BOOK REVIEW: FIRST THINGS FIRST by Stephen Covey, A. Roger Merrill and Rebecca R. Merrill. (Fireside, 1994)

You have post-it notes throughout your office, a planner to keep you on task, a notable list of achievements, but you still feel like you haven’t done enough.  Your student’s come to you with last minute requests for extensions, yet you’ve seen them seemingly wasting time in the lounge.  What do these two scenarios have in common?  In First Things First by Stephen Covey, A. Roger Merrill and Rebecca Merrill, the authors offer a perspective and approach to time/life management that speaks to both the urgency-addicted as well as the procrastinator. Of interest to both educators and college level students, the book moves away from clock-focused time management techniques and introduces the need for a personal compass because, “more important than how fast you’re going, is where you’re headed.”

For those expecting a quick fix to their hurried lives, the authors caution, “There is no short-cut, but there is a path.”  The path they offer is a model for evaluating how we spend time, relative to both the importance of the task and the urgency with which we respond to it. For students (and educators) whose lives are far more complex and demanding than ever before, the authors provide a simple, yet encompassing matrix that identifies all behaviors as falling into one of four quadrants:

Quadrant 1: Important, Urgent (crises, deadline-driven projects)

Quadrant II: Important, Not Urgent (preparation, prevention, planning, relationships)

Quadrant III: Urgent, Not Important (the Quadrant of Deception)

      Quadrant IV: Not Urgent, Not Important (the Quadrant of Waste)

This visual representation allows students to see how they choose to spend their time, and how they can think and act differently to be more successful in leading purposeful lives.

When I have shared this model with students, either in individual counseling sessions or in larger class settings, they often discover that while most of their time is spent in quadrants I, III or IV, Quadrant II is where quality thinking and ‘doing’ happens. “Doing more things faster is no substitute for doing the right things,” say the authors. Quadrant II helps students discover how to put first things first, by developing a vision and mission in life, and reflecting this mission in both roles and goals.  The authors provide worksheets and resources to help create a visual blueprint for living life not just fully, but purposefully. Instructors who use the On Course text will notice that the four quadrants are explained and applied to students’ lives in Chapter 4: Self-Management.

This “handbook” is a great resource for educators who want to assist students in becoming more than efficient learners, but effective people as well. Although the four quadrants are most readily identified with this book, the strength of the book comes in the following chapters that invite the reader to examine “your life, your scripts, your motives, your ‘first things,’ and what you represent.”   In “Learning from Living,” the chapter underscores the importance of continuous evaluation of our mission, values, goals and actions.  Without this important last step, we easily fall prey to repeated ineffective behaviors. By following the evaluation process offered in the book we become more conscious of the consequences of our choices and behaviors and more empowered to change and grow. 

The book offers a powerful, comprehensive approach that transcends time management techniques, and I found myself reading the book not just in chapters, but also in layers. With increasing depth, each chapter of the book provides the key principles “to live, to love, to learn and to leave a legacy.”  I have found students readily connect to the importance of addressing these four principles when they are given the opportunity to write about ways they might fulfill them in their lives.   

In addition, demonstrations such as the ‘Rocks and Jar’ (p 88) create powerful visual images that reinforce the underlying theme of the book: take action on your priorities first. In the ‘Rocks and Jar’ metaphor, students see that when they put their big rocks (priorities) into a jar (their life) first they get many more in than if they put their small rocks (low priorities) into the jar first and then try to squeeze in their big rocks.

As Covey reminds us in “The Miracle of the Chinese Bamboo Tree,” when a bamboo tree is first planted, all growth for the first four years occurs underground, but in its fifth year the bamboo tree grows up to eighty feet.  With this book we can help our students develop the roots they’ll need to grow in the years ahead. 

Rating: 5 Stars (out of possible 5)  

–Reviewed by Robin Middleton, Counselor, Jamestown Community College, NY

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