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About The Book

From the author that brought you the New York Times bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People comes a guide to prioritizing your personal and professional goals.

I'm getting more done in less time, but where are the rich relationships, the inner peace, the balance, the confidence that I'm doing what matters most and doing it well?

Does this nagging question haunt you, even when you feel you are being your most efficient? If so, First Things First can help you understand why we so often prioritize things that are unimportant to both our larger goals and our inner happiness. From the author that brought you the New York Times bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People comes a guide to building your work on the principles of effectiveness so that your life can spent cultivating genuine relationships, investing in pursuits you enjoy, and achieving balance in both your personal and professional lives.

In First Things First, Stephen M. R. Covey advocates categorizing tasks by urgency and importance so that you can focus on what actually needs to be done in the limited amount of time that you have. Using personal examples and insight from years of business experience, he argues for a new way of looking at your “to-do” list. Rather than offering you another clock, First Things First provides you with a compass, because where you're headed is more important than how fast you're going.


Chapter 1: How Many People on Their Deathbed Wish They'd Spent More Time at the Office?

The enemy of the "best" is the "good,"

We're constantly making choices about the way we spend our rime, from the major seasons to the individual moments in out lives. We're also living with the consequences of those choices. And many of us don't like those consequences -- especially when we feel there's a gap between how we're spending our rime and what we feel is deeply important in out lives.

My life is hectic! I'm running all day -- meetings, phone calls, paperwork, appointments. I push myself to the limit, fall into bed exhausted, and get up early the next morning to do it all again. My output is tremendous; I'm getting a lot done. But I get this feeling inside sometimes, "So what? What are you doing that really counts?" I have to admit, I don't know.

I feel like I'm being torn apart. My family is important to me; so is my work. I live with constant conflict, trying to juggle the demands of both. Is it possible to be really successful -- and happy -- at the office and at home?

There is simply too little of me to go around. The board and shareholders are on me like a swarm of bees for our declining share prices. I'm constantly playing referee in turf wars between members of my executive team. I feel tremendous pressure to be leading our organization's quality improvement initiative. The morale among out employees is low and I feel guilty for no/ge/ring out with them and listening more. On top of all this, despite our family vacations, my family has all but written me off because they never see me.

I don't feel in control of my life. I try to figure out what's important and set goals to do it, but other people -- my boss, my work associates, my spouse -- continually throw wrenches into the works. What I set out to do is blocked by what other people want me to do for them. What's important to me is getting swept away in the current of what's important to everybody else.

Everyone tells me I'm highly successful, I've worked and scraped and sacrificed, and I've made it to the top. But I'm not happy. Way down inside I have this empty feeling. It's like the song says, "Is that all there is?"

Most of the time, I just don't enjoy life. For every one thing I do, I can think of ten things I don't do, and it makes me feel guilty. The constant stress of trying to decide what I should do in the middle of all I could do creates a constant tension. How can I know what's most important? How can I do it? How can I enjoy it?

I feel like I have some sense of what I should do with my life. I've written down what I feel is really important and I set goals to make it happen. But somewhere between my vision and my daily action, I lose it. How can I translate what really counts into my daily life?

Putting first things first is an issue at the very heart of life. Almost all of us feel torn by the things we want to do, by the demands placed on us, by the many responsibilities we have. We all feel challenged by the day-to-day and moment-by-moment decisions we must make regarding the best use of our time.

Decisions are easier when it's a question of "good" or "bad." We can easily see how some ways we could spend our time are wasteful, mind-numbing, even destructive. But for most of us, the issue is not between the "good" and the "bad," but between the "good" and the "best." So often, the enemy of the best is the good.

Stephen: I knew a man who was asked to be the new dean of the College of Business of a large university. When he first arrived, he studied the situation the college faced and felt that what it needed most was money. He recognized that he had a unique capacity to raise money, and he developed a real sense of vision about fund-raising as his primary function.

This created a problem in the college because past deans had focused mainly on meeting day-to-day faculty needs. This new dean was never there. He was running around the country trying to raise money for research, scholarships, and other endowments. But he was not attending to the day-to-day things as the previous dean had. The faculty had to work through his administrative assistant, which was demeaning to many of them who were used to working with the person at the top.

The faculty became so upset with his absence that they sent a delegation to the president of the university to demand a new dean or a fundamental change in his leadership style. The president, who knew what the dean was doing, said, "Relax. He has a good administrative assistant. Give him some more time."

Within a short rime, the money started pouring in and the faculty began to recognize the vision. It wasn't long until every time they saw the dean, they would say, "Get out of here! We don't want to see you. Go out and bring in more funds. Your administrative assistant runs this office better than anyone else."

This man admitted to me later that the mistake he made was in not doing enough team building, enough explaining, enough educating about what he was trying to accomplish. I'm sure he could have done better, but I learned a powerful lesson from him. We need to constantly be asking ourselves, "What is needed out there, and what is my unique strength, my gift?"

It would have been easy for this man to meet the urgent expectations of others. He could have had a career at the university filled with many good things. But had he not discerned both the real needs and his own unique capacities, and carried out the vision he developed, he would never have achieved the best for him, the faculty, or the college.

What is "best" for you? What keeps you from giving those "best" things the rime and energy you want to give them? Are too many "good" things getting in the way? For many people, they are. And the result is the unsettling feeling that they're not putting first things first in their lives.


Our struggle to put first things first can be characterized by the contrast between two powerful tools that direct us: the clock and the compass. The clock represents out commitments, appointments, schedules, goals, activities -- what we do with, and how we manage our time. The compass represents out vision, values, principles, mission, conscience, direction -- what we feel is important and how we lead our lives.

The struggle comes when we sense a gap between the clock and the compass -- when what we do doesn't contribute to what is most important in out lives.

For some of us, the pain of the gap is intense. We can't seem to walk out talk. We feel trapped, controlled by other people or situations. We're always responding to crises. We're constantly caught up in "the thick of thin things" -- putting out fires and never making time to do what we know would make a difference. We feel as though out lives are being lived for us.

For others of us, the pain is a vague discomfort. We just can't get what we feel we should do, what we want to do, and what we actually do all together. We're caught in dilemmas. We feel so guilty over what we're not doing, we can't enjoy what we do.

Some of us feel empty. We've defined happiness solely in terms of professional or financial achievement, and we find that our "success" did not bring us the satisfaction we thought it would. We've painstakingly climbed the "ladder of success" rung by rung -- the diploma, the late nights, the promotions -- only to discover as we reached the top rung that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall. Absorbed in the ascent, we've left a trail of shattered relationships or missed moments of deep, rich living in the wake of the intense, overfocused effort. In out race up the rungs, we simply did not take the time to do what really mattered most.

Others of us feel disoriented or confused. We have no real sense of what "first things" are. We move from one activity to another on automatic. Life is mechanical. Once in a while, we wonder if there's any meaning in our doing.

Some of us know we're out of balance, but we don't have confidence in other alternatives. Or we feel the cost of change is too high. Or we're afraid to try. It's easier to just live with the imbalance.


We may be brought to an awareness of this gap in a dramatic way. A loved one dies. Suddenly she's gone and we see the stark reality of what could have been, but wasn't, because we were too busy climbing the "ladder of success" to cherish and nurture a deeply satisfying relationship.

We may find out our teenage son is on drugs. Pictures flood out minds -- times we could have spent through the years doing things together, sharing, building the relationship...but didn't because we were too busy earning a living, making the right connections, or simply reading the newspaper.

The company's downsizing and our job's on the line. Or our doctor tells us we have just a few months to live. Or our marriage is threatened by divorce. Some crisis brings us to an awareness that what we're doing with our time and what we feel is deeply important don't match.

Rebecca: Years ago, I was visiting with a young woman in the hospital who was only twenty-three years old and had two small children at home. She had just been told she had incurable cancer. As I held her hand and tried to think of something to say that might comfort her, she cried, "I would give anything just to go home and change a messy diaper!"

As I thought about her words and my experience with my own small children, I wondered how many times both of us had changed diapers out of a sense of duty, hurriedly, even frustrated by the seeming inconvenience in our busy lives, rather than cherishing precious moments of life and love we had no way of knowing would ever come again.

In the absence of such "wake-up calls," many of us never really confront the critical issues of life. Instead of looking for deep chronic causes, we look for quick-fix Band-Aids and aspirin to treat the acute pain. Fortified by temporary relief, we get busier and busier doing "good" things and never even stop to ask ourselves if what we're doing really matters most.


In our effort to close the gap between the clock and the compass in our lives, many of us turn to the field of "time management." While just three decades ago there were fewer than a dozen significant books on the subject, our most recent survey led us through well over a hundred books, hundreds of articles, and a wide variety of calendars, planners, software, and other rime management tools. It reflects something of a "popcorn phenomenon," with the increasing heat and pressure of the culture creating a rapidly exploding body of literature and tools.

In making this survey, we read, digested, and boiled down the information to eight basic approaches to rime management. These range from the more traditional "efficiency"-oriented approaches such as the "Get Organized" Approach, the Warrior Approach, and the ABC or Prioritization Approach, to some of the newer approaches that are pushing traditional paradigms. These include the more Far Eastern "Go with the Flow" Approach, which encourages us to get in touch with the natural rhythms of life -- to connect with those "timeless" moments in time when the tick of the clock simply fades away in the joy of the moment. They also include the Recovery Approach, which shows how such rime wasters as procrastination and ineffective delegation are often the result of deep psychological scripting, and how environmentally scripted "people pleasers" often overcommit and overwork out of fear of rejection and shame.

We've provided both a brief explanation of each of these approaches and a bibliography in Appendix B for those who are interested. But we generally find that most people relate more to what could be called the three "generations" of time management. Each generation builds on the one before it and moves toward greater efficiency and control.

First Generation. The first generation is based on "reminders." It's "go with the flow," but try to keep track of things you want to do with your time -- write the report, attend the meeting, fix the car, clean out the garage. This generation is characterized by simple notes and checklists. If you're in this generation, you carry these lists with you and refer to them so you don't forget to do things. Hopefully, at the end of the day, you've accomplished many of the things that you set out to do and you can check them off your list. If those tasks are not accomplished, you put them on your list for tomorrow.

Second Generation. The second generation is one of "planning and preparation." It's characterized by calendars and appointment books. It's efficiency, personal responsibility, and achievement in goal setting, planning ahead, and scheduling future activities and events. If you're in this generation, you make appointments, write down commitments, identify deadlines, note where meetings will be held You may even keep this in some kind of computer or network.

Third Generation. The third generation approach is "planning, prioritizing, and controlling." If you're in this generation, you've probably spent some rime clarifying your values and priorities. You've asked yourself, "What do I want?" You've set long-, medium-, and short-range goals to obtain these values. You prioritize your activities on a daily basis. This generation is characterized by a wide variety of planners and organizers -- electronic as well as paper-based -- with detailed forms for daily planning.

In some ways, these three generations of time management have brought usa long way toward increased effectiveness in our lives. Such things as efficiency, planning, prioritization, values clarification, and goal setting have made a significant positive difference.

But, bottom-line, for most people -- even with the tremendous increase in interest and material -- the gap remains between what's deeply important to them and the way they spend their rime. In many cases, it's exacerbated. "We're getting more done in less rime," people are saying, "but where are the rich relationships, the inner peace, the balance, the confidence that we're doing what matters most and doing it well?"

Roger: These three generations describe a chronicle of my history in time management. I was raised in the Carmel, Pebble Beach area in California. The artistic, free-thinking, philosophical environment was certainly in generation one. I would jot down, from time to time, things I didn't want to forget -- particularly golf tournaments, which were a big part of my life. Because I was also involved in ranches and quarter horses, there were certain seasons and other important things not to forget.

As I moved on, the need to get more done in less time, the demands of the many things I wanted to do, and the rich opportunities that were around drove me deeply into the second generation. I read everything I could get my hands on in the area of time management. In fact, my business, for a period of time, was as a time management consultant. I would work with individuals to help them become more efficient, organize things better, learn how to handle the telephone and so forth. Typically, alter observing and analyzing their activities for a day, I would make specific suggestions on things they could do to get more done in less time.

As time went on, I found to my dismay that I wasn't really sure that I was helping. In fact, I began to wonder if I was just helping people fail faster. The problem wasn't how much they were getting done. It was where they were trying to go, and what they were trying to accomplish. People wanted to know how they were doing, but I realized I couldn't tell them unless I knew what it was they were trying to do. This drove me into generation three. In fact, both Stephen and I were quite involved in some of the work that began this third generation and worked with some of the people who have been very influential in that field. Our interest was in tying values to goals to help people do more that was congruent and in priority. At the time, it seemed like a clear path that needed to be pursued.

But over time, it became evident that there was a real difference between what people wanted and what they apparently needed in their lives. Many were achieving more and more goals...and feeling less and less happy and fulfilled.

As a result, I began to question some of the fundamental paradigms and the ways I had been thinking. I began to realize the answers weren't in these three generations of time management. They were at the fundamental paradigm level. They were in the very assumptions by which we determine and approach what we're trying to do.


Let's take a closer look at the strengths and weaknesses of each of these generations and see specifically how they help...but why they fail to meet the deeper need.

People in the first generation tend to be flexible. They're able to respond to people and changing needs. They're good at adapting and working things out. They work on their own timetable and do whatever they feel they need to do or seems pressing at the time.

But things often fall through the cracks. Appointments are forgotten; commitments are not kept. Without an empowering sense of lifetime vision and goal setting, meaningful accomplishment is less than it could be. "First things" for people in this generation are essentially whatever happens to be in front of them.

People in the second generation plan and prepare. They generally feel a higher level of personal responsibility to results and commitments. Calendars and schedules not only serve as reminders, but encourage better preparation for meetings and presentations -- professionally and with family, friends, and associates. Preparation increases efficiency and effectiveness. Goal setting and planning increase performance and results.

But the focus on schedule, goals, and efficiency enthrones the schedule. Although many in the second generation sincerely value other people and relationships, this schedule focus often leads them to act as though others are "the enemy." Other people become interruptions or distractions that keep them from sticking to their schedule and carrying out their plans. They insulate or isolate themselves from others, or they delegate to them, seeing people primarily as a resource through which they can increase their personal leverage. In addition, those in the second generation may be getting more of what they want, but what they're getting does not necessarily fulfill deep needs or create peace of mind. "First things" for people in the second generation are a function of calendar and goals.

The third generation makes a major contribution by tying goals and plans to values. People in this generation achieve sizable gains in personal productivity through focused daily planning and prioritization. "First things" become a function of values and goals.

The results of this generation seem very promising. In fact, for many people, the zenith of "time management" is this third generation. They feel that if they were deeply into this generation, they'd be on top of everything. But this third generation has some serious flaws -- not in intent, but in unintended results created by incomplete paradigms and vital missing elements. We want to look at these flaws in depth because this generation represents the "ideal" for many and the goal toward which many in the first and second generations aspire.

Let's consider some of the underlying paradigms, or mind-sets. These paradigms are like maps. They're not the territory; they describe the territory. And if the map is wrong -- if we're trying to get to some place in Detroit and all we have is a map of Chicago -- it's going to be very difficult for us to get where we want to go. We can work on our behavior -- we can travel more efficiently, get a different car with better gas mileage, increase out speed -- but we're only going to wind up in the wrong place faster. We can work on our attitude -- we can get so "psyched up" about trying to get there we don't even care that we're in the wrong place. But the problem really has nothing to do with attitude or behavior. The problem is that we have the wrong map.

While these paradigms underlie the entire traditional time management approach, they're emphasized by the third generation.

* Control. The primary paradigm of the third generation is one of control -- plan it, schedule it, manage it. Take it a step at a time. Don't let anything fall through the cracks. Most of us feel it would be great to be in "control" of out lives. But the fact is, we're not in control; principles are. We can control out choices, but we can't control the consequences of those choices. When we pick up one end of the stick, we pick up the other. To think we're in control is an illusion. It puts us in the position of trying to manage consequences. In addition, we can't control other people. And because the basic paradigm is one of control, time management essentially ignores the reality that most of out time is spent living and working with other people who cannot be controlled.

* Efficiency. Efficiency is "getting more done in less rime." It makes good sense. We get more done. We reduce or even eliminate waste. We're streamlined. We're faster. We're leveraged. The increase in productivity is incredible. But the underlying assumption is that "more" and "faster" are better. Is that necessarily true? There's a vital difference between efficiency and effectiveness. You may be driving down the highway, enjoying great traveling weather, and getting terrific mileage. You may be very efficient. But if you're headed south down the California coast on Highway 101 and your destination is New York City -- some three thousand miles to the east -- you're not being very effective.

In addition, how can you be "efficient" with people? Have you ever tried to be efficient with your spouse or your teenager or an employee on an emotional jugular issue? How did it go?

"Sorry, but you can't express your deepest feelings. I only have ten minutes scheduled for this interview."

"Don't bother me now, son. Just take your emotionally broken and bleeding self somewhere else for a few minutes while I finish this 'to do' item I have here on my schedule."

While you can be efficient with things, you can't be efficient -- effectively -- with people.

* Values. To value something is to esteem it to be of worth. And values are critically important. Our values drive our choices and actions. But we can value many different things -- love, security, a big house, money in the bank, status, recognition, fame. Just because we value something does not necessarily mean it will create quality of-life results. When what we value is in opposition to the natural laws that govern peace of mind and quality of life, we base our lives on illusion and set ourselves up for failure. We cannot be a law unto ourselves.

* Independent achievement. The traditional time management focus is on achieving, accomplishing, getting what you want, and not letting anything get in the way. Other people are essentially seen as resources through which you can get more done faster -- or as obstacles or interruptions. Relationships are essentially transactional. But the reality is that most of the greatest achievements and the greatest joys in life come through relationships that are transformational. In the very nature of the interaction, people are altered. They are transformed. Something new is created and neither person is Controlling it. Neither could have anticipated it. It isn't a function of efficiency. It's a function of the exchange of understanding, insights, new learnings, and excitement around those new learnings. To access the transformational power of interdependent synergy is the ultimate "moving of the fulcrum" in terms of time and quality-of-life results.

* Chronos. Time management deals with chronos, the Greek word for chronological time. Chronos time is seen as linear and sequential. No second is worth any more than any other second. The clock essentially dictates the rhythm of our lives. But there are entire cultures in the world that approach life from a kairos -- an "appropriate time" or "quality time" -- paradigm. Time is something to be experienced. It's exponential, existential. The essence of kairos time is how much value you get out of it rather than how much chronos time you put into it. Out language reflects recognition of kairos time when we ask, "Did you have a good time?" We're not asking about the amount of chronos time spent in a particular way, but about the value, the quality, of that time.

* Competence. Time management is essentially a set of competencies. The idea is that if you can develop certain competencies, you'll be able to create quality-of-life results. But personal effectiveness is a function of competence and character. In one way or another, almost all of the literature says, "Time is life," but like most of the "success" literature of the past seventy years, the time management literature essentially truncates what we do from what we are. The wisdom literature of centuries, on the other hand, validates the supreme importance of developing character as well as competence in creating quality-of-life results.

* Management. Time management itself is a management -- not leadership -- perspective. Management works within the paradigm. Leadership creates new paradigms. Management works within the system. Leadership works on the system. You manage "things"; but you lead people. Fundamental to putting first things first in out lives is leadership before management: "Am I doing the right things?" before "Am I doing things right?"

The strengths and weakness of the three generations of time management are summarized in the chart on the next page.


What are the underlying paradigms that produce these kinds of results -- efficiency, control, management, competence, chronos? Are these accurate maps of the territory? Do they fulfill the expectations they create around quality of life? The very fact that we invest increasing effort in techniques and tools based on these paradigms -- and that the fundamental problem remains (in many cases, in fact, it's exacerbated) -- is a good indication that the basic paradigms are flawed.

Think back to some of the concerns we identified earlier.

My life is hectic! I'm running all day -- meetings, phone calls, paperwork, appointments. I push myself to the limit, fall into bed exhausted, and gel up early the next morning to do if all again. My output is tremendous; I'm getting a lot done. But I gel this feeling inside sometimes, "So what? What are you doing that really counts?" I have to admit, "I don't know."

"The within is ceaselessly becoming the without," said James Allen, author of the classic As a Man Thinketh. "From the state of a man's heart proceed the conditions of his life; his thoughts blossom into deeds, and his deeds bear the fruitage of character and destiny."

Understanding these underlying paradigms of time management is vitally important because our paradigms are the maps of our minds and hearts out of which our attitudes and behaviors and the results in our lives grow. It creates something of a "see/do/get" cycle.

The way we see (our paradigm) leads to what we do (our attitudes and behaviors); and what we do leads to the results we gel in our lives. So if we want to create significant change in the results, we can't just change attitudes and behaviors, methods or techniques; we have to change the basic paradigms out of which they grow. When we try to change the behavior or the method without changing the paradigm, the paradigm eventually overpowers the change. That's why attempts to "install" total quality or empowerment in organizations are unsuccessful. They can't be installed; they have to be grown. They emerge naturally out of the paradigms that create them.

Changing a planning tool or a method won't create significant change in the results we're getting in our lives -- although the implied promise is that it will. It's not a matter of controlling things more, better, or faster; it's questioning the whole assumption of control.

As Albert Einstein said:

The significant problems we face cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.

More essential than working en attitudes and behaviors is examining the paradigms out of which those attitudes and behaviors flow. "The unexamined life is not worth living," observed Plato. But the number of people who come out of out leadership development programs saying "I haven't thought that deeply in years!" is astonishing. As human beings, we're trying -- sometimes with disastrous results -- to run out businesses, raise out children, teach out students, be involved in relationships without giving serious and careful consideration to the roots out of which the fruits in out lives are growing. And somehow time management is something of a mechanical skill, segmented from these vital things we spend out time trying to do.


One thing's for sure: if we keep doing what we're doing, we're going to keep getting what we're getting. One definition of insanity is "to keep doing the same things and expect different results." If time management were the answer, surely the sheer abundance of good ideas would have made a big difference by now. But we find that concerns about quality of life are just as likely to come from someone with a high level of time management training as from someone without it.

Time management -- especially the third generation -- sounds good. It gives the promise of achievement, a sense of hope. But it doesn't deliver. And for many people, the pinnacle third generation approach feels rigid, structured, and unnatural. The intensity is hard to maintain. The first thing many do when they get ready to go on vacation is to leave their planners -- the symbols of the third generation -- at home!

There's clearly a need for a fourth generation -- one that embraces all the strengths of generations 1, 2, and 3, but eliminates the weaknesses...and moves beyond. This requires a paradigm and an approach that is not different by degree, but in kind -- a fundamental break with less effective ways of thinking and doing.

More than an evolution, we need a revolution. We need to move beyond time management to life leadership -- to a fourth generation based on paradigms that will create quality-of-life results.

Copyright © 1994 by Covey Leadership Center, Inc.

About The Authors

Courtesy of the Author

Recognized as one of Time magazine’s twenty-five most influential Americans, Stephen R. Covey (1932–2012) was an internationally respected leadership authority, family expert, teacher, organizational consultant, and author. His books have sold more than twenty-five million copies in thirty-eight languages, and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was named the #1 Most Influential Business Book of the Twentieth Century. After receiving an MBA from Harvard and a doctorate degree from Brigham Young University, he became the cofounder and vice chairman of FranklinCovey, a leading global training firm.

A. Roger Merrill, cofounder of the Covey Leadership Center (now FranklinCovey), has more than forty years of experience as a line manager, senior executive, executive coach, consultant, and teacher. Roger is the author of Connections: Quadrant II Time Management, coauthor of The Nature of Leadership and Life Matters: Creating a Dynamic Balance of Work, Family, Time, and Money.

Rebecca A. Merrill has served in numerous leadership positions in community, education, and women’s organizations. Coauthor of Connections: Quadrant II Time Management, she also assisted Stephen R. Covey on The 7 Habits Highly Effective People.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (January 17, 1996)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684802039

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Raves and Reviews

Larry King Covey Leadership Center has reached the apex with this publication. This is an important work. I can't think of anyone who wouldn't be helped by reading it.

Dr. Michael Hammer Coauthor Of Re-engineering The Corporation New ways of working demand new ways of managing our lives. Stephen Covey and his colleagues show us the path and illuminate it with wisdom and insight.

Scott Degarmo Editor-in-chief, Success Magazine Profound and powerful, First Things First shines a brilliant light into the semi-darkness of time-management techniques. Instead of seeing fragments of our lives, we can now see the whole picture. This book can be the lever with which you can truly change your life.

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