“Anything less than a conscious commitment to the important is an unconscious commitment to the important,” Stephen Covey says poignantly regarding humanity’s use of time. Proceeding, he identifies two primary factors that drive our choices concerning how we use time: URGENCY and IMPORTANCE.

The Fourth Generation of time management is based on the “importance” paradigm. Knowing and doing what is important rather than simply responding to what is urgent is fundamental to putting first things first.

As we journey from urgency to importance, we encounter the fundamental question at hand. What are the “first things” and how do we put them first things in our lives?

At the heart of the Fourth Generation, Covey suggests, are three foundational ideas that empower us to answer that question adequately: (1) the fulfillment of the four human needs and capacities; (2) the reality of the “true north” principles; and (3) the potentiality of the four human endowments.

There are certain things that are fundamental to human fulfillment. If these needs are not met, we feel empty and incomplete. We may try to fill the void through urgency addiction – getting so used to the adrenaline rush of handling crises that we become dependent on it for a sense of excitement and energy. Or we may become complacent, temporarily satisfied with partial fulfillment.

But whether or not we fully acknowledge or address these needs on a conscious level, deep we know they are there. “These needs have been recognized in the wisdom literature – that portion of the classic, philosophical, and important literature of society that deals specifically with the art of living – throughout time as vital areas of human fulfillment.”

The essence of these needs is captured in the phrase, “to live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy.” The need to live is our physical need for such things as food, clothing, shelter, economic well-being, health. The need to love is our social need to relate to other people, to belong, to love, to be loved. The need to learn is our mental need to develop and grow. And the need to leave a legacy is our spiritual need to have a sense of meaning, purpose, personal congruence, and contribution.

Each of these needs is vitally important. Any one of these needs, unmet, reduces quality of life. For instance, if you are in debt or poor health, if you do not have adequate food, clothing, and shelter, if you feel alienated and alone, if you are mentally stagnant, if you do not have a sense of purpose or integrity, your quality of life suffers. On the other hand, robust health, economy security, rich satisfying relationships, ongoing personal and professional development, and a deep sense of purpose, contribution, and personal congruence create quality life.

“Any of these needs, unmet, can become a black hole that devours your energy and attention.” If you have a financial problem, or you are going through deep social trauma such as divorce, or you lose your health, that unmet need can become the urgent, dominating, pressing factor that consumes you. “Other needs tend to be ignored, and quality of life suffers in every dimension.”

Covey reiterates that any one of these needs, unmet can drive you to urgency addiction. As you respond time and again to urgent, unmet needs, you tend to become an excellent crisis manager. You may begin to prioritize the crises and do the urgent more efficiently, thinking, “If I am busy, I must be effective.” And you may get reinforcement from the adrenaline intoxications that come with putting out fires and responding to other people’s urgent demands. But these activities do not bring quality-of-life results. In fact, they do not meet the underlying needs. The more urgent things we try to do, the more we feed the addiction. “We keep substituting the artificial upbeat of the urgency fix for the deep satisfaction of effectively meeting our four fundamental needs.”

Covey proffers that these needs are real and deep and highly interrelated. Some of us recognize that we have these needs, but we tend to see them as separate “compartments” of life. We think of “balance” as running from one area to another fast enough to spend time in each one on a regular basis.  According to him, the “touching bases” mindset ignores the reality of powerful synergyof the needs. He underlines that it is where these four needs overlap that we find true inner balance, deep fulfillment, and joy.

If we operate from the “touching bases” mindset, we may see the physical need of earning a living as separate from our spiritual need to contribute to society. The work we choose to do may be monotonous, dull, and unfulfilling. It may even be counterproductive to society’s welfare.

If we see our psychological need to learn and develop as separate from our social need to love and be loved, we may not seek to learn how to really, deeply love other human beings. While we increase our academic knowledge, we may shrink in our ability to relate meaningfully to others.

If we see our spiritual need as separate from all other needs, we may not realize that what we believe about ourselves and our purpose has a powerful impact on how we live, how we love, and what we learn. “To compartmentalize or even ignore the spiritual dimension of life powerfully affects each of the other dimensions. It is meaning and purpose that give context to fulfillment in other dimensions.”

Covey holds forth that only as we see the interrelatedness and the powerful synergy in these four needs do we become empowered to fulfill them in a way that creates true inner balance, deep human fulfillment, and joy. He elucidates further that in such a circumstance working has meaning, relationships have depth and growth, health becomes a resource to accomplish worthwhile purposes.

By seeing the interrelatedness of these needs, we realize that the key to meeting the unmet need is in addressing, not ignoring the other needs.

This is one of the strengths of personal leadership. While management is problem-oriented, leadership is opportunity-oriented. Instead of seeing a problem as segmented and mechanical – a broken part that needs to be fixed – it is seeing it as part of a living, synergistic whole.  It is looking at what is around a problem, what is connected to it, what can influence it, as well as the problem itself.

If you have a problem in the physical area, for example – you are in debt or have a financial crisis – instead of ignoring your social, mental, and spiritual needs, you can seek help and counsel from other people, increase your knowledge of money management and your awareness problem-solving options, and define a reason for  wanting to get out of debt that will give meaning, context, and purpose to whatever path you choose to take. By addressing these areas in your life as they relate to the physical need, you become empowered to meet the need in the most effective way.

Similarly, if you have a problem in the social area – maybe you are going through a divorce – attention to the physical, mental, and spiritual areas of your life increases your ability to handle it. By exercising and taking care of your health, studying and learning more about the nature of relationships, and strengthening your sense of purpose, and meaning in life, you nurture the conditions that empower you to face the social problem in the best possible way.

Fulfilling the four needs in an integrated way is like combing elements in chemistry. When we reach a “critical mass” of integration, we experience spontaneous combustion – an explosion of inner synergy that ignites the fire within and gives vision, passion, and spirit of adventure to life. Ultimately, the key to the fire within is our spiritual need to leave a legacy. “It transforms other needs into capacities for contribution.” Food, money, health, education, and love become resources to reach out and help fill the unmet needs of others.

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