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First Things First by Stephen R. Covey.
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In First Things First, Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, presents a time management approach that focuses on priorities, or “first things.” This approach teaches you to use your time effectively rather than efficiently. Using your time effectively means focusing on what you’re spending your time on by prioritizing tasks that have the most impact on your long-term goals, rather than how much time you’re spending on each task.

(Shortform note: In The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss tackles the idea of effectiveness versus efficiency in a business context, rather than a personal context. He adds that, companies typically focus on efficiency (how much work you get done) because it’s easier to measure, but this gives an unclear picture of how well the company is doing—finishing a large number of unimportant tasks makes the company look productive, but doesn’t move it any closer to its goals.)

The Significance vs. Pressure Graph

Two factors determine how you spend your time: significance and pressure. A task can be significant, pressing, both, or neither. Covey’s method of time management emphasizes only doing significant tasks, rather than spending time on tasks that are merely pressing.

All of our activities fall into one of the four zones of the significance vs. pressure graph:

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Zone 1 is both significant and pressing. This zone contains emergencies and problems that require your immediate attention. This can include health emergencies, a work deadline, or a broken-down car.

Zone 2 is significant, but not pressing. This zone is where you do long-term planning, relationship building, and personal leadership activities like assessing your progress toward goals.

Zone 3 is pressing, but not significant. Covey warns that the urgency of Zone 3 activities can make them appear important, but they don’t actually help you achieve your goals (for example, making phone calls or going to unimportant meetings).

Zone 4 is neither significant nor pressing. Zone 4 tasks include watching mindless television shows and scrolling through social media. Covey explains that recreational activities don’t belong here, because true recreation is a restorative and valuable Zone 2 activity.

Background Info: The Eisenhower Matrix

Covey’s graph is closely based on the famous Eisenhower Matrix, developed by US President Dwight Eisenhower. The Eisenhower Matrix also suggests methods for dealing with the tasks in each zone:

  • Zone 1: Do it. A task that’s both significant and pressing is something you should handle as soon as possible.

  • Zone 2: Plan it. These are important tasks, but you don’t necessarily need to do them right this instant. Therefore, Eisenhower urges you to schedule time to handle them, and then stick to that schedule.

  • Zone 3: Assign it. Eisenhower defines this zone as tasks that need to be done, but can be delegated.

  • Zone 4: Ignore it. Tasks that are neither significant nor pressing are, by definition, tasks that you can safely ignore.

Zone 3 and Zone 4 activities add little value to your life, so Covey says that you should limit time spent in these quadrants. Also, while Zone 1 activities are inevitable, aim to spend most of your time in Zone 2.

The first step toward spending more time in Zone 2 is to recognize when urgent tasks are not significant and stop doing them. With practice, Covey promises that you’ll eventually shift to a significance-based mindset and focus on doing the things that are most important to you.

(Shortform note: To figure out what’s significant to you, it might help to think about how you’d define success for yourself. A Psychology Today article describes how four business executives defined success, and though their answers varied widely, the common thread was that success meant working toward a goal that brought them fulfillment.)

Shift to a Significance-Based Approach

Covey says three principles should guide your shift to a significance-based approach.

1. Fulfill your four essential needs: Covey believes that every person’s four essential needs are survival, connection, learning, and giving back. Humans get a sense of fulfillment only through satisfying these four fundamental needs—and we meet these needs through Zone 2 (significant but not pressing) activities.

Why Are These Essential Needs?

Covey’s essential needs are all things hardwired into our biology because they helped our ancestors to survive. In his book The Selfish Gene, scientist Richard Dawkins explains in much greater detail how these needs (and other traits) are passed down through generations.

  • Survival: Our bodies need things like food and sleep to survive and function properly.

  • Connection: Many animals, including humans, live in groups or communities for protection, collaboration, and division of labor.

  • Learning: Learning what was safe to eat, how to avoid predators, and advanced skills like making tools was invaluable to our ancestors’ survival.

  • Giving back: By helping others survive, our ancestors ensured that their community members would help them in return.

2. Understand universal principles: Universal principles include integrity, moderation, self-discipline, loyalty, responsibility, honesty, and patience....

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First Things First Summary Shortform Introduction

In First Things First, Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, presents a time management approach that focuses on priorities, or “first things.” This approach teaches you to use your time effectively, meaning you focus more on prioritizing what you’re spending your time on, rather than how much time you're spending on each task.

The foundation of Covey’s system is learning to recognize when something that seems pressing isn’t actually important for your long-term goals. By ignoring these urgent-but-insignificant tasks, you reclaim time and energy that you can put toward your true life goals.

About the Author

Stephen R. Covey was a world-renowned author, motivational speaker, teacher, and entrepreneur. Although best known for his breakout bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey wrote a number of books about productivity, motivation, and effective leadership. He’s often lauded for his...

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First Things First Summary Part 1.1: Be Effective, Not Efficient

First Things First expands on the third of Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which is to focus on important things over urgent or time-sensitive tasks. As Covey explains in the first chapter, First Things First is a pushback against the myriad time management methods that only focus on how to get as much done as possible.

Covey begins by saying that many time management systems are about how to accomplish your goals as quickly as possible. For example, he points out how many books urge you to create lists of tasks, and then start checking things off those lists. However, he says this isn’t an effective approach to time management—it may leave you feeling like you never have enough time for the really important things like spending time with your loved ones or taking care of yourself.

Covey argues that, rather than focusing on how much time we spend on each task, we should focus on which tasks we’re working on.** Covey believes that the key to effective time management is deciding which tasks are the...

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Shortform Exercise: Understand Your Management Tools

Use these questions to determine which “generation” of management tools you currently use and which paradigms may be holding you back from living an effective life, rather than an efficient one. After you’ve identified the issues, later exercises will help you find solutions.


List two or three time management tools you use most often. (Perhaps you check off items on a daily to-do list, write in a planner, or use an app on your phone.)

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First Things First Summary Part 1.2: Understand Covey’s Time Management Model

Covey says that two factors should determine how you spend your time:

  1. How significant each task is
  2. How pressing each task is—in other words, how soon you need to address it

Covey’s model of time management emphasizes only doing significant tasks: activities that are in line with your values and get you closer to your goals. Insignificant tasks, no matter how pressing they might be, aren’t worth your time.

This section will teach you how to recognize which tasks are significant, and how a simple model can help you determine the best use of your time.

(Shortform note: In The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss discusses pressing-yet-insignificant tasks like phone calls and unnecessary meetings. He calls them “interruptions” because they crop up unexpectedly and disrupt your flow. Ferriss adds that people are often reluctant or afraid to avoid these interruptions because they don’t have a good sense of what’s actually important. They worry that they’ll miss something crucial if they ignore a phone call, or that skipping a meeting or a get-together will create problems for them. However, it’s well-worth...

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Shortform Exercise: Identify Your Primary Zones

Use these questions to identify where you spend the most time: Zone 1 (significant and pressing), Zone 2 (significant but not pressing), Zone 3 (pressing but not significant), or Zone 4 (neither significant nor pressing).


Think about how you spend your time. Which zones do you occupy most?

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First Things First Summary Part 1.3: Adopt a Significance-Based Approach

We’ve discussed why it’s critical to place significance over pressure and use your time in a way that aligns with your goals and values. Furthermore, people who take a significance-based approach to life (as opposed to a pressure-based approach) tend to feel more confident, peaceful, and fulfilled, because they feel like they’re using their time in a meaningful way. So, how do you do that?

According to Covey, there are three critical elements to a significance-based approach to life. This section is devoted to explaining these three elements and teaching you how to incorporate them into your life.

The three elements of a significance-based approach are:

  1. Meet your essential needs.
  2. Follow universal principles.
  3. Use your unique human gifts.

What’s Significant to You?

Determining what’s significant and meaningful to you is a personal process, but one way to think about it is to reflect on what would make you feel successful. Psychology Today interviewed four business executives from various industries and countries around the...

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Shortform Exercise: Identify Your Growth Opportunities

Examine your unique gifts and identify which ones could use your attention.


Of the four human gifts (self-awareness, morality, creativity, and willpower), which do you feel you exercise? Which do you need to strengthen or use more often?

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First Things First Summary Part 2.1: Start Zone 2 Scheduling

Now that you understand the significance-based approach, let’s put it into practice with Covey’s Zone 2 scheduling process, which aims to improve your quality of life by prioritizing your time based on principles, needs, and gifts.

Each section in Part 2 explores one step of Covey’s Zone 2 organizing process in detail. The first step we’ll explore is creating a personal mission statement that helps you determine what’s significant to you.

Do More by Doing Less

In The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, self-help author Robin Sharma suggests managing your time by doing less, rather than more. At its core, this advice is the same as Covey’s Zone 2 organizing process: Do what’s most important to you (effectiveness), instead of trying to accomplish the most in the least time (efficiency).

However, Sharma suggests a different way of evaluating what’s important, by using the “80/20 Rule” (sometimes called the Pareto Principle), a rule-of-thumb that 80% of outcomes stem from just 20% of what you do. Therefore, the key to getting the most value out of your time is to identify which...

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Shortform Exercise: Prepare for Zone 2 Scheduling

Determine what you’ll need for your Zone 2 scheduling, and how you’ll approach it.


What tools will you use to complete your Zone 2 scheduling? A large piece of paper? A paper or digital planner?

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First Things First Summary Part 2.2: Set Goals

Zone 2 scheduling won’t be effective if you don’t have specific goals to work towards. That’s why Covey believes that setting goals is a key part of effective self-improvement and time management methods. However, he warns that goals can be counterproductive if you don’t set and execute them judiciously. In this section, we’ll first explain the risks involved in goal-setting, then explore how to set helpful goals and work toward them effectively.

Covey says that there are two major ways in which goals can end up working against you:

  1. Your sense of integrity and your courage take a hit when you fail to achieve a goal.
  2. Sometimes, even when you do achieve your goal, the outcome is unexpectedly negative.

(Shortform note: Clinical psychologist Alisa Crossfield points out that goals can be powerful motivators, but they can also be sources of anxiety and stress. She writes that setting goals that are unrealistic or unsuitable for you, or setting too many goals at once can be harmful to your mental and emotional health. She warns that doing so can lead...

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Shortform Exercise: Set a Goal

Think of something that you’d like to accomplish. This could be a long-term life goal, or it could be something with a shorter time frame like a week or a month.


What is your goal?

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First Things First Summary Part 2.3: Develop a Weekly Plan

A key aspect of effective Zone 2 scheduling is choosing the right time frame for your planning. Covey suggests planning within the framework of a week; he believes it’s a balanced compromise between daily planning and long-term planning. A weekly schedule connects a big-picture perspective with day-to-day actionables.

In this section, we’ll explore some of the benefits of weekly planning.

(Shortform note: Life coach Brynn Johnson offers one possible benefit to weekly planning: You can start your Monday feeling calm and in control, instead of anxious about the upcoming week of work or school. With that goal in mind, Johnson suggests using each Sunday to plan for the week ahead.)

(Shortform note: First Things First provides a weekly worksheet that includes space to carry out each of the following steps, but you can use any planner, digital scheduler, or simply a piece of paper to implement the Zone 2 organizing process.)

Weekly Planning Encourages Balance and Perspective

**Covey believes that a week encompasses a natural balance of life: It includes work or school days, evenings, and weekends....

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First Things First Summary Part 3.1: Creating Synergy Through Interdependence

Beyond the tools and strategies already discussed in the Zone 2 organizing process, Covey says that one of the most powerful ways you can make the most effective use of your time is through creating synergy—or collaborating—with other people. Your relationships with other people have a huge influence on how you spend your time and the quality of life you create.

Traditional time management techniques are based on management and control, which causes you to see other people in a shallow way: They’re either tools to use or interruptions to your schedule. This short-sighted view ignores the potential of creating synergy with others in order to achieve both your and their goals more effectively.

By contrast, Covey’s fourth-generation approach to time management applies the skills you’ve practiced to create synergy among your roles and goals to your interactions with the people around you.

Collaboration Requires Trust

In another of his self-help books, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey explains that collaborating with other people requires trust. He breaks...

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Shortform Exercise: Examine Your Mindset

Consider a situation that you approached with an independence mindset—in other words, you thought you had to deal with it all on your own. Consider how you might have handled it differently.


Describe a recent situation that you handled independently?

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First Things First Summary Part 3.2: Finding Solutions Where Everybody Wins

Covey asserts that a key aspect of having an interdependent mindset is having an everybody-wins mindset, meaning that you approach winning by looking for ways to accomplish your goals as well as others’ goals through cooperation. This helps to ensure that you’re using your time—and others’ time—as effectively as possible. He warns that society teaches us to have a “win-lose” mindset—if you win, someone else must lose, and vice versa. But to reach your goals in an interdependent world, you need to shift your mindset to understand that winning doesn’t mean defeating someone else.

The Infinite Game Mindset

Simon Sinek’s book The Infinite Game draws a line between “finite games” (games where somebody wins and the game ends) and the titular “infinite games” (games that never end). Most things that we think of as games—from Monopoly to Fortnite—are finite games. Things like battles, elections, and boxing matches are also finite games. The thing they all have in common is that the “game” ends with clear winners and losers. **Conversely, things like your career, your...

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First Things First Summary Part 3.3: Empowering Yourself and Others

To find and implement win-win solutions, everyone needs to have the autonomy to carry out their own roles. However, Covey notes that many employees aren’t empowered to make their own decisions, and they aren’t given the freedom to take initiative on their own projects. This is bad for individuals’ job satisfaction and professional growth, and it’s also bad for the company.

If you’re an employee in an organization that doesn’t trust its employees, with managers who micromanage your work life, you may think there’s nothing you can do to improve the situation. However, Covey says that thought is the actual problem. Even if you’re not the leader of your group, you can still empower yourself and lead others by focusing on what you can influence, instead of what you can’t.

In this section, we’ll look at three things you can do to empower yourself and others, regardless of your position within the organization.

Help Your Group Improve With a Growth Mindset

In her self-help book Mindset, Carol Dweck talks about two different ways of thinking:

  • Fixed mindset: You believe that things simply are...

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First Things First Summary Conclusion: Finding Peace With the First Things First Strategy

Covey believes that when you base your priorities on universal principles and put first things first, you find four different kinds of peace:

  1. The peace that comes from fulfilling your four essential needs: survival, connection, learning, and giving back.
  2. The peace that comes from developing your four human gifts: awareness, morality, creativity, and willpower.
  3. The peace that comes from cooperating with others instead of competing with them.
  4. The peace that comes from living according to your conscience.

(Shortform note: Having clear priorities and knowing how to pursue them can also foster the peace that comes from confidence: in this case, the confidence that you’ll always know the right thing to do and how to do it. In The Confidence Code, journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman explain that confidence (also called self-esteem) boosts your happiness and helps you feel more fulfilled—which is, after all, the end goal of Covey’s system of personal leadership.)

Obstacles to Peace

There are three roadblocks to peace that Covey says we should be aware of:

1. Unrealistic...

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Shortform Exercise: Reflect on the First Things First Approach

Reflect on the lessons of First Things First and how you’ll implement them in your life.


What elements of Covey’s approach do you find most useful? The guidelines for Zone 2 scheduling? The steps for creating win-win stewardship agreements?

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Shortform Introduction
  • Part 1.1: Be Effective, Not Efficient
  • Exercise: Understand Your Management Tools
  • Part 1.2: Understand Covey’s Time Management Model
  • Exercise: Identify Your Primary Zones
  • Part 1.3: Adopt a Significance-Based Approach
  • Exercise: Identify Your Growth Opportunities
  • Part 2.1: Start Zone 2 Scheduling
  • Exercise: Prepare for Zone 2 Scheduling
  • Part 2.2: Set Goals
  • Exercise: Set a Goal
  • Part 2.3: Develop a Weekly Plan
  • Part 3.1: Creating Synergy Through Interdependence
  • Exercise: Examine Your Mindset
  • Part 3.2: Finding Solutions Where Everybody Wins
  • Part 3.3: Empowering Yourself and Others
  • Conclusion: Finding Peace With the First Things First Strategy
  • Exercise: Reflect on the First Things First Approach