The following post is part of a series highlighting Stephen Covey’s best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and how it can apply to students in medical school. The series will stretch out over seven weeks, giving each habit the spotlight for one individual post.
Habit #3: Put First Things First
“You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage – pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically, to say ‘no’ to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside. The enemy of the ‘best’ is often the ‘good’.”
The keyword here is, “priorities.” It’s absolutely crucial to maintain a balanced lifestyle with priorities in place – especially when surrounded by the demands that come with medical school.
Now that we are on to the third habit, we begin to understand that they are ordered in a premeditated manner, where each particular habit relates to those that came before. In this instance, where Covey’s second habit, Begin With The End In Mind, is all about having a vision, his third habit, Put First Things First, is about acting upon that vision. When you’re in medical school, you have all kinds of things that can keep you busy. The key is determining which things are beneficial towards your vision, and which are not.
Covey stresses that it’s important to manage your time, but it’s imperative to manage yourself. Essentially, know what it is that you truly value, and take actions that promote those values. With far too many people, there’s a massive deviation between what they say they want and how they allocate their time. If you want to be a doctor, you have to be willing to make the necessary choices to get there.
Here’s the good news: prioritizing your life on a day-to-day basis is easier than it sounds. For better or worse, medical school is going to eat up most of your time anyways. However, you still have the power to choose how you spend that time. You might not choose how long you are in class, but you can choose how you pay attention during class. You might not choose your reading assignment, but you can choose how hard you work to understand the material.
Covey uses two main factors that you can use to determine your priorities: urgency and importance. We react to urgent matters because they tend to press on us and insist on instant action, regardless of their significance. Importance deals directly with results - the trick is determining what is important and what isn’t. Simply put, the things that are important will contribute towards your vision; the rest are not important. Take a look at Covey’s “Time Management Matrix,” below:
||Quadrant I||Quadrant II|
|NOT IMPORTANT||Quadrant III||Quadrant IV|
Take a guess what quadrant you think the most effective people typically focus on.
Most people would guess Quadrant I - and they would be wrong. The correct answer is Quadrant II, which is “the heart of effective personal management,” according to Covey. Granted, there are many influences that fall under Quadrant I that are a high priority and must be dealt with, but those who spend all of time in Quadrant I can be overwhelmed by the stress of constantly dealing with urgent matters that tend to be problems or crises. Or, as is often the case, urgency can mislead you into believing something is important when it is not - which leads many to fill their days with Quadrant III activities, mistakenly believing they are Quadrant I activities. Quadrant II, on the other hand, deals with more lasting results, such as building relationships with your teachers and classmates. The key is to focus on Quadrant II, while having the discipline to determine the Quadrant I crises from those that are not. That’s what putting first things first is all about.
Oh, and one last tip: stay away from Quadrant’s III and IV.