The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Project Managers–Habit 3: Put First Things First


The successful person has the habit of doing the things failures don’t like to do.  They don’t like doing them either necessarily, but their disliking is subordinated to the strength of their purpose.   E. M. Gray in “The Common Denominator of Success”

1. Introduction to Habit 3:   A Journey from Determinism to Determination

Habit 1 was the habit of being proactive, of being the creator of a circle of influence around yourself to help make the project and one’s organization successful. Those who don’t have Habit 1 live in a reactive world, one of determinism and fatalism, where you feel like you have no control.

After having established the first habit, you then go to Habit 2 which is the first creation or mental creation of a vision. Then in Habit 3 you go to the second creation, which is the physical creation in terms of results of what had been merely planned mentally before.

So whereas Habit 2 dealt with being an effective leader, Habit 3 deals with being an efficient manager in order to carry out the project. In terms of project management processes, Habit 2 would cover the initiating and planning phase, whereas Habit 3 would take you from the planning phase into the executing and monitoring & controlling phase of the project right through to the closing phase.   It shows you how to use your determination and will in order to carry out the mission statement developed with Habit 2.

2. Time—the ultimate constraint

Time is a constraint that is probably the most difficult to control on a project, and in one’s life as well. If you consider your work and your personal life as a series of projects, how does one prioritize the projects to make the best use of one’s time? To discuss this, Stephen Covey uses a four-quadrant model, which given the title of my blog I knew I was going to like the moment I saw it.

Figure 1: Time Management Matrix

The top two quadrants deal with issues that are important in terms of results that contributes to your mission, and your project. The left two quadrants are matters that are urgent in that they demand our immediate attention.

So if you give all permutations of the above two dimensions of urgency and importance, you get the following four quadrants.

  1. Quadrant I activities are urgent and important, such as crises or pressing deadlines.
  2. Quadrant II activities are activities that do not have to be done right now, but which if done would make a positive contribution to your project, such as planning, increasing your production capacity through training, building relationships with stakeholders, and brainstorming (recognizing and looking for new opportunities).
  3. Quadrant III activities are urgent, but not important, such as some e-mails, meetings, reports that are external to or peripheral to your project.
  4. Quadrant IV activities are not urgent, and not important, and these include e-mails external to your organization, and time wasters of any sort.

These are the different quadrants as they exist conceptually. If you could plot the amount of time you spend each day on these activities, what would the above four-quadrant diagram look like? For those whose quadrants I and III seem to take over, here are some suggestions that Stephen Covey makes to get back to a more balanced schedule.

3. Time management pathologies: Quadrant takeover

For those who are always fighting fires, Quadrant I takes up most of their time. If you don’t have a clear idea of what is important, you may end up taking care of urgent matters more often than you need to.

Figure 2. Quadrant I Takeover—Constantly “Putting Out Fires”

Quadrant I

Quadrant II

Quadrant III

Quadrant IV

Solution: Focus on Quadrant II, and try to spend more time on activities that prevent those urgent problems before they occur. This is the reason why there is focus on risk management.

For those who spend a great deal on dealing with problems that are based on the expectations of others outside the project. The tasks may be important to them, but not necessarily to you as the project manager because they are external to the project.

Figure 3. Quadrant III Takeover—I’m Just a Boy who Can’t Say No

Quadrant I

Quadrant II

Quadrant III

Quadrant IV

Solution: As in paragraph 3 above, try to take control of your time by scheduling time for your own project first, and learn the power of when to diplomatically say “no” to requests that are outside of your project. Alternatively, learn to delegate those tasks to others in your team who are capable of handling them.

If you have non-urgent, non-important tasks taking over most of your schedule, as in Quadrant IV, you should definitely delegate them to members of your staff.

3. Time-Management Tools

Okay, so you want to manage your time more effectively using the solutions mentioned above. How do you go about doing it?

Here is a diagram showing the different “generations” of time-management tools, from those which make you merely efficient to those which make you more effective as well.

Figure 4. The Four Generations of Time-Management Tools

The first generation consists of to-do lists. These help you remember tasks you have to do in the present.

The second generation consists of schedules. They help you remember tasks you have to do in the future as well as the present.

The third generation of tools consists of daily planners. These can help you to prioritize those tasks. The key factor here is that these priorities are based on external circumstances, which ends you getting trapped in Quadrant III at the mercy of circumstances beyond your control.

The fourth generation of tools consists of long-term planning, especially that which makes some time for Quadrant II activities that make you more effective as well as efficient.

The following represents Stephen Covey’s scheme for planning which incorporates Quadrant II activities into one’s schedule.

Figure 4. Organizing Effectively AND Efficiently

First stage is creating a mission statement. People say they need discipline to stick to their goals, but that discipline is made easier if you have a mission statement that you can refer to when you feel that you are starting to go adrift. This is something that can be read but must be VISUALIZED when it is created.

With that mission statement in mind, the second stage is to think of the roles you play as a project manager. What are your relationships to your stakeholders, which can include your project sponsors in the organization, your project management organization, your customers, those doing work on the project (subject matter experts), etc. Also, include those roles you play outside of work if you are doing a schedule that combines your work and personal life.

The third stage is to write down those goals which fit into those roles. And finally, create a long-term schedule with those goals in mind. Then you make a weekly schedule based on the long-term schedule, so your short-term focus is always aligned to your long-term horizon.

The best advice I have for you is to look at the examples in Stephen Covey’s book and especially his Personal Workbook that goes together with his text. I can say that I am incorporating his principles and am increasingly amazed not at how much I get done, but how much quality I’ve built into my life since I have tried it.

The next post takes us from the world of the first three habits which take you from dependence to independence, and into the world of the next three habits which help you take a group of independent individuals and turn them into a close-knit team.

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