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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Information Professionals, Part 5

Habit 3: Put First Things First

Why is it that some information professionals seem able to easily accomplish their goals and make a difference in their organizations, but most struggle just to keep their heads above water? Wouldn't it be great if we could marshal up two or three extra hours a day to finish an important project or make personal time available that was stolen by having to burn the midnight oil? Maybe, but maybe not. This might only attack the symptoms of how we spend our time, and not really help us be more effective.

This is the fifth in a series of columns on Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. This column describes Habit 3, "Put First Things First," and what that means for information professionals.

Habit 3 is not only about time management; it is really about "self-management." Effective self-management depends on Habits 1 (Be Proactive) and 2 (Begin with the End in Mind). Habit 1 means that you have taken charge of your life. Habit 2 means that you have visualized the potential end state of your personal and professional goals. Covey says this habit is one of "first or mental creation."1 We can see the potential, the clear outcomes we want to accomplish.

Habit 3 is the second creation, in which we actualize or physically produce the results. We see the end state, and we do the things necessary to achieve the end state. Living Habit 3 is practicing effective self-management, for "effective management is putting first things first."2

I must confess that this is one of my shortcomings. I have a clear vision of what I want to accomplish in my personal and professional life, but I have difficulty in making time available to do the things to get there. In writing this series, I am writing as much to me and my need to increase my effectiveness as I am to you. In my own pilgrimage, perhaps I can help others as well.

Covey describes Habit 3 as the fourth generation of time management. The maturing of time-management practices has evolved from creating checklists and notes (first generation), to scheduling and calendaring (second generation), to prioritization that focuses on important work (third generation), to the realization that the term "time management" is a misnomer - the issue is not to manage time, but to "manage ourselves."3

The focus of effective people is not to be efficient in how we do our activities, but to be effective in producing the right results. Just as in medical care where the focus has shifted from emphasis on diagnosis and procedures to a focus on "outcomes," the focus of information professionals must be on business results, not on activities (alone). Do data modeling efforts result in enterprise strength and reusable databases that house the right data to satisfy all information consumers? Do IQ assessments lead to confirmation that information production processes produce quality information or to improvement of the processes in ways that prevent recurrence of the defective information?

To master Habit 3, you must understand where you spend your time - and why it is spent there. Covey uses a matrix that maps activities on two axes - importance and urgency - as illustrated in Figure 1. The activities that always demand our attention first are those in Quadrant I, Important and Urgent. These activities include major projects with real deadlines or resolving crises that have harmful consequences if neglected. The Y2K date problem was such an example. Other examples include data warehouses that must be scrapped and started from scratch because of defective design and lack of attention to quality of source data. Figure 2 illustrates a small sample of information activities in the four quadrants of time management.

Figure 1: Covey's Time-Management Matrix4

The difference between effective people and others is that effective people know when things in Quadrant I are reactions to problems that could have been prevented and work to spend time in Quadrant II (Important but not Urgent) to prevent the problems from happening again.

How many data warehouse projects become crises at the last hour because no one addressed quality of the source data until it was too late to take proper action? How few data warehouse projects need no cleansing of data from the sources because their processes are producing virtually error-free data that meets all knowledge-worker needs?

Effective people know that to avoid unnecessary scrap and rework, they must dedicate time to Quadrant II activities. These are activities of defect prevention - developing relationships with those who can create change, and helping change sponsors understand that the costs of reactive information scrap and rework are too high and that data correction activities are not a necessary cost of doing business.

To become proficient in Habit 3, we must analyze how much of our time is spent in each quadrant. Is our time driven by crisis management (QI), or are we spending time doing things to prevent crises (QII)? Do we have - or create - system imposed activities that yield minimal results (QIII)? Or, have we burned out in firefighting and crisis management to the point that we retreat into the escape of time-wasters in QIV?

One of the reasons IQ or information management initiatives do not get funding or support is precisely because they are Quadrant II activities; they are important, but there are no perceived drivers that make them urgent. Management is perplexed by all of the deadline-driven projects and crises; thus, there is no (perceived) time for "good" ideas.

If we never seem to have enough time for Quadrant II, then we must make time. We do this by eliminating things in Quadrant IV that are neither important nor urgent. Look at system-imposed activities in Quadrant III that do not yield value. Challenge these activities. Measure and document the costs of the reaction to crises and the residual impacts of those crises.

The effective person will look for ways to help management see the cause and effect of defects and broken processes and the consequences of information scrap and rework. Covey paraphrases Peter Drucker, "Effective people are not problem-minded - they're opportunity-minded. They feed opportunities and starve problems. They think preventively."6 Problem prevention is the same concept as W. Edwards Deming's Point 3 of quality-defect prevention - "Quality is achieved by designing good quality in, rather than by inspecting bad quality out."7

Covey asks the reader to ponder and answer this question: "What one thing could you do in your personal and professional life that, if you did on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your life?" The answer will be a Quadrant II activity; and it is key to becoming dramatically more effective.

In my own personal life, I have just come through a crisis. About a year and a half ago, my 27-year-old daughter had written me out of her life. She did not want to talk to me; she did not want to see me. This was a devastating blow to my ego and image as a good father. However, she truly needed her space. It was hard for me to stand aside and wait for her, but I allowed her that time. I wrote periodically to let her know what was going on with me and that I would be there whenever she was ready. And she did reach out, when she was ready.

Covey's fourth generation of self-management has the following powerful features:

  • It is principle-centered, focusing on Quadrant II, empowering you to see what is important.
  • It is conscience-directed, enabling you to organize your life in harmony with your deepest values.
  • It defines your unique mission, including values and long-term goals, giving direction in all your activities.
  • It helps you balance your life by identifying roles and by setting goals and scheduling a balance of activities for each of those roles.
  • It gives greater context through weekly organizing, enabling you to see and schedule "chunk time" for Quadrant II activities while still allowing flexibility for adapting your schedule as necessary.8

Figure 2: Time-Management Matrix Adapted to Information Work5

Effectiveness has to do with how much is accomplished with the input we provide. Some of this is the input we make of our own time. Other input may be accomplished with what Covey calls "stewardship delegation," which is delegating to others based on "results" as opposed to "methods." 9 Stewardship delegation involves clear, mutual understanding of what needs to be accomplished, focusing on:

  • Desired results. Focus on the what, not the how, and the results, not the methods.
  • Guidelines. Provide any parameters within which the person should operate, including any formidable restrictions.
  • Resources. Identify what resources (money, people, etc.) are available to accomplish the objectives.
  • Accountability. Establish the standards of performance for evaluation of the outcomes.
  • Consequences. Specify the end results, both good and bad, as a result of the evaluation.10

Delegation is not exclusively for "managers." It is a way for each of us to increase our personal effectiveness.
Mastering the first three habits moves us from being "dependent" on people and events around us, to a state of "independence" where we are in charge of our lives. We become effective in our private space. We have the basis for moving to the habits of interpersonal relationships. We must make habits of private victory before we can successfully mature to a level of interdependence (public victory). As information professionals, we must master these three and be effectively independent in order to master the next trilogy of habits to be effective with others.

In my next column, we will delve into what win/win means to effective information professionals.

What do you think? Let me know at Larry.English@infoimpact.com.


  1. Covey, Stephen R., The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989, p. 146.
  2. Ibid., p. 148.
  3. Ibid., p. 150.
  4. Ibid., p. 151.
  5. English, Larry, Information Stewardship: Accountability for Information seminar, Brentwood, Tennessee: Information Impact International, 1995-2004.
  6. Covey, op. cit., p. 154.
  7. English, Larry, Improving Data Warehouse and Business Information Quality: Methods for Reducing Costs and Increasing Profits, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999, p. 345.
  8. Covey, op. cit., p. 171.
  9. Ibid., p. 173.
  10. Ibid., p. 174.
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