The 3rd Habit of Highly Effective College Instructors

Put First Things First

Stephen Covey’s 3rd Habit of Highly Effective People is to “Put First Things First.” Covey sets the framework for this practice by introducing the Time Management Matrix on page 151 of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I bet you have seen one version or another of this in the past. It provides an interesting lens through which to view our lives. To use a common idiom, this can be an “eye opening” lens. Covey contrasts the important activities in our lives with the unimportant. Then he categorizes them as urgent or not urgent. Crises and major problems are important and urgent, while planning and relationship building are important though not urgent. You get the point.

I have created a version of the Time Management Matrix for college instructors. I encourage you to create your own version. Which activities related to your teaching are important and which are not? Which of those activities are urgent and which are not? Now, where do you spend your time?

The value of the time management matrix goes beyond introspection.  It may help you realize that you are spending the majority of your time in Quadrant I “putting out fires.”  You spend so much time there because these activities are enjoyable, right?  Wrong!!!  According to Covey, you spend the majority of your time in Quadrant I when you fail to spend enough time in Quadrant II which means you failed to put first things first.  It is all about a “skill” we have all tried to develop, one called time management.

Covey contends there has been an evolution of time management and breaks it into four “generations.”  The first generation is characterized by notes and checklists.  Whenever I think of this it brings to mind a classic kids’ television program, The Ray Rayner Show, which ran on Chicago’s WGN TV during the early 60’s.  Check out the notes pinned to Ray’s jump suit, and tell me that you don’t do something like that.  You probably don’t where a jump suit, not that jumpsuits are bad, but chances are you use To-Do Lists and post sticky notes around the edge of your computer monitor.

By the way, Ray’s friend in the picture is Chelveston the duck.  No publisher will ever let me put this story in the book I’m working on, so enjoy it here in my blog.  You see, there was a predecessor to Chelveston.  Before Chelvy made his debut, Ray invited a guest duck named Jasper to join him.  I was 12 years old at the time, and my father learned that Jasper was up for adoption.  To make a really long story short, we adopted Jasper who joined about 20 other ducks that I raised as pets.  That’s right; I had a pet duck that had a brief career in television.  Impressed, aren’t you!  Now, back to habit #3.

According to Covey, the next generation of time management has people using calendars and appointment books to schedule activities.  Progressing one step further, the third generation of time management is characterized by people assigning priorities to those activities.  Covey explains that values and relative worth are some of the factors that come into play.  In addition, people who practice  third generation time management set goals.  You have to admit that this all sounds quite good.  I would guess that this approach to time management is probably the most common; but, according to Covey, it is not without its shortcomings.

Central to the habit of putting first things first is the realization that we cannot manage time.  (Although, I once read a Dean Koontz book where a demon was able to slow time to a crawl.  Really a freaky book!  It’s probably best that none of us can manage time.  Life is freaky enough at its normal speed.)  So, what can we do?  That’s right.  We can manage ourselves.

Let’s refer back to the Time Management Matrix for a minute.  When we manage ourselves, we are able to put the majority of our time and energy into Quadrant II activities.  If we don’t manage ourselves, we spend the majority of our time getting beaten up by the never ending problems in Quadrant I.  Covey suggests that many people spend 90 percent of our time fighting fires and occasionally escape to some Quadrant IV relief.  Much of what is in Quadrant IV is enjoyable and offers an escape from the daily grind.  It includes things like watching television.  What happened to Quadrant II?

To move into Quadrant II requires “self-management,” and this, Covey tells us, is the central focus of the fourth generation of time management.  Covey differentiates it from the other forms of time management five ways.  This time management model is “principal-centered” and “conscience-driven.”  In practicing this approach, you define “your unique mission” which “helps you balance your life.”  In addition, Covey states that, “it gives greater context through weekly organizing (with daily adaption as needed), raising about the limiting perspective of a single day and putting you in touch with your deepest values through review of your key roles” (p. 171).

You really need to read Covey’s book to fully understand this message.  Actually, you really should read three of Covey’s books, the other two being Principle Centered Leadership and First Things First.  Covey realized that the Put First Things First Habit was far too complex to cover in just one chapter.  Having said that, I will do my best to condense all of this into one teeny tiny nutshell.  If nothing else, I hope I give you a sense of the value that lies in Covey’s message.

Where should you begin if we want to put first things first?  You begin by considering the many roles you play – spouse, parent, full-time employee, adjunct instructor, etc. – and identifying what is truly important in your life. Covey encourages you to create a personal mission statement and identify your underlying values and beliefs.  Then, with reference to a metaphor explained in First Things First (p.88 – 94), you “put the big rocks in first.”  The “big rocks” are the things that are really important to you, like time with your family.  By planning your time a week in advance, you put those big rocks in your schedule and then fill in with the small rocks that confront you every day.  Relative to your teaching, a big rock is going to be preparation for the next class.

Confused?  I am sorry.  That was really a mini-micro nutshell, wasn’t it.  There is a visual demonstration that goes along with this that helps convey the message.  You can try it on your own.  You will need a pail, six or eight big rocks the size of a baseball, and enough gravel to fill the pail half way.  Put the little rocks, the gravel, into the pail and then try to add the big rocks.  They won’t all fit.  However, if you put the big rocks in first and then poor in the little rocks it works.  The little rocks fill around the big rocks.

For a college instructor, particularly for a busy adjunct who cannot shirk the responsibilities a full-time job, the big rock principle is crucial.  You may have one teaching related big rock in a week, or you may crack that rock into a couple smaller chunks like create your lesson plan and grade mid-term exams.  Regardless, unless you plan time in advance for your class related big rock and all your other big rocks, you will most likely spend too much time doing Quadrant I fire fighting.  In addition, you are going to let down your students from time to time.  It may mean you arrive to class late because you had to stay late at your “day job” to deal with a crisis.  It may mean that you don’t return those tests your students took the last class period.  It may mean that you don’t put enough time into preparing for your class.  You come across as disorganized, you struggle to explain a difficult concept, and you … I’m not going to sugar coat this … you do a lousy job of teaching.

I hope that I have encouraged you to Put First Things First and given you a sense of what that means.  Now, here is your homework assignment.  I challenge you to create a Code of Conduct for yourself as an instructor.  I bet you have a code of conduct or something similar to that in your syllabus, but that is for your students.   What are the standards you set for yourself as an instructor?  You might include things like “I will always arrive at class on time,” “I will always make time to meet with students before or after class,” “I will always respond to my students’ emails within 24 hours,” “I will grade and return tests and assignments the following class period,” “I will provide students with constructive feedback on written assignments,” and “I will incorporate rich learning experiences into each class period.”  Next, rate yourself.  If you aren’t measuring up to your own code of conduct why is that?  There are two possible explanations.  It could be that you are not spending enough time in Quadrant II, so the solution is to put first things first.  This is going to require a new mindset and considerable discipline, but you can do it.  On the other hand, the explanation could be that you don’t value teaching enough to make class preparation a big rock.  In this case, the solution is extremely simple and requires virtually no effort.  Get out of teaching.

I hope you don’t get out of teaching, and I hope you tune in next week for installment four of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective College Instructors when I will cover Habit #4, “Think Win/Win.”

By the way, thanks for reading this, and let me know what you think.

© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

Posted April 18, 2010


About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC). My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences. I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students. After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.

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