In our previous post, we explored Habit #2 in Sean Covey’s book “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens,” a book that helps teens live their highest aspirations. (You can read about Habit #2 here.) This book is so life-changing, we send it to all our full-time students upon enrolling! Today, we’re digging into Habit #3 in Covey’s book: “Put First Things First.”
Habit #3: Put First Things First
By now, you’ve taken to heart Covey’s first habits and are working judiciously to become more proactive in making choices that reflect your personal mission statement/ long-term goals. Like a boss, you’ve now started makin’ your list (and checkin’ it twice!) and know exactly what your goals are each day. You’re so clever that each of these little goals perfectly align with your long-term goals. But then other things arise. Like that story in your newsfeed you’ll never find again if you don’t read it this second. Or your sister needing help building a volcano for science class. Or Bobo the Dog about to make on the rug. Or that trigonometry test tomorrow. (You get the idea.)
Teens today have too much to do and not enough time. That’s where Habit #3 comes in: harnessing the willpower to put first things first (and, Covey adds, the “won’t power to say no to peer pressure and less important things.”)
The first step in knowing how to put first things first is by learning the difference between important and urgent. Important things are things that further your personal mission. Urgent things are things that demand immediate attention. So what comes first? Urgent, right? Not necessarily! Things can FEEL urgent and NOT BE important. (See: Twitter War, Marvel vs. DC Comics.)
“Urgent things aren’t bad, necessarily,” Covey clarifies. “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 nature, or taking time to videochat with a long distance friend. All these important things get interrupted by urgent things, like texts, emails, deadlines, and other “in-your-face-do-it-this-second” things.”
Say, for example, your long-term goal is to write a book. Is that urgent? Nope! Unless you have an editor breathing down your neck and a firm deadline, writing the great American novel will not feel as urgent as, say, that text from your friend having a personal crisis of the “I-have-nothing-to-wear-to-the-dance” variety. Therefore, it’s critical to ask yourself if things are important or urgent. And if they’re urgent, are they important?
Now that you know the difference, it’s time to figure out what camp you fall into when it comes to taking action. The four quadrants Covey says people fall into are: Procrastinator, Yes-Man, Slacker, or Prioritizer.
“The Procrastinator,” Covey explains, “is addicted to urgency. She likes to put things off and put things off and put things off . . . until it becomes a crisis. But she likes it that way because, you see, even though it’s stressful, doing everything at the last minute gives her a rush. In fact, her mind won’t kick into gear until there’s an emergency. She thrives under pressure.” According to Covey, if you’re a procrastinator, you’ll experience the symptoms of stress and anxiety, feeling burnt out, and mediocre performance. This is a quadrant where everything feels urgent all the time, but very little important work is being done on a regular basis.
What about the Yes-Man? Covey describes the Yes-Man as “trying to please other people and responding to their every desire. This quadrant is deceptive because urgent, immediate things feel important. In truth, they’re often not… [This quadrant] 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 afraid you might offend someone.” Symptoms of living too long in this quadrant are FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), lack of discipline, and generally feeling like a follower or doormat.
To live as the Slacker is to be a lover of excess. TV, sleep, Playstation, cat videos on YouTube, the slacker will binge an entire TV series in one weekend and is a regular traveler down the internet rabbit hole. Symptoms of living too much in this quadrant include lack of responsibility, guilt, flakiness, and missing out on adventures.
Finally, the Prioritizer puts energy into things that are important, but not urgent. Covey uses the example of wanting to get a summer job: “Getting a good summer job may be very important to you. But since it’s weeks away and not urgent, you may put off looking on Craigslist until it’s too late and suddenly all the good jobs are filled.” Prioritizers plan ahead, finding ways to make the important things urgent by self-imposing deadlines to ensure what’s most important gets done. Symptoms of being a Prioritizer include: “control of your life, balance, and high performance.” Those results sound much better than the other three quadrants, don’t they? The secret to staying in this sweet spot? Covey has four basic tips: Procrastinate less, learn to say no, don’t slack off, and plan ahead.
Ugh, some of you thought. Planning. I just want to be free to go with the flow. Let’s talk about why planning is essential to ensure first things come first. When you plan, you can make important (but not urgent) things feel urgent by identifying what Covey calls your “big rocks.”
“Big rocks” are the most important things you want to do that week, and should be connected to your personal mission-statement and longer-term goals. Covey gives an example of what your list might look like:
My Big Rocks for the Week:
- Study for chemistry test
- Finish The Great Gatsby for English
- Attend Carly’s game
- Finish summer job applications
- Party at Anjali’s
- Workout 3 times
The idea is to define your big rocks so you’ll be sure to do them first.
“Do you know the big rock experiment? You get a bucket and fill it half full of small pebbles. You then try to put several big rocks in the bucket, on top of the pebbles. But they don’t all fit. So you empty the bucket and start over. This time you put the big rocks in the bucket first, followed by the pebbles. The pebbles neatly fill in the spaces around the big rocks. This time it all fits! The difference is the order in which the rocks and pebbles were placed in the bucket. If you put the pebbles in first, the big rocks don’t all fit. But if you put the big rocks in first, everything fits, big rocks and pebbles. Big rocks represent your most important things. Pebbles represent all the little everyday things that suck up your time—such as chores, texting, errands, and interruptions, etc. Moral of the story? If you don’t schedule your big rocks first, they won’t get done.” -Sean Covey
Time-management isn’t the only factor to ensure you become a stellar prioritizer. Learning how to say no (and risk disappointing your friends) is no small trick. It takes immense courage, a strong sense of self, and a willingness to step outside your comfort zone. Oftentimes, we avoid things that make us feel uncomfortable, like hunger, cold, heat, and pain. And although saying “no” to a friend isn’t the same as donning a jacket because you’re about to become an ice sculpture on the lawn, it can feel just as uncomfortable. That’s why it’s so important to be clear on who you are and what you want through Habit #2, so you can learn to flex that willpower and put first things first. It’s scary, sure, but as Covey says, “never let your fears make your decisions… One way I’ve learned to overcome fear is to keep this thought always in the back of my mind: Winning is nothing more than rising each time you fall.” In other words, be afraid. Do it anyway.
Discipline is Covey’s final ingredient in putting first things first. Without discipline, the best intentions will slip, non-important attention-grabbers will masquerade as big rocks, and weeks, months, years will slip by without you getting much closer to the life of your dreams.
“In the final analysis,” Covey says, “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.” Will this always be fun? Not always, Covey notes. “Successful people are willing to suck it up from time to time and do things they don’t like doing. Why do they do them? Because they know these things will lead them to their goals.”
It should be noted that Habit #3 was polled by thousands of teens following the 7 Habits as the hardest to implement. So, Covey says, be kind to yourself if you struggle with it, take baby steps, and celebrate small victories!
“The hard days are the best because that’s where champions are made—so if you can push through, you can push through anything!” - Gabby Douglas
Join us next time as we delve into Habit #4: “Think Win-Win.” Be sure to join our newsletter so you won’t miss a post!