First Things First

First Things First

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Stephen R. Covey is an internationally respected leadership authority and founder of Covey Leadership Center. He received his M.B.A. from Harvard and a doctorate from Brigham Young University, where he was a professor of business management and organizational behavior for 20 years. His book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, has sold more than 10 million copies and has been translated into 30 languages.

A. Roger Merril, a well-known leader in time management and leadership development, is a vice president and founding meember of Covey Leadership Center. He holds a degree in business management and has done extensive graduate work in organizational behavior and adult learning.

Rebecca R. Merril, a mother, grandmother, homemaker, and accomplished author, has also served in numerous leadership positions in a variety of community, eduational, and women's organizations.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781929494620
Publisher: Franklin Covey Company
Publication date: 10/28/2011
Edition description: Abridged, 3 CDs, 3 hrs. 30 min.
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 5.62(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Dr. Stephen R. Covey is an internationally respected leadership authority, teacher, author, organizational consultant, and co-founder and vice chairman of Franklin Covey Co. He is author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which Chief Executive magazine has called the most influential business book of the last 100 years. The book has sold nearly 20 million copies, and after 20 years, still holds a place on most best-seller lists. Dr. Covey earned an MBA from Harvard and a doctorate from BYU, where he was a professor of organizational behavior. For more than 40 years, he has taught millions of people — including leaders of nations and corporations — the transforming power of the principles that govern individual and organizational effectiveness. He and his wife live in the Rocky Mountains of Utah.

A. Roger and Rebecca R. Merrill are coauthors of the bestselling First Things First. They enjoy writing and teaching together. In addition, Roger was a cofounder of the covey Leadership Center. He is involved in the development of personal effectiveness software and consults and teaches in the field of leadership worldwide.

Roger and Rebecca R. Merrill are coauthors of the bestselling First Things First. They enjoy writing and teaching together. In addition, Roger was a cofounder of the Covey Leadership Center. He is involved in the development of personal effectiveness software and consults and teaches in the field of leadership worldwide.


Provo, Utah

Date of Birth:

October 24, 1932

Date of Death:

July 16, 2012

Place of Birth:

Salt Lake City, Utah

Place of Death:

Idaho Falls, ID


B.S., University of Utah, 1950; M.B.A., Harvard University, 1957; Ph.D., Brigham Young University, 1976

Read an Excerpt



Stephen: My daughter Maria, who recently had her third child, was talking with me one evening. She said, "I'm so frustrated, Dad! You know how much I love this baby, but she is literally taking all my time. I'm just not getting anything else done, including many things that only I can do."

I could understand how this was frustrating to her. Maria is bright and capable, and she's always been involved in many good things. She was feeling pulled by good things — projects she wanted to accomplish, contributions she wanted to make, things around the house that weren't getting done.

As we talked, we came to the realization that her frustration was essentially a result of her expectations. And for now, only one thing was needful — enjoying that baby.

"Just relax," I said. "Relax and enjoy the nature of this new experience. Let this infant feel your joy in the role of mother. No one else can love and nurture that child the way you can. All other interests pale in comparison for now."

Maria realized that, in the short run, her life was going to be Imbalanced ... and that it should be. "There is a time and a season for everything under the sun.' She also realized that as the baby grew and entered a different phase in life, she would be able to reach her goals and contribute in other powerful ways.

Finally, I said, "Don't even keep a schedule. Forget your calendar. Stop using your planning tools if they only induce guilt. This baby is the first thing in your life right now. Just enjoy the baby and don't worry. Be governed by your internal compass, not by some clock on the wall."

For many of us, there's a gap between the compass and the clock — between what's deeply important to us and the way we spend our time. And this gap is not closed by the traditional "time management" approach of doing more things faster. In fact, many of us find that increasing our speed only makes things worse. Consider this question: If someone were to wave a magic wand and suddenly grant you the 15 or 20 percent increase in efficiency promised by traditional time management, would it solve your time management concerns? While you may feel initially excited about the prospect of increasing your efficiency, if you're like most of the people we work with, you'll probably conclude that the challenges you face cannot be solved simply by increasing your ability to get more things done in less time.

In this section, we'll take an in-depth look at the three generations of traditional time management and explore the reasons why they fail to close that gap. We'll ask you to consider whether you look at life through a basic paradigm of "urgency" or "importance," and we'll discuss the effects of urgency addiction. We'll look at the need for a fourth generation that's different in kind. More than "time management," it's a generation of personal leadership. More than doing things right, it's focused on doing the right things.

In Chapter 3, we'll address the hard questions about what "first things" are in our lives and our capacity to put them first. This chapter deals with the three core ideas at the very heart of the fourth generation. It will probably challenge the way you think about time and life. This chapter requires an emotional willingness to do some deep interior work. We suggest you go through it in sequence, but if you feel it would be more useful for you, go on to Section Two, get into the Quadrant II organizing process, see the benefits of what we're talking about, and then come back to Chapter 3. We guarantee that understanding and applying the three fundamental ideas in this chapter will have a dramatic impact on your time and the quality of your life.


WE'RE constantly making choices about the way we spend our time, from the major seasons to the individual moments in our lives. We're also living with the consequences of those choices. And many of us don't like those consequences — especially when we feel there's a gap between how we're spending our time and what we feel is deeply important in our lives.

My life is hectic! I'm running all day — meetings, phone calls, paper-work, appointments. I push myself to the limit, fall into bed exhausted, and get up early the next morning to do it all again. My output is tremendous; I'm getting a lot done. But I get this feeling inside sometimes, "So what? What are you doing that really counts?" I have to admit, I don't know.

I feel like I'm being torn apart. My family is important to me; so is my work. I live with constant conflict, trying to juggle the demands of both. Is it possible to be really successful — and happy — at the office and at home?

There is simply too little of me to go around. The board and shareholders are on me like a swarm of bees for our declining share prices. I'm constantly playing referee in turf wars between members of my executive team. I feel tremendous pressure to be leading our organization's quality improvement initiative. The morale among our employees is low and I feel guilty for not getting out with them and listening more. On top of all this, despite our family vacations, my family has all but written me off because they never see me.

I don't feel in control of my life. I try to figure out what's important and set goals to do it, but other people — my boss, my work associates, my spouse — continually throw wrenches into the works. What I set out to do is blocked by what other people want me to do for them. What's important to me is getting swept away in the current of what's important to everybody else.

Everyone tells me I'm highly successful. I've worked and scraped and sacrificed, and I've made it to the top. But I'm not happy. Way down inside I have this empty feeling. It's like the song says, "Is that all there is?"

Most of the time, I just don't enjoy life. For every one thing I do, I can think of ten things I don't do, and it makes me feel guilty. The constant stress of trying to decide what I should do in the middle of all I could do creates a constant tension. How can I know what's most important? How can I do it? How can I enjoy it?

I feel like I have some sense of what I should do with my life. I've written down what I feel is really important and I set goals to make it happen. But somewhere between my vision and my daily action, I lose it. How can I translate what really counts into my daily life?

Putting first things first is an issue at the very heart of life. Almost all of us feel torn by the things we want to do, by the demands placed on us, by the many responsibilities we have. We all feel challenged by the day-to-day and moment-by-moment decisions we must make regarding the best use of our time.

Decisions are easier when it's a question of "good" or "bad." We can easily see how some ways we could spend our time are wasteful, mind-numbing, even destructive. But for most of us, the issue is not between the "good" and the "bad," but between the "good" and the "best." So often, the enemy of the best is the good.

Stephen: I knew a man who was asked to be the new dean of the College of Business of a large university. When he first arrived, he studied the situation the college faced and felt that what it needed most was money. He recognized that he had a unique capacity to raise money, and he developed a real sense of vision about fundraising as his primary function.

This created a problem in the college because past deans had focused mainly on meeting day-to-day faculty needs. This new dean was never there. He was running around the country trying to raise money for research, scholarships, and other endowments. But he was not attending to the day-to-day things as the previous dean had. The faculty had to work through his administrative assistant, which was demeaning to many of them who were used to working with the person at the top.

The faculty became so upset with his absence that they sent a delegation to the president of the university to demand a new dean or a fundamental change in his leadership style. The president, who knew what the dean was doing, said, "Relax. He has a good administrative assistant. Give him some more time."

Within a short time, the money started pouring in and the faculty began to recognize the vision. It wasn't long until every time they saw the dean, they would say, "Get out of here! We don't want to see you. Go out and bring in more funds. Your administrative assistant runs this office better than anyone else."

This man admitted to me later that the mistake he made was in not doing enough team building, enough explaining, enough educating about what he was trying to accomplish. I'm sure he could have done better, but I learned a powerful lesson from him. We need to constantly be asking ourselves, "What is needed out there, and what is my unique strength, my gift?"

It would have been easy for this man to meet the urgent expectations of others. He could have had a career at the university filled with many good things. But had he not discerned both the real needs and his own unique capacities, and carried out the vision he developed, he would never have achieved the best for him, the faculty, or the college.

What is "best" for you? What keeps you from giving those "best" things the time and energy you want to give them? Are too many "good" things getting in the way? For many people, they are. And the result is the unsettling feeling that they're not putting first things first in their lives.


Our struggle to put first things first can be characterized by the contrast between two powerful tools that direct us: the clock and the compass. The clock represents our commitments, appointments, schedules, goals, activities — what we do with, and how we manage our time. The compass represents our vision, values, principles, mission, conscience, direction — what we feel is important and how we lead our lives.

The struggle comes when we sense a gap between the clock and the compass — when what we do doesn't contribute to what is most important in our lives.

For some of us, the pain of the gap is intense. We can't seem to walk our talk. We feel trapped, controlled by other people or situations. We're always responding to crises. We're constantly caught up in "the thick of thin things" — putting out fires and never making time to do what we know would make a difference. We feel as though our lives are being lived for us.

For others of us, the pain is a vague discomfort. We just can't get what we feel we should do, what we want to do, and what we actually do all together. We're caught in dilemmas. We feel so guilty over what we're not doing, we can't enjoy what we do.

Some of us feel empty. We've defined happiness solely in terms of professional or financial achievement, and we find that our "success" did not bring us the satisfaction we thought it would. We've painstakingly climbed the "ladder of success" rung by rung — the diploma, the late nights, the promotions — only to discover as we reached the top rung that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall. Absorbed in the ascent, we've left a trail of shattered relationships or missed moments of deep, rich living in the wake of the intense, overfocused effort. In our race up the rungs, we simply did not take the time to do what really mattered most.

Others of us feel disoriented or confused. We have no real sense of what "first things" are. We move from one activity to another on automatic. Life is mechanical. Once in a while, we wonder if there's any meaning in our doing.

Some of us know we're out of balance, but we don't have confidence in other alternatives. Or we feel the cost of change is too high. Or we're afraid to try. It's easier to just live with the imbalance.


We may be brought to an awareness of this gap in a dramatic way. A loved one dies. Suddenly she's gone and we see the stark reality of what could have been, but wasn't, because we were too busy climbing the "ladder of success" to cherish and nurture a deeply satisfying relationship.

We may find out our teenage son is on drugs. Pictures flood our minds — times we could have spent through the years doing things together, sharing, building the relationship ... but didn't because we were too busy earning a living, making the right connections, or simply reading the newspaper.

The company's downsizing and our job's on the line. Or our doctor tells us we have just a few months to live. Or our marriage is threatened by divorce. Some crisis brings us to an awareness that what we're doing with our time and what we feel is deeply important don't match.

Rebecca: Years ago, I was visiting with a young woman in the hospital who was only twenty-three years old and had two small children at home. She had just been told she had incurable cancer. As I held her hand and tried to think of something to say that might comfort her, she cried, "I would give anything just to go home and change a messy diaper!"

As I thought about her words and my experience with my own small children, I wondered how many times both of us had changed diapers out of a sense of duty, hurriedly, even frustrated by the seeming inconvenience in our busy lives, rather than cherishing precious moments of life and love we had no way of knowing would ever come again.

In the absence of such "wake-up calls," many of us never really confront the critical issues of life. Instead of looking for deep chronic causes, we look for quick-fix Band-Aids and aspirin to treat the acute pain. Fortified by temporary relief, we get busier and busier doing "good" things and never even stop to ask ourselves if what we're doing really matters most.


In our effort to close the gap between the clock and the compass in our lives, many of us turn to the field of "time management." While just three decades ago there were fewer than a dozen significant books on the subject, our most recent survey led us through well over a hundred books, hundreds of articles, and a wide variety of calendars, planners, software, and other time management tools. It reflects something of a "popcorn phenomenon," with the increasing heat and pressure of the culture creating a rapidly exploding body of literature and tools.

In making this survey, we read, digested, and boiled down the information to eight basic approaches to time management. These range from the more traditional "efficiency" oriented approaches such as the "Get Organized" Approach, the Warrior Approach, and the ABC or Prioritization Approach, to some of the newer approaches that are pushing traditional paradigms. These include the more Far Eastern "Go with the Flow" Approach, which encourages us to get in touch with the natural rhythms of life — to connect with those "timeless" moments in time when the tick of the clock simply fades away in the joy of the moment. They also include the Recovery Approach, which shows how such time wasters as procrastination and ineffective delegation are often the result of deep psychological scripting, and how environmentally scripted "people pleasers" often over-commit and overwork out of fear of rejection and shame.

We've provided both a brief explanation of each of these approaches and a bibliography in Appendix B for those who are interested. But we generally find that most people relate more to what could be called the three "generations" of time management. Each generation builds on the one before it and moves toward greater efficiency and control.

First Generation. The first generation is based on "reminders." It's "go with the flow," but try to keep track of things you want to do with your time — write the report, attend the meeting, fix the car, clean out the garage. This generation is characterized by simple notes and checklists. If you're in this generation, you carry these lists with you and refer to them so you don't forget to do things. Hopefully, at the end of the day, you've accomplished many of the things that you set out to do and you can check them off your list. If those tasks are not accomplished, you put them on your list for tomorrow.

Second Generation. The second generation is one of "planning and preparation." It's characterized by calendars and appointment books. It's efficiency, personal responsibility, and achievement in goal setting, planning ahead, and scheduling future activities and events. If you're in this generation, you make appointments, write down commitments, identify deadlines, note where meetings will be held. You may even keep this in some kind of computer or network.


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Table of Contents



Section One


1 How Many People on Their Deathbed Wish They'd Spent More Time at the Office?

2 The Urgency Addiction

3 To Live, to Love, to Learn, to Leave a Legacy

Section Two


4 Quadrant II Organizing: The Process of Putting First Things First

5 The Passion of Vision

6 The Balance of Roles

7 The Power of Goals

8 The Perspective of the Week

9 Integrity in the Moment of Choice

10 Learning from Living

Section Three


11 The Interdependent Reality

12 First Things First Together

13 Empowerment from the inside Out

Section Four


14 From Time Management to Personal Leadership

15 The Peace of the Results



Appendix A: Mission Statement Workshop

Appendix B: A Review of Time Management Literature

Appendix C: The Wisdom Literature


Problem/Opportunity Index


What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

USA Today Covey is the hottest self-improvement consultant to hit U.S. business since Dale Carnegie.

Charles A. Garfield, Ph.D. author of Peak Performers — The New Heroes of American Business Roger Merrill's work is an excellent contribution for all individuals who want to connect their real attitudes, beliefs, and actions in the world.

Larry King CNN Covey has reached the apex with First Things First. This is an important work. I can't think of anyone who wouldn't be helped by reading it.

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First Things First 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I liked this much better than 'Seven Habits of Highly Successful People'. It includes most of 'Seven Habits' but focuses more on your personal wellness. I often use the metaphors and examples in helping others with problems. Covey has presented some personal challenges for me and I'm still trying to work through them.
dmtrly More than 1 year ago
This was exactly what I was looking for, it helped me to focus on the important issues and get time management into prospective. An issue I have struggled with all my life, but I now can have the tools to live,love, and leave a legacy.
JonPersson More than 1 year ago
First Things First is not a book about time management, it is a book about leading a life of purpose and mission. This book will teach the attentive reader how to identify the truly important things in their own life, and then shows how to develop a sense of mission, and the methods needed to prioritize one's life to assure that the bulk of one's life-time is spent doing what is important, and not merely urgent. To call this time management is incorrect; this is time leadership, which as Covey explains, is a matter of doing the right things (management is: doing things right). I have been engaged in a life mission for more than fifteen years now, and can honestly say that I have been most productive and of greatest service when my focus has been on my core mission. This is not a panacea, nor an easy way to wealth and glamour; rather, it is a method for making the dirty, sweaty workings of daily life have purpose and direction that keeps the spirit whole and the day to day routine worthwhile. Don't simply read this book; embrace it, engage it, practice its' principles, and follow your vision towards the mission of your higher calling.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ever since I read this book; I constantly tell myself that ¿I am not in control of my life; principles are¿! The only thing I am in control of is making choices about the actions that I will take. The result is not necessarily going to be the one I expect or want it to be. I can relate to this through my everyday issues in life. I must say this book has helped me a lot as a College student, a sister, a daughter and a wife to be. The author has given some excellent principles to help us be wise managers of our time and it has unquestionably worked for me.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book provides useful, profound, and much-needed advice to people who are over-worked, stressed, fatigued, have poor relationships, and feel helpless and hopeless in general. Most people think that to be more effective they have to give up sleep, exercise, friends, and work more and faster. This book provides a revolutionary solution to problems that so many people suffer from. By putting First Things First, you can be more effective while working less and feeling better. First Things First has its roots from The Seven Habits, which I would recommend reading first. The 7 Habits is more general and fundamental, while First Things is more dynamic, practical, detailed, and specific. Read them both!
dbeveridge on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Excellent discussion of a terrifically useful concept. Finding a way to move from what's urgent to what's important. Like all such books, it goes on too much, but get the key idea and it's (barely) worth slogging through the inevitable self-congratulatory/evangelical dross.
jpsnow on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A deeper reflection on one of the 7 Habits, this book develops the "4th generation" of time management. Such skill involves knowing inherently one's value and then creating quadrant II space to achieve what is most important. The Laws of Life, such as the principle of the Farm and emotional bank accounts must be considered. The book frequently challenges the paradigm that busy = success and instead replaces it with the value of the compass over the clock, i.e. why scramble in the wrong direction. A key element of 4th generation planning involves starting with roles, listing important objectives, and then scheduling the week around them. The analogy is drawn of putting rocks (important things), gravel, sand, and water (urgent details) into a glass jar. The principle of interdependence is also emphasized.
aarondesk on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A tie-in with the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People on how to manage time. Puts forth ideas and methods for ensuring that the important things in life get taken care of. Great book for examining your life and where you should be taking it.
PghDragonMan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I still don't like living by a system, but this one makes sense.
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KLParnell More than 1 year ago
I find this book to be an essential for my library, one that I reread occasionally to refresh my memory and commitments. While I appreciated the 7 Habits book, this second book is more value-based. The Merrills add a lot to the mix and the 7 principles are broken down, examined and defined very clearly, with real-life examples. It affirms my belief system, not many organizational books can claim that distinction. On a par, if not better than, Ordering Your Private World, by Gordon MacDonald!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
lemme14 More than 1 year ago
This book can be summed up like this: 360 pages that should have been condensed down to 50. However, that is not Mr. Covey's style. He is long winded, and at times very boring. Every chapter I would come across a couple 'Aha' statements or quotes. Beyond that, it was just plain difficult to get through. Some of the stories are almost laughable in that I find it hard to believe people even have those sorts of conversations. I really wanted to like the book because, while not a fan of the original 7 Habits, the First Things First habit is, to me, the one that applies the most. But that chapter from the original book is not worth an entire book on its own. There is not enough material there to expand upon.
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