Covey’s third habit: put first things first

I am sitting at my desk today, reflecting on the death of my Uncle Tom following his funeral on Tuesday.  I am still finding it hard to believe that he is no longer with us.
Tom died within hours of our performance of Mozart’s Requiem and since that time we have been rehearsing Brahm’s German Requiem.  Of course, the words of a requiem are evocative.  Especially, I keep hearing denn ihre Werke folgen ihnen nach.  In my copy of the Brahms, the words of the final movement are translated as Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth.  Sayeth the spirit, that they rest from their labors, and that their works follow after them.  This phrase – that their works follow after them – touches me deeply.  Tom’s works do indeed follow after him.  The eulogy was a celebration of some of those works and of the man who was so fondly remembered.  They are reflected in the memories which each of us treasures.  They are reflected in the love of so many people towards him.  You could even say that my cousins, themselves much loved and treasured, are amongst Tom’s “works”.
In the midst of everything that accompanies a death, I have also had a small voice reminding me to return to a series of postings I began some months ago, following the death of Stephen Covey in July 2012.  It is time to write about Covey’s third habit, as described in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People – put first things first.  In this chapter, Covey describes how highly effective people manage their time.
Covey’s thoughts in this area are beloved of trainers and of other development professionals as well as of readers of his book.  One of his offerings is a two-by-two grid in which to plot the actions on our ‘to do’ lists according to their level of importance (high or low) and urgency ( high or low).  The point is, if we are constantly spending time on things that are urgent but not important, we are unlikely to be highly effective.  Most favoured by Covey is Quadrant II, that is – those activities that are important but not urgent.
But how do we determine what is important?  Covey invites us to look at the various roles in our lives – parent, spouse, leader etc. – and to identify weekly goals against each role.  We can use these goals to schedule activities for the week ahead, taking time each day to adapt our schedule in the light of new developments.  He also includes the idea of “sharpening the saw” about which we shall hear more when we come to Habit Seven.
Now, I must confess that there has been a gap in time between reading Covey’s chapter on putting first things first and writing this posting and this leaves me with something intriguing.  For what I took most to heart when I read this chapter – and now cannot find as I skim through it again – is the idea that effective time management is about knowing what we want in the broadest sense, and taking steps to move towards it.  Coaches sometimes invite people to imagine themselves sitting on a bench in their old age (hence the photo, above) looking back on their lives and to ask themselves – what would they most like to look back on?  This can be a powerful means of connecting with those things that are most important to us.  Many a senior executive has found himself taken aback by the realisation that he (or she) is spending more time on work than on tending precious relationships. 
Covey’s tools and techniques are not, he says, about time management – though he also refers to his approach as the fourth generation of time management.  They are, he says about self management.  Hanging out in Quadrant II requires us to understand what is most important to us and to manage our schedule in line with what is most important to us.  At the end of a life, our commitment to live a life in line with our values is reflected in the myriad memories of those we leave behind, as well as in the feelings they evoke.
To my Uncle Tom I say a loving thank you for these memories.

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