Posted by: Ken Brown | July 30, 2008

First Things First

This was previously posted here, and seems a good way to begin:

My daughter was born almost a month ago, and I could easily spend all day just watching her sleep (she returns the favor by keeping me up all night).* Of course, that’s not very practical—there are more pressing concerns in life. And yet, it’s funny how easily far less important things end up filling my time.

Stephen Covey (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, First Things First, etc.) categorizes all activities into four types based on whether they are “important or not important” and “urgent or not urgent,” and urges us to analyze all our activities by these two criteria. Now you might expect him to advise focusing on the “important and urgent” activities, but he actually suggests focusing on those things that are “important but not urgent,” while cutting out the “not important and not urgent” pursuits that eat up so much of our time. As he notes, our natural tendency to focus on whatever is most urgent (interspersed with “breaks” filled with meaningless activities) may seem productive, but really prevents us from controlling our overall direction in life, and cuts out many of the best things in life. While we’re busy putting out fires left and right, we find that there’s no time left for things like poetry [do click through and read this, it’s good!].

But my interest today is on those “not important and not urgent” activities. With the countless distractions modern technology has provided us, it’s easy to feel that we risk burnout if we fail to take time for such trivia. We get the idea that occasional breaks for sitcoms or video games actually help our productivity as a whole, and feel justified in “vegging out” every now and then.

Unfortunately, this simply isn’t true. The problem is when you start thinking you need to do these things, they steadily eat up more and more of your time, especially if—like me—you work from home. At first, maybe you can work a whole day before feeling like you need to “check out” for a half hour. Pretty soon every three hours you need an hour break. Before long, you hardly get much done even when you are working; you feel like you always need a break.

But a funny thing happens when you stop and say: I really don’t need to be playing these games in the first place. You feel really bored for a day or two, and then suddenly you find that you can be productive for longer and longer stretches without any “brain breaks” at all. I know from personal experience: it’s shocking how little such activities are missed once you get away from them, and how much more you can get done once they’re gone.

And the best part is: cutting out such “not important and not urgent” activities doesn’t just let you be more effective at accomplishing the urgent activities, it also (and primarily) frees up your time for all those “important but not urgent” things that you always want to do, but never find the time for. When you cut out meaningless leisure activities, you suddenly have the freedom to pursue the ones that are truly satisfying: hobbies, sports, viewing/reading/listening to art (which can include good movies and television, though it probably can’t justify an afternoon of Friends reruns), deep thinking and reading, meaningful conversation and—my personal favorite—watching your baby girl sleep.

*Now two, my daughter no longer keeps me up at night (that will be my son’s job now), but as a curious and conversational toddler, she certainly still keeps me busy.


  1. […] span. For years I’ve told myself that I need to better discipline my time, focus on First things First, and so on, but such platitudes don’t seem to make much difference. I needed something more […]

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