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.
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.