First things first

Although I’m not a devotee of business books, I reread First Things First by Steven R. Covey, A. Roger Merrill, and Rebecca R. Merrill every few years. When it came out in 1994, “time management” meant accomplishing as many tasks as possible. Elaborate day planners helped us do things more efficiently so that we could do more things. Courses in time management abounded. First Things First pointed out that just doing more is meaningless. We need to do what matters most.

What matters most—and why?

Gold ring with Elvish writing: "One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them".
“Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again.”
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”The Fellowship of the Ring, JRR Tolkien. Shutterstock image.

First Things First invites you to imagine a gathering in your honor late in your life—for example, your 80th birthday. Everyone who matters to you is there, giving speeches of appreciation for who you are and what you mean to them. Who would be there? What would they say? What would you want them to say?

This past summer I attended the funerals of two friends. Friends, family, and colleagues gathered to honor them. It was clear from their stories that each of these friends was essentially the same toward everyone. They knew what mattered and acted accordingly in every area of their lives.

The man who celebrated the birth of his daughter treated male and female colleagues with respect. Having fled persecution in his home country, he empathized with his immigrant and refugee clients. He took care of his own family and donated vacation time so a colleague could be with his ailing father.

The woman whose friends valued her listening ear paid attention to each of her preschool students, too. She extended hospitality to friends, colleagues, and even stray cats. Despite a difficult marriage and numerous health problems, she never complained. But whatever you were going through, she understood.

During my career I’ve worked with quite a few highly respected scientists and engineers. In some cases it was a great experience. In other cases it was more of a character-building one. Too often someone who is pleasant to peers and superiors is a bully to subordinates. Most people just don’t have the integrity or the empathy my friends had.

Important or just urgent?

First Things First refers frequently to Eisenhower’s time management matrix, which divides tasks into four quadrants on the basis of urgency and importance. All of us do things that are both urgent and important, important but not urgent, urgent but not important, and neither urgent nor important. Some people seem to thrive on the adrenaline rush of urgency. But is that really the way to do your best work—or to maintain your health and your relationships in the long term? And when you run out of urgent, important things to do, do you gravitate to the important but not urgent, or the urgent but unimportant?

Suppose that instead of just putting out the next fire, you consider why you have so many fires. Are you putting off tasks until they become urgent? Should you delegate some things to someone else? Could you streamline a procedure? Could this meeting or Zoom call be an email instead?

But even more important than doing things better is doing better things. That is, look at your schedule in terms of your inner compass, not just the clock. To make time for things that really matter, First Things First recommends making appointments for them, just as you would for a meeting with a client. That is, schedule your priorities, don’t just prioritize what’s on the schedule.

It’s character that tells

The lesson impressed on me as I stand here and my heart and mind traverse your faces, and the years that are gone, is that in a great, momentous struggle like this commemorated here, it is character that tells. I do not mean simply or chiefly bravery. Many a man has that, who may become surprised or disconcerted at a sudden change in the posture of affairs. What I mean by character is a firm and seasoned substance of soul. I mean such qualities or acquirements as intelligence, thoughtfulness, conscientiousness, right-mindedness, patience, fortitude, long-suffering and unconquerable resolve.
…It was the force of the characters you had formed in the silent and peaceful years by the mother’s knee and by the father’s side, which stood you in such stead in the day of trial. And so it is. We know not of the future, and cannot plan for it much. But we can hold our spirits and our bodies so pure and high, we may cherish such thoughts and such ideals, and dream such dreams of lofty purpose, that we can determine and know what manner of men we will be whenever and wherever the hour strikes, that calls to noble action. This predestination God has given us in charge. No man becomes suddenly different from his habit and cherished thought. We carry our accustomed manners with us. And it was the boyhood you brought from your homes which made you men; which braced your hearts, which shone upon your foreheads, which held you steadfast in mind and body, and lifted these heights of Gettysburg of immortal glory.
—Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, dedication of the 20th Maine monument at Gettysburg, 3 October 1889

Trustworthiness as the foundation

Ultimately, success in business—as in life—depends on relationships with other people. And good relationships ultimately depend on trust. Trustworthiness requires both character and competence.

By “character” the authors mean primarily integrity, a congruence between belief and action. But it also includes the maturity to balance straightforwardness with tact and consideration of others. Character has an abundance mentality—that is, it doesn’t reduce life to a zero-sum game, but is willing to look for “win-win” solutions.

Competence encompasses not only technical competence—that is, mastery of the necessary skills to accomplish the desired results. It also includes the ability to see the big picture from different perspectives. And it includes the ability to work cooperatively with others.