Before A. and I moved to Atlanta, the young adults’ Bible study group we attended spent a few weeks on lessons from the book First Things First by Stephen Covey (of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People fame) and A. Roger and Rebecca R. Merrill. While not an overtly Christian book, it offers tips and exercises that can be applied to matters of the spiritual realm just as well as the business or personal realm. Our fearless leader had attended a class about this book years ago at the prompting of his company. He was reluctant at first but came away excited to tweak the curriculum and gear it toward Sunday school classes and church groups.

I’ll admit that I haven’t read the book (though I might like to), and I also missed two out of the four sessions he taught, but I was intrigued by what I did hear. The foundational premise of the book is that the things that vie for our attention every day can be divided into quadrants. (Picture a grid labeled, from left to right.)

  • Quadrant 1 represents things that are urgent and important. These are things that cannot escape our attention.
  • Quadrant 2 represents things that are not urgent but important. These are things that ought to have our attention but often do not get it.
  • Quadrant 3 represents things that are urgent but not important. These are things that are forced into our attention, like an email client that pings every time a new message is received. Reading it could probably wait, but often we do it immediately anyway.
  • And finally, Quadrant 4 represents things that are not urgent and not important. These are things that should not get our attention at all.

The ideal as presented in this book is to live Quadrant 2 lives, focusing on things that are not urgent but are important. In a spiritual sense, this might be represented by prayer. Prayer isn’t urgent in the sense that your day will continue without prayer. You may get up, eat breakfast, get things done at work, and have quality time with your family without prayer. But it’s important to do so for many less tangible reasons.

But it’s the Quadrant 2 things that are so easy to let slide. The things that don’t impact the next moment. Especially in the workplace, many of us spend the majority of our time in Quadrant 1. This is not desirable.

So in an effort to lead people into Quadrant 2 lives, Covey offers a Mission Statement workbook. It asks you to list the most important things in your life and asks how effective you are at keeping those things first. While it may be easy to fudge on these open-ended questions, the rest of the handout gets more specific, asking you to rank things on numerical scales. You explore your quality of life by comparing the importance you place on certain things with how effective the time you spend on those things is. You calculate your urgency index and you give thought to people who have been influential in your life and why. You are asked to reflect on your roles and imagine that, at the end of your life, someone who knew you in each of these roles has a statement about you. What do you hope they would say? And finally, the workbook has you synthesize all of these things into a personal mission statement.

My first things included A. (my husband), reading, spiritual conversation with others, exercise, and food. I think I am pretty good at keeping these things first, but I am unsure as to whether or not these are the things that I should be keeping first. I was surprised to find that I displayed an imbalance in the importance I place on friends, possessions, my relationship with myself, and seeking an increased purpose of life and the effectiveness of my accomplishments in those areas. (Basically, I spend too much time and thought on possessions and not enough on the others.) I decided that some things I admired in people who influenced me were unconditional love, speaking the truth and mediating, hospitality, modeling a strong marriage, intelligence, and teaching abilities. I learned that I do not seem to have an inflated sense of urgency about work-related things; in fact, I was one of the few in our Bible study group who did not raise their hand in response to the question, “Is your career important to you?” (or some variation on that phrasing). I believe I will ultimately find true fulfillment outside the workplace, though I would hope the work I find will be a piece of that fulfillment.

The mission statement I came up with is this: As I seek to be focused and present, I will pray unceasingly (1 Thessalonians 5:17). I will place as great an importance on filling myself with spiritual food as with physical food. I will hold loosely to my “things” and tightly to my relationships. I will demonstrate love in as many ways as possible, including through hospitality, and I will seek to have a marriage that displays Christ to the world.

Or, I boiled it down to this: pray unceasingly eat heartily love unconditionally serve wholeheartedly

So far I am best at eating heartily, but I hope having this in words will help me stay focused on the things that really matter to me. I don’t think there’s only one right way to pursue the mission I defined, and to me, that’s the beauty of it.

Do you have a personal mission statement? What are some areas of your life in which you struggle to avoid the urgent in order to focus instead on the important?

Laura Lindeman

Laura Lindeman