Putting First Things First

As most readers know, we are living practioners of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People as codified by Stephen R. Covey in 1989 when he was 57 years old. We lost Stephen to a bicycling accident in 2012 but the principals he wrote in the “7 Habits” have been and continue to be life-changing for those who subscribe to a ethics-based life in both personal and business matters.

We believe so firmly in the principals of the 7 Habits that we re-read them and act upon them regularly. We recommend that you pull it down from your shelves (at 25 Million sold, I know that most of us have at least one copy somewhere) and re-read it yourself. If you can’t find your copy invest in a new one. The message never gets old.

But for those who may view the 7 Habits from a generalist’s standpoint we would like to re-iterate the habits specifically for insurance agents. As you will see over the next eight months (we won’t publish a Habit in October, our annual Composite Group issue) every Habit applies to us within our own industry.

Agency Consulting Group, Inc. has incorporated the 7 Habits in all of its consulting and training modules. Many of our clients will find these principals very familiar indeed.



Covey’s third habit can be reduced to the principle of doing the most important things first. Much of our time as agents is spent taking care of either routine matters or of crises. In the long run, neither is productive. Yes, routine matters must be done. And we can’t avoid some crises. But, Covey points out that the most productive use of our time is to accomplish those tasks that are not urgent, but important. Planning, not reacting, is important. Prevention, not repair, is important. Building relationships, not counseling to determine why they aren’t working is important.

Of course, some important things are urgent as well. However, many of our customers and employees try to manipulate us with the “squeaky wheel” syndrome. If they squeak often enough and loud enough, they figure that we’ll have to take care of them. For some people, this is the only way they feel they can get anything done. But many of those crises, while urgent, are not as important as some other issues – like marketing our largest account to avoid undue competition, or evaluating and thanking our strong performers for their continued support. In reality, however, many of these important tasks in our business (and in our personal) lives languish while we spend our day fighting fires that are caused by others to get us to react to them.

This principle tells us to evaluate our choices and do what’s important, not necessarily what’s easiest or most urgent.

Covey gave us a simple but effective way of determining whether we were managing to this Habit, the Time Management Matrix, in which he asks us to categorize what we have available to do as Important or Unimportant and as Urgent or Not Urgent. The key to our self-organization is to always work on Quadrant Two (things that are both Important and Urgent) as our priorities. Second priority belongs to things that are Important but Not Urgent. Third priority are those things that are Urgent but Not Important and our last priority should be to those items that while easy to do (in most cases) are neither Urgent Nor Important.

In terms of most agency operations, look at your new business opportunities and your renewal opportunities. New Business is always a top priority, but how much time should you devote to quoting or proposing if you don’t yet have all the information you need to do so? This becomes and Important, but Not Urgent item and the only urgency is to get the remaining information to permit you to move forward.

At 90 days prior to renewal, most agencies begin working on analyzing and validating a client’s renewals. However, if you have renewals within 30 days of expiration that have not yet been worked to successful conclusion, that 90 day renewal should not be prioritized before a closer renewal. Important, but not Urgent from a priority standpoint. Meanwhile that 30 day renewal becomes BOTH Important AND Urgent to the well-being of the client and of the agency.

When a client wants a change made to his policy, it is always important to him. However, if he is unsure if you are processing the change, he may contact you numerous times to assure himself that the change is being implemented. Those contacts are neither Important Nor Urgent if you have already processed the change and are awaiting carrier confirmation. Certainly, you may contact the carrier every time the client contacts you, but these are wasted efforts for staff who certainly have more important items on their agendas. Your diary becomes an Important but Not Urgent item unless the target date passes without that confirmation of change.

This brings up the final point about prioritization and Putting First Things First. Priorities are not stagnant. They are ever-changing. So, as often as needed, the items should be re-categorized in your Quadrants. It is not unusual to have items shifted from Q4 (Unimportant and Not Urgent) up to Q2 (Important but Not Urgent) or Q3 (Urgent but Unimportant). Rarely should something move from Q4 to Q1 (Both Urgent and Important) or from Q4 to Q1 in one step. Re-categorize your priorities as frequently as needed to be sensitive to the importance and urgency of everything you have to do.