Important Tasks: First Things First

This article describes how to make your weeks rock by defining and concentrating on the important goals in your professional and personal life.

Important Tasks: Make Your Weeks Rock

Don’t emphasize too much on the long-term goals. The less time ahead in the future you look, the better control over the process you have. Put all your efforts into making this week rock, concentrate on your weekly goals. This article will teach how to do that.

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Time to read: 17 minutes (based on 150 words per minute).


Are you one of these people who always say that they don’t have enough time for the important things in their life? Do you find your calendar filled with meetings that accomplish somebody else’s agenda? Do you wish to have some quality time for yourself? Steven Covey answered these questions in his book “First Things First

The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

Stephen Covey

There are different types of tasks. I cover them in detail in this article, but for now let’s assume there are only two: important and urgent. The problems above arise when you fill your days with urgent tasks. This is one of the problems of the modern society that everybody is addicted to stress and urgency. You feel competent and satisfied when you rush each of your days to accomplish a million urgent tasks.

What will you get from this process?

There is an interesting anecdote that describes my point. A teacher went in front of the class with an empty jar. “Is there space in the jar?”, she asked. After the affirmative answer, she put a number of big rocks inside, filling it all the way to the edge. “What about now?”, she asked again. “No”, was the response. Then, the teacher poured some pebbles inside. They filled the pockets of space between the rocks. “Is the jar full now?”, the teacher continued to ask with a smile. “Yes!” Then, the teacher poured some sand in the jar, filling the small space between the pebbles and the rocks. The answer of the students was more hesitant, but they still did not see space in the jar. Finally, the teacher poured a beer in the jar. “No matter how busy you are, there is always space for beer with friends.

Let’s reverse-engineer the process and map it to your daily life. What if the pebbles are your urgent tasks and the sand it everything else? The beer is always a beer, you can’t change that. Then, the big rocks will be the important tasks. What happens if you start with the pebbles and fill the jar with them? There is no space for the rocks. What happens if you start with the sand? The same. This chapter will teach you how to fill your jar with rocks, then with pebbles, and finally with sand and beer.

First Things First in action

A few years ago, I was just hired in a big corporation in North America, where you had to be at your best 24/7. The urgent tasks started pouring on my first day (new hire orientation, requests for 1:1s, training courses to attend). Of course, I came organized. I had a to-do list, a task management process, even a reflection session with myself every week. But after a while, I was drowning in my own to-do list.

My answer to all this was to hit the pause button, think, and reflect. Was this the way I wanted to spend my career in that company? Was this a way to shine and make sure I produce value? My profession requires the ability to do judgement calls and so I did. My answer was no.

I adopted the “First Things First” process that I will describe below to escape that routine. It took some time to adjust to it mostly because I needed the critical mass of information to be able to tell urgent from important. Most of my colleagues were concentrated on the long-term goals: promotion, transition to another role, joining a start-up company. I did something else – I concentrated on each week, on the weekly goals. I made my weeks rock by setting aside time for everything. But most of all, for important tasks.

How can you to start?

I know I said to forget about long-term, but now let’s go back to that. You need the mid-term and long-term goals in order to determine the important tasks. Pick a goal that you want to achieve. Go to this article to learn how to set goals, but for now let’s say you want a promotion. Who doesn’t?

There is no way to achieve this without breaking it down. You know this better than me, but for example, I assume that you need several achievements in order to get to the next level: technical contributions, business contributions, skills, knowledge. The areas overlap and this is great. Now, break them down further. You need to learn to do XYZ, obtain a certificate that you know ABC, and have stakeholders who can confirm that you influenced the business decisions on project MLN.

The “First Things First” process requires that you set aside time, each week, for each of these areas in order to achieve the goal. Or at least, making judgement calls about which areas to include week over week. If you want to write a book, set time each week to write. There will be no “future” where you will have more time. If you want to learn to cook, set time each week to cook. When your kids get older you will not have more time in the evenings. If you want to be fit, set time each week to exercise. Don’t wait for the Summer.

What can you do?

All clear up to now”, I hear you say, “but how can I put all this into practice?” These are the 9 steps that I follow to make each of my weeks rock.

1. Life roles

How many masks do you have to wear in your life? A child, a parent, a spouse, a brother, a friend, an employee, a teacher? Start with a simple sheet of paper, observe yourself a few days or weeks, and write down all the roles you have to (or want to) take. Rigorously aggregate them and concentrate on 5-7 roles.

Define each role with enough words so that you can feel it. “Inspirational, visionary teacher.” “Loving, forgiving spouse.” Attach a mission statement and a vision to each role. Go back to the list and review it at least monthly. Things change.

2. List all your goals

Turn the life roles list into a table and associate each role (rows) with short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals (columns). Visualize where you want to be 1 or 2 years into the future (e.g. I want to be promoted to Sr. XYZ by Mon, Year). Remember to make the goals SMART (Simple, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound). Then, work backwards from that and breakdown the goal into smaller short-term and mid-term goals.

What is the benefit of that? Writing a goal vs. remembering a goal has a lot of benefits. First of all, you are forced the think how you want to formulate it, how to abstract the goal. This can sometimes be hard. For example, it is really easy to think that you want to be successful. But creating a goal out of that forces you to make boundaries around it. What does success mean to you? How can you achieve that? What do you need to have/be to feel that you have what you want to have?

And finally, the last benefit is that you now have your goal, your aspiration in a written form. You can put in on your desk, you can read and review it every week (or every day). It becomes tangible and your mind starts working on it even while you sleep.

Once you have all these goals defined, you return to them every week. You summarize what you have done so far towards (or against) your goals.

3. Weekly goals

After using the process for a couple of months, I realized that there is a separate type of goals, which I call weekly goals. A more accurate term will probably be habits. These are the things that you want to keep doing because they help you get closer to your goals.

For example, let’s say that a part of your job is to generate weekly reports on a topic. You know that you do a good job because everybody is satisfied with the quality of your reports. In this case, you need a weekly goal that says – “keep publishing awesome weekly reports”. You cannot afford to reduce the quality because this will undermine your promotion. And it can be easy to concentrate on your growth areas forgetting your strengths.

Other examples of weekly goals are: investing time in your relationships, setting aside time to call your parents or kids, do a romantic gesture for your spouse, have 1:1-s with your direct reports, invest time in building your skills. A while ago, I invented the term frustration-free morning and added it to my weekly goals. Click here to go to this article.

4. Review the goals

The cadence for doing this is up to you, but what works for me is setting aside one hour each Monday, before everything else, to review the table with my goals and to formulate the goals on which I want to concentrate for the week.

I would recommend you to read your whole table: the roles, the goals, the mission statement, and the vision. Does it still feel true to your character? If no, then change it. The beauty of the process is that it is flexible. If a goal is no longer feasible, then drop it. If a goal no longer feels right, drop it. And if there is a new goal that has formulated in your mind, add it.

The reason for having each goal associated with a life role is because it makes it easier to visualize. And especially the contradictions. If you have a professional goal to get a promotion and you have a personal goal to spend more time with your family, then the priority between the two is important. Can you achieve both of them? You need to ask and answer these questions every week to make sure that you are on the right path.

5. Concentrate

Once again, judging from my own experience with this, if you are a high achiever, you have to be really careful. You need to be realistic about your capacity for the week. Have you considered the public holiday on Friday? Or that training you have on Wednesday? The success of the process is in achieving enough small steps to have this feeling of the 1% improvement each day, which compounds into huge growth over time. The risk of the process is in failing to achieve enough small steps so you start feeling depressed.

Start with your weekly goals. Not all of them have to happen every week, maybe bi-weekly or monthly cadence is also enough. Then, pick five to seven short-term goals and define actions that you can do to achieve them. I call these important goals. For example, if you want to obtain a certification for XYZ, you need to add a goal to study, to take a test exam, to watch a video, or a training. These are your big rocks, roughly same in size, but way bigger than the urgent tasks.

Once again, the association with the life roles is important. You can concentrate this week on one of your roles. Then, you can dedicate the next one on something else. There is no formula for that, experiment and learn from your own experience.

6. Schedule time

I cannot stress this enough, so please pay attention. Schedule time on your calendar for each of your tasks. Make it visual. Don’t leave the one hour on Monday with the intent to concentrate on something.

“Good intentions don’t work, be mechanisms do.”

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon

Start with your interruptions, or the meetings with other people. You cannot move them, but you can plan around them. Then, continue with the important tasks (the big rocks). Are you more active in the morning? Or in the afternoon? Use this knowledge to schedule the most important or intense tasks for that time.

Plan some buffers for each day. No matter what you do there will be urgent tasks and requests coming up in the day. Plan enough gaps so that you can re-arrange the tasks once something happens (called interruption).

7. Personal time and recovery

When do you normally lose energy during the day? After lunch? Or after breakfast? For most people this is the period between 2pm and 3pm. Schedule some down time. Have a nap or meditate. Your energy is not an endless pool, especially during the day. So, you need time to recover it. I will go one step further, build recovery into your tasks. For example, if you work in blocks of 60 or 90 minutes, plan the last 5-10 minutes for recover. Go to the washroom, walk around, drink a glass of water. Do you remember that in school you had a recess after each class? Why do you think that was?

8. Do

As simple as it sounds, go and do the plan you had for a week. It will not go exactly as planned, you may not hit all your goals. Some weeks you might have to completely redo the plan as you execute it and this is fine. But most of the weeks, especially once you get used to planning them, will go according to the plan.

It is like a football game or an exam. You’ve practiced hard, you’ve read a lot, you have a plan. And then, when the game or the exam starts, you realize that things change. What can help you is the list of goals. Some people call it the “true north”, this is what you strive for. When you have that, your judgment calls during the week are better or at least more aligned with yourself.

9. Reflect

Each Friday (or Sunday), reflect on the goals that you have achieved. Highlight the achieved goals and I make the failed goals bold. So that if feels painful that you missed them. Go back to your goals table and highlight the goals that you have achieved. The best process to have a feeling of completeness and satisfaction after a hard week of work is called the progress bar. If your goal requires 100 smaller goals or tasks to achieve, then after you mark 5 of them as completed, you are 5% done. Sometimes you may find 2 goals that you did not think about and now the total becomes 102. But still 5 out of 102 is 4.9%.

Important Tasks: First Things First
Nine steps for concentrating on the important tasks


There is an old Chinese saying, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. Don’t start nitpicking now, I know that Chinese did not have miles and so on, probably it was translated by a British translator. But the “First Things First” process borrows a lot of that. Know your long-term goals for each of your life roles, but make each week of your life rock, getting you closer to achieving it. If only 1% closer, then still you are closer and not further. The Japanese call that Kaizen. Here is my article on that.

Be consistent with the process and once you have decided how it looks for you, only make small tweaks and measure the results. Maybe, you will need 2 hours on Monday in the first few months. Or, you will be satisfied to start with partially defining only a few life roles. You can apply the process to the process itself and only start adopting it with small steps.

Next steps

What are the next steps?

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