscience: our internal guidance system.
  • Independent will: our capacity to act.
  • Creative imagination: our power to envision a future state or create something in our mind.

Final Notes

If none of the time management systems or tools you’ve tried so far have worked for you, “First Things First” is the book to consult immediately.

It should provide you a “compass” for what is truly important in life and teach you how to ignore the rest, no matter how urgent. And what does “living a meaningful life” means if not precisely that?

12min Tip

To distinguish between what is “urgent” and what is “important” in your life, make a 2x2 matrix, classifying tasks as important or non-important on one axis, and urgent or non-urgent on the other. 

You’ll get four quadrants:

I) Quadrant of Necessity (important and urgent);

II) Quadrant of Quality (important, non-urgent). 

III) Quadrant of Deception (urgent, non-important).

IV) Quadrant of Waste (non-urgent, non-important).

The key to putting first things first is simple: spend as much time as you can in Quadrant II, and start delegating, renegotiating, or saying “no” to Quadrant III activities.

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Who wrote the book?

Stephen Richards Covey (1932-2012) was a businessman, professor, and best-selling author. He had a degree in business administration and a doctorate in Religious Education. He is widely known as the auth... (Read more)

A. Roger Merrill is an executive coach, consultant, and bestselling author. He is also the co-founder of Franklin-Covey Corporation, a company providing time management training and assessment services... (Read more)

Rebecca R. Merrill is a skilled leadership coach. She is the founder of Merrill Leadership, coaching top-level executives in their personal and professional leadership sk... (Read more)