Habit 3: Put First Things First

The idea behind putting first things first is to prioritize "important" things first instead of "urgent" things. What's important? What's urgent? What's the difference? Things that are important are activities that represent your values, mission, and high-priority goals. Things that are urgent require immediate attention.

Given that description, it sounds counter-intuitive. We should be focusing on urgent things, right? Not necessarily. It depends on what kind of" urgent" we are talking about. Tasks fall into one of four quadrants on a "Time Matrix." Urgency is on the X axis and Importance on the Y axis.

Quadrant 1 (QI), in the upper left, is the urgent and important things. This is called the quadrant of necessity, and includes things like crises, pressing problems, deadline-driven projects, meeting preparations, medical emergencies, etc.

Quadrant 2 (QII), in the upper right, is the items that are noturgent, but are important. This is called the quadrant of effectiveness, and includes tasks like planning and preparing, prevention, understanding or reaffirming your values, planning, building relationships, renewing yourself, and empowerment.

Quadrant 3 (QIII), in the lower left, is the items that are urgent but not important. This is called the quadrant of deception, mostly because things in this quadrant look a lot like QI issues, but really aren't. These are things like interruptions, unnecessary reports, email, meetings, phone calls, and other peoples minor issues.

Quadrant 4 (QIV), in the lower right, is the items that are not urgent or important, otherwise known as the quadrant of waste and excess. Busywork, trivia, irrelevant phone calls/email, various time wasting activities, excessive TV, web surfing, or relaxation.

If you really need a visual of this, look on orgcoach.net.

Have you ever been to the Bermuda Triangle? Most of you would say no, but I bet you have. Many people spend lots of time on QI and QIII tasks, then often escape in QIV tasks, which sometimes brings you back to a QI task. If you draw this out, you have a line between QI and QIII, a line between QIII and QIV, and a line from QIV to QI. That, my friends, is what we call the Bermuda Triangle, and it sucks your will to live. :)

In any case, the trick is to spend more time on QII activities. By planning, you can reduce or eliminate QI and QIII items. For example, eating right and exercising, definitely QII activities, can reduce or eliminate health problems later in life, which are definitely QI.

Let's talk about planning for a minute. The key to putting first things first is to actually plan. There are two types of planning: weekly planning and daily planning. The weekly planning is done at the start of a week and consists of three activities: Reviewing mission and roles, choosing "big rocks," and scheduling the week.

Reviewing mission and roles is fairly straightforward. Review your "mission statement" and the roles that come from that. Roles are key relationships and things for which you are responsible. For example, my roles include father, husband, employee, blogger. Chances are once these roles are enumerated and the mission statement is in place, you won't have to redefine these things, but you will need to review them each week.

For each role, ask yourself this question: What is the most important thing I can do in this role this week? These are your "big rocks." The big rocks can come from your conscience, your mission, your goals, and key projects you may be working on. The rocks can come in the form of tasks, appointments, and areas of focus. For example, this week, one of my "big rocks" is writing this particular blog entry. Others include exercise, learning about meditation (and actually doing it a couple of times, and determining ways to make my wife's life easier.

Once you have identified the big rocks, schedule them. Schedule them first before you schedule other things that might be happening in the week. Regularly scheduled meetings at work can be viewed as "big rocks," though I wouldn't necessarily identify them as such. They are demands on the time that must be accounted for like everything else. Sometimes, one of your big rocks will displace one of those regularly scheduled meetings. That happens. :)

After the week is scheduled, then follow up on your planning daily to ensure that you are continuing to meet your weekly goals. You will also account for any changes in schedule that might need to be made. Looking at the number of hours you have left in the day, you will come up with a realistic task list for the day and prioritize it.

Finally, you should have a planning system of some sort. I decided to use the planning system I got as a result of taking the 7 Habits class. It's a paper day planner. Seems kind of weird that a techie is using paper instead of something electronic, but I actually like having it on paper. Paper doesn't crash or get lost in an upgrade. ;) Whatever system you use, it needs to be integrated, i.e. have tasks, appointments, notes, and contacts, it needs to be mobile, i.e. with you all the time, and it needs to be personalized, i.e. customized for your own needs.

One thing that is a key part of putting first things first is learning how to say "no," mostly to QIII things. This is an area that I need to work on.

Habit 2: Begin With the End in Mind

You wouldn't drive a car without knowing where you're going, right? Before you get in the car to go somewhere, you have an idea of where you're going. You might have the place pictured in your mind. You might imagine the route you are going to take to avoid traffic or construction. You might might have a list of the things you are going to do when you get there. The end of the trip is firmly in mind before you get behind the wheel.

What if you didn't know where you were going, or even have an idea of where you are going? You'd drive around for a while, you might find some interesting things along the way. You might end up getting some place pretty cool. But you might also end up going the wrong way, down the wrong street, into the wrong part of town. Before you know it, you're lost and out of gas, and you have no way out. You don't even know how you got there.

Life is exactly like driving a car. If you have a clear picture of what you want out of life, then your life has clear destination--a clear goal to work towards. Having the picture in your mind is key to getting you where you want to go. Having the picture also often makes it very clear how to get there--the path you will need to take. Even if the path is not clear, at least the guidelines for getting there will be.Each action you take can be evaluated within the framework of getting to that destination. Will it work? Not always. Sometimes you have to try a number of different things. Sometimes you have to change your tactics. Sometimes you have to change what you are working towards. That's okay to do. It's better to have a bad plan today than to have a good plan tomorrow.

Now I'm going to throw around one of those really cheesy business concepts here: a mission statement. A mission statement is, quite simply, something that defines your purpose. In business, a mission statement defines what the business is in business for. Within a business, a mission statement can be used within a division or business unit to give the group a purpose.

In the context of knowing where you are going in life, a mission statement articulates your vision for where you want your life to be. It is "the end," as it were. By having that vision clearly defined, you can begin to evaluate everything in your life with respect to that mission.

For the moment, at least I have determined that my mission statement is four simple words: Share, Improve, Serve, Inspire. It's not perfect and doesn't capture everything I want to become, but it captures the core of what I am and what I want to be.

You might want to have a look at FranklinCovey's Mission Builder to help you craft your own mission statement.

Future Gamer

Yes, even my two year old plays video games, or attempts to at least. :)

Habit 1: Be Proactive

One of the things that resulted from my taking The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People course is that I have committed to share these principles with someone else as I work through them on my own. I seem to work better with written words than oral words, and I figure a few people out there could benefit from this stuff, so why not blog about it?

The first habit Stephen Covey talks about is being proactive. What does that mean, exactly? It means to realize that who and what you are isn't a result of circumstances, but rather a result of choices we as people make. Now that might seem self-evident, but it's difficult concept for a lot of people to live. I can't claim to do it all the time--I don't think anyone can--but it is certainly the ideal.

Let me give an example from my own life. Those who have known me for a long time know or at least have heard me talk about the fact my parents were not shining examples of humanity. They had their good qualities and bad, but on the balance they would not be considered ideal parents--and they were divorced to boot. For many years, I chose to obsess over that in a very negative way. It affected my social and emotional skills greatly. To some extent, it still does.

When years later I finally realized that my upbringing had no bearing on how I chose to live my life, my life improved dramatically. My whole outlook on the world changed. I was free to choose, and it felt wonderful!

When I was five or so, I had a very defining moment in my life. I'm not exactly sure what precipitated this thought in my adolescent brain, but it is a thought that has defined a huge part of who I am to this day. That thought? I would not put my kids through the same divorce crap I was going through then. The result? I'm married to someone who is just as committed to not divorcing as I am. Whether my kids will turn out better than I remains to be seen, of course. ;)

Had I realized back when I was five that I could make a choice, not just in that circumstance, but in anything that happened to me, man, would my life have turned out differently! That being said, I can't do anything about the past and can only resolve going forward to always choose my response to stimulus. I can be a transition person and stop the negative patterns from being given to my children.

Nazi Death Camp survivor Viktor Frankl wrote:"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." Frankl observed that the main difference between the people that survived Auscwitz and the people that didn't were the people who realized that despite all the oppression, the one thing that the Nazi's couldn't take away from them was their freedom to choose their response to what was happening.

Human beings are endowed with four things that other creatures don't have: self-awareness, imagination, conscience, and independent will. These things help create the space between stimulus and response, give us guidance about how to respond, the ability to visualize the result, and ultimately, the ability to act as we choose.

One other thing about being proactive is knowing what you have influence over and what you do not, and focusing on only that which you have direct control over. So what do you have control over? Your actions, your responses. These are within your Circle ofInfluence. Your Circle of Concern, which is a superset of your Circle of Influence, includes stuff you do not have any control over, such as external events and other people's reactions and responses to you. It is a waste of time to focus on things which you cannot control. By focusing on your Circle of Influence, you and your Circle of Influence will grow substantially.

Still a Ways to Go

My daughter is definitely still has some time "on the mend" to go. While she woke up a lot better than she has been, and ate quite a bit, she's still not 100%. She slept quite a while on me in the late morning. Things are still hurting, but at least the food appears to be staying in. Hopefully that means she is on the road to recovery.

Gracie's Brush With the ER

My wife brought my daughter back from the hospital this evening after a bag of IV fluids was given to her along with some medicine to calm her stomach. While she's got a ways to go--her energy levels aren't anywhere near where they normally are, she ate and kept it down! She was also singing, which is something she hasn't been doing for a couple of days now. The road to recovery has begun. We'll have to see what tomorrow brings, of course, but at least things ended on a good note.

Meanwhile, my wife is physically and emotionally spent after several days of dealing with this. She passed out rather quickly this evening after getting Gracie to bed. I'm probably not too far behind her as I'm starting to have trouble maintaining focus--a clear sign that I need to get to bed.

One Sick Child

It seems like just about every time I go on a business trip, something goes sideways. This one was no exception, though this time it ended up getting worse after I got home. :(

On Thursday night, ironically my daughter's second birthday, my daughter started throwing up. While she throws up from time to time, this began three days worth of throwing up just about everything consumed. On Saturday, I took her to the pediatrician, who thought she had a stomach flu--which isn't something you can do much about. She was given some sort of suppository that was supposed to help the throwing up. It didn't help of course. :(

My mother-in-law called the nearby children's hospital an hour or so ago.They think she is starting to show signs of dehydration and she should be brought in immediately, which is what my wife and her mom are doing now. Hopefully dehydration is the only problem she has and it's not something more serious. But it's a big bummer on the weekend, that's for sure.

Meanwhile, Jaden and I get to spend some quality time together.

My Mission in Life

One of the things I have spent some time on this week is defining my mission statement as a result of taking the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People training. While I'm not there yet--is anyone ever really there?--I am a lot farther along than I was.

I want my mission statement to be simple. Just a few words that capture the essence of what I want to do and what I want to be. I want to remember it and keep it in mind at all times so I can ensure I am keeping with my mission.

For too long, I have been living by default and not by design. Despite that, I've been pretty damn lucky. I've managed to get myself into a very good position in terms of my work. My family situation, while it can be improved, is also good. However, what I have lacked is a coherent plan for getting where I want to go. A mission statement isn't a full fledged plan, but it's goes a long way towards drafting one.

I have been able to narrow down my mission statement to the acronym SIS: Serve. Inspire. Share. Of course, this isa rough draft and may change. However, as some people wiser than I have said, a bad plan today is better than a good plan tomorrow. It's certainly better than no plan, which is what I have now.

Keeping Up With Who?

Props to Merlin over at 43 Folders for pointing me at The myth of "keeping up" on stuff.

This is something else that falls out of the concept of "being honest with yourself." If you can look at everything in your life and be truly honest with yourself about whether or not you can realistically do it--or even should--then you can more easily eliminate the "noise" and "stacks of crap" from your life.

Changing Priorities

I was recently asked to drop everything and write up a plan for something. A couple of hours later, I had a reasonably well detailed about what needed to be done. I needed a time estimate for this task--an estimate I wasn't exactly qualified to make. I send out the plan for review. No response. I sent it out again asking for a response. I get a time estimate. The person who had asked me to do this task and told me how critical it was has yet to respond. So much for this task being critical. Makes me feel like I wasted my time.

One thing I've learned to deal with as a support engineer is interrupts. If you think about it, everything a support engineer does is interrupt-driven. Stuff breaks, customers call support, it's a critical customer, all hands on deck, etc. This is part of the job. However, at a certain point, those interrupts need to be prioritized. What order do you address these tasks in? In my job, at least, I've gotten pretty good at assessing what needs to be done in what order. I am not always perfect, and certainly within my life, I could do a better job prioritizing what I need to do. Even so, there are times when I clearly need help.

At my day job, my management generally has a good overall view and generally do a fantastic job helping to keep all these competing priorities in check. If I come to them and ask "which thing do I do first" I usually get a clear answer. I don't always because, let's face it, sometimes that kind of judgement call is tough to make, but then at least my management and I agree on what the priority is and we move forward. That doesn't mean the situation won't get re-evaluated in a few days or even a few hours, but at least there is agreement. Once we agree, the priority generally doesn't change until the critical situation has de-escalated.

If you're going to be in charge, you have to be able to prioritize. Ten years ago when I was a bit less experienced, I worked ever-so-briefly at the Giant Lizard. My manager was telling my team how it was our responsibility to monitor the support queue and make sure we initially respond to our customers within four hours. This was non-negotiable and must be done. Okay, I understood that. I asked avery critical question: if there are two cases in the queue that area bout to hit the SLA, but I can only respond to one of them, which do I choose? His answer: both of them. I persisted: I have five minutes left until both cases hit the SLA. There is no way I can possibly respond intelligently to both cases in this period of time. How do I choose? He still said: both. A real manager would have given some guidelines for choosing which one, or would have understood the situation and given a standard "use your best judgement, do the best you can" answer.

Not only must you be able to prioritize, you need to be consistent in how things are prioritized. What do I mean by consistent? I mean that priorities are set according to a stable set of guidelines that generally don't change. Does that mean priorities won't change? Of course not, they will change anyway. That's because there are plenty of factors outside of your direct control. You never know when a "more important customer" will call and demand that you fix a bug they've found. However, everyone involved will understand why the priorities have changed because there are guidelines in place.

In another example from my day job, I feel that the product I am working on right now is going in a positive direction. Customer issues are getting addressed in a reasonable fashion. Everyone is fairly clear what the expectations are, clear on how things are prioritized, and generally speaking, the prioritization remains stable. Things are progressing extremely well.

I think another thing that goes along with prioritization is the point I brought up yesterday about being honest with yourself. Part of that "honesty" is recognizing your limitations as well as those of the members in your team. Prioritizing your team to do a task they are clearly not qualified to do is not a good use of time, unless of course, it is training within that area. Time is another limitation you must work with. Asking your team members to work 16 hours a day 7 days a week is quite simply unrealistic. However, having clear, consistent, stable priorities allows you to get the things you need to get done right now and not worry so much about the stuff that doesn't get done.

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