First Things First Review


Personal Critique of

First Things First (Stephen Covey)

Andy Gruenbaum


September 30, 1997



General Impressions

Effective time management techniques are the corner stone for personal and professional success. Although this appears to be an obvious statement, effective time management is very difficult to perfect. In Covey’s book, First Things First, I am encouraged to take personal responsibility for the effective management of my activities. By doing so, my quality of life can improve. Furthermore, once effective time management techniques are mastered, they can be the foundation for me becoming a successful manager.

The primary technique Covey describes to effectively manage my time is the use of quadrants. The four quadrants described have varying levels of importance and urgency, but only one quadrant, quadrant II, provides an opportunity to focus on quality. Since time is a very limited commodity, it makes sense that I focus on the important activities of my life. I believe eliminating trivial activities and carefully planning my time will yield meaningful results with a minimum amount of stress. However, Covey correctly points out time management is not limited to only this technique. Without effectively balancing my roles (e.g., worker, parent, spouse, and student), I am deprived of some of the advantages of quadrant based time management. Since an out of balance life does not produce personal satisfaction and contentment, I sacrifice my quality of life.

I also agree that once I have mastered time management techniques, including quadrant planning and role balancing, I have acquired some of the proper skills which are a necessary element in becoming a successful manager. In addition, a truly successful manager will empower his employees. As Covey states, an empowering environment is not possible unless the manager is competent and of good character. If these qualities are not present, the manager will not command the trust and respect of his work force.

In summary, the book provided concepts to which I have loosely adhered all of my life. Functioning in quadrant II is something I do, but refer to it as, “not waiting until the last minute.” The key element to employee empowerment is “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Maintaining balance is living a full and rounded life, and empowering employees begins with building trust and mutual respect. The concepts in Covey’s message have been preached before. The message, when distilled down, is rooted in old-fashion values. And these values are based on adhering to a system which believes in hard work and respect for others..

Important Ideas

  • Quadrant II Organizing: The quadrant of quality. This quadrant is a mix of important items that are not yet urgent.
  • True North: This is the inner compass that keeps you pointed toward your life goals. It is, of course, different for everyone.
  • Urgency Addiction: This addiction is based on organizing that revolves around quadrant I activities. With few exceptions, this quadrant is to be avoided.
  • Center of Focus: When picking weekly goals, this is the litmus test against which all weekly tasks are tested.
  • Role Balancing: The constant struggle between what “hat” will be the most appropriate in any given role.
  • Big Rocks: One of the components of a jar that represents all of one’s time. The big rocks are the items that are put in first. All other items then fit around the major commitments.
  • Empowerment: Do not force your opinion on your employees. Let them know you are there for them and want to work around their schedule. You are an in-house consultant.
  • Lunch of champions: Feedback is an iterative process. You perform, you get the feedback, and then you act on the feedback. When you perform again, the process starts anew.
  • “Win-Win”: Someone does not have to lose. If both persons needs are respected, a mutually beneficial solution will be created.
  • MacGyver Factor: The ability to understand and apply principles in a wide variety of situations.
  • Mission Statement: The main principle to guide one’s life.
  • The Law of The Farm: On the farm, harvesting takes place only after specific events have occurred. This system is also present in life, and it will not be ignored. Regular time commitments are more successful that “cramming”.

Contained Competencies

Being a good manager is a challenge. This challenge can be met in a variety of ways. If a haphazard approach is taken, the results will be unpredictable and inconsistent. If a planned approach is taken, the results will be more consistent and those being managed will be grateful for the predictability in the process. A manager can improve how he performs by focusing on “win-win” opportunities, empowering of employees, and removing roadblocks to productivity.

For a manager to be successful, he must focus on “win-win” opportunities. The manager must listen to the other person so his perspective can be fully understood. If a manager guesses what the best resolution is without considering the other person’s opinion, he is failing to create an atmosphere where the two sides of the issue can be synergized. The two parties both have separate pasts that may provide an insight into the challenge. The result is not a compromise. It is a solution that allows both parties to contribute, and it creates an atmosphere of individual importance. Some of the benefits to the company from this process are increased employee loyalty and productivity.

Employees who are empowered by their managers also become more loyal and more productive. Once a manager has the trust and respect of his employees, he can step back from his management role and act as a coach. In this role, he will give his employees the room they need to grow. When an empowering manager is asked a question my an employee, the manager can phrase his response with, “You might consider this option” or “Have you thought about this possibility?” By phrasing his responses in this manner, the manager demonstrates his competence in a non-threatening way. In addition, the manager places the responsibility for achieving the goal on the employee. The end result is an employee who is empowered and not controlled.

Lastly, the successful manager will lead the employees he has empowered by removing roadblocks to their productivity. For example, a manager with leadership skills will examine systems and structures and evaluate whether they will facilitate management’s goals. If a system is an impediment to achieving the desired results or if it is inefficient, a leader will propose change to remove the roadblock from the process. After proposing the need for change, a manager will actively involve his employees in developing acceptable solutions. He will do so by using techniques such as employee empowerment principles and the creation of win-win opportunities.

Learning in MBA, Work, Personal

Given my present set of circumstances, many of Covey’s time management techniques can immediately be applied to my life. My current life has three important components which are my personal life, the MBA program, and my work life. To blend these most effectively, I need to prioritize, set weekly goals, and maintain balance.

When prioritizing, the “big rock” principle Covey describes works very effectively. If I have three rocks which represent my most important time commitments, I place them into a jar which represents my time. These three rocks are my family, the MBA, and my work. These three “rocks” dictate the time I have available for other activities . A weekly schedule must be divided between doing homework, chauffeuring my children to daycare, dating my wife and keeping my work projects current. Following the rocks, the pebbles are added. A pebble represents such things as doing aerobics or performing some type of home maintenance. The pebbles are still important, but the last items, the sand and water, are items in which I can only participate when the rocks and pebbles allow for it. Examples of “sand and water” are leisure reading and gardening. As the jar is full, so is my schedule for the next two years.

Now that I am using the “big rock” principle, I have to set weekly goals to be accomplished within the allotted time. By keeping most of my activities in quadrant II, I can assure myself of enough time to complete the assignments on time. Occasionally, something unforeseen will shift an item into quadrant I. When this occurs, I will make compromises to allow the task to be completed. Since I do not operate well doing things the night before the deadline, I make every effort to prevent a task from becoming urgent. As an example, if my wife and I are going out with friends Saturday night, I know I must work on my goals Saturday morning and afternoon to make sure they are achieved. Once priorities are established and deadlines are known, the establishing of new weekly goals can blend seamlessly into my life.

Finally, I use time management techniques to maintain balance between all of the components in my life. If I am provided with an opportunity to participate in an event that represents both a “rock” and a “pebble”, I do not always have to choose. An example of this type of event would be my wife and I going to a home decorating show to look for ideas for the house we are building. I am spending time with my wife (rock), and I gather information for our new house (pebble). Another example would be going to the zoo as a family. I am able to be physically active (pebble), and I am also able to enjoy time with my children (rock). When activities are arranged so two or more of the jars components are addressed, it allows me to minimize the guilt I feel when not doing school work. Prior to starting the MBA program, I was a husband and a father. When I leave the MBA program, I will still be a husband and a father, but hopefully, a little wiser. By balancing life’s activities, time can be managed. Time can not be purchased, but it can be shared.

Everything that was a part of my life prior to the MBA must accept the new status it has been granted. No longer is free-time a random event; it is planned and cherished. I must adjust to the new priorities, the more focused weekly goals, and the more creative way of maintaining balance in my life. Prior to beginning the MBA, I made some efforts in these categories. To be successful, I must resist distractions and be much more diligent in perfecting these techniques.

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