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Barbara Jordan
Mar 24, 2011

Time Management Classic

Here's an oldie but goodie. Do you remember Stephen Covey's First Things First? If you haven't read it, you're missing out on a real gem. I recently brushed off the dust from my copy and dug into it full force.

What compelled me to crack open this time management classic? One of my clients has been scheduling and re-scheduling his sessions with me because, as he put it, "the most pressing issues always seem to win over my important stuff."

When I begin my work with clients, I always ask questions like, "What are your highest priorities in life? What matters the most to you?"

I also ask, "Do you feel like other people/situations control your life? Do you ever feel trapped?" and, "Do you ever feel so guilty over what you’re not doing that you can’t enjoy what you are doing?" My coachees often painfully admit that the answer to these last three questions is "yes".

Stephen Covey frames time management in terms of "closing the gap between the clock and the compass". So what do you suppose he means by the clock and the compass? Covey describes the clock as the ways in which we spend and manage our time. It includes schedules, appointments, and commitments. The compass, on the other hand, is what’s most important to us-our vision, values, and priorities.

Covey claims that the gap between our clock and compass isn’t closed by traditional time management tools. Nor is it closed by doing more, faster. Instead of just doing things right, we need to focus on doing the right things.

Proactive tasks such as goal-setting and values clarification close the gap. He begs the question, how many people on their deathbed wish they’d spent more time at the office? Few or none. Covey describes this experience as the "wake up call".

You may have faced one or more wake up calls yourself. Suddenly, a loved one is gone. Your physician diagnoses you as terminal. You discover your teen is on drugs. Or, your marriage is threatened by divorce. All at once, you see what could have been... but never was... because you were too busy.

In order to help my clients eliminate time wasters like procrastination or ineffective delegation, I challenge their underlying beliefs and mindsets. After all, you can’t just change behaviors through time management methods or tools. You have to change the basic paradigms out of which you operate. For example, people pleasers who over-commit and over-work due to fears of rejection and shame learn to challenge these fears and set healthy boundaries. Only then will time management methods make a difference.

According to Covey, traditional time management tools have limited benefits. For instance, reminders, notes, and checklists help you get things done. However, their weakness is that your "first things" are those tasks that happen to be in front of you.

Planning, preparation, calendars, and appointment books work to remind you of and prepare you for what must be done. Scheduling, writing down commitments, identifying goals, and establishing deadlines increase your efficiency and effectiveness. But, again the weakness here is that the focus on schedules, goals, and efficiency sometimes traps you. People become interruptions/distractions that keep you from sticking to your schedule. You may get more of what you want. But, what you’re getting doesn’t necessarily meet your needs or create peace of mind.

Prioritizing, controlling, and setting goals consistent with your values (tying plans to values and daily planning) increases your productivity, performance, & results. You will set yourself up for failure unless your goals are aligned with your values. Nevertheless, the weakness of these more advanced time management tools is the emphasis on individual achievement. You focus on achieving, accomplishing, and getting what you want. Because you don't want to allow anything to get in the way, you tend to see others as resources through which you can get more done faster. Worse yet, you may consider people as obstacles.

So what does Covey suggest we do about all of this? You need to change your paradigm--the mindset determining your attitudes and behaviors--from one of urgency to one of importance. When urgency is the dominant factor in your life, importance isn’t. What you consider priorities are the urgent things. You’re so caught up in doing that you don’t stop to ask if what you’re doing really needs to be done.

In contrast, the importance paradigm focuses on knowing and doing what’s important rather than simply responding to what’s urgent. This is fundamental to Covey's "putting first things first" approach.

But, in order to make this paradigm shift, you may need to overcome the "urgency addiction" as Covey puts it. Stop depending so much on the adrenaline rush of handling crises that you become dependent on it for excitement, energy, meaning, validation, and success. When you operate in the urgency zone, it may feel stressful or exhausting. But, admit it. You may also be hooked on feelings of importance, usefulness, and exhilaration--urgency's behind-the-scenes silent partners.

Good luck doing this! I'm still working on it myself. Thanks to my clients, I'm light years away from where I used to be. Just remember, shift happens!

Barbara Jordan is a counselor, counselor educator, author, trainer, and leadership coach. For more information go to

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