07/19/2012 10:24 am ET Updated Sep 18, 2012

Stephen Covey Told Us You Can Have it All, But Not All at Once

I sat with Stephen Covey in his backyard one warm afternoon two summers ago. It was a rare moment to see him because he was still globe-trotting in his late 70s, and kept an outrageous schedule. He invited Bonita Thompson and I to his serene, French Provincial-style home overlooking Provo, Utah, where we talked privately about his busy life with the unusual perspective that came from sitting in the Zen-like setting of his backyard terrace.

I asked the guru which one of his famous seven habits meant the most to him personally, after 30 years of teaching and developing them?

"If you focus on one thing, it should be the 'foundation habit' -- being proactive about just the few things that matter. It's the habit upon which all the others are based," he mused. "Cut your priorities down to a few good things that mean the most. You can have it all, but not all at once!"

Covey said there is a big difference between giving your attention only to urgent matters that compete for your mind share and the more important things that will help you prosper in the long-term. Our primal brain is easily seduced by fight-or-flight urges, meaning that anything that feels like a crisis -- and does NOT require deep thought -- will ironically be given highest priority.

Covey believes that's backwards. Unless you're being chased by a saber tooth tiger, it's likely that you will benefit from stopping to distinguish between "fire drills" and other issues that would have a longer term impact on your work. In other words, you may have to address certain pressing matters in the next hour, but think about what you need to do this week to invest in your long-term work and life objectives. Carve out some time for that, too. Covey cautions us against compiling massive to-do lists without first doing a serious reality check.

Bonita and I had gone to see Stephen Covey in Provo to gather insights from him for a new book we're releasing this fall, Admired: 21 Ways to Double Your Value. We conducted a national study with help of researchers at Stanford and Northwestern to understand how to be admired as a leader -- not for just anything -- but for something that matters over the long-term.

Covey smiled and winked, "If you just had a short time to live, what one thing would you like to be respected, admired and valued for? Be proactive about that."