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“The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” is a How-to Guide for Living the Good Life
Every time I revisit this book, I’m reminded of the best leaders I’ve had the chance to encounter in my lifetime. I’m convinced they all read and applied the lessons it contains. Stephen R. Covey is also a leader I admire, despite only knowing him by reading this book. Benevolent, patient, inquisitive, he only seeks to help others become better versions of themselves. A fine example of magnanimity if there ever was one.
This is a book that, if followed even in limited fashion, can be truly transformative. I like to think of it as degrees of increasing commitment, with commitment building one habit at a time, as opposed to an all-or-nothing proposition. That’s why I highly recommend it as a long-term resource, especially given it touches on so many aspects of life that it can easily act as a substitute for more extensive reading (for more on this, see book recommendations at the end of this review).
The book is both a pleasant and informative read and acts as a valuable ongoing reference for three reasons:
- Covey includes well-chosen diagrams and tables for ease of reference, including the second diagram, which he introduces on pg. 53 (see below) and then revisits as he introduces each subsequent habit.
- The stories he chose to include are often touching and effective in both illustrating his points and in making the lessons easier to retain.
- He presents The Seven Habits as building blocks, as a progressive journey where the successful development of a given Habit acts as a stepping stone that helps us move on to the next.
As the title suggests, the book introduces us to The Seven Habits Covey believes can help any one of us become highly effective in all areas of our lives, which translates into feeling more fulfilled over the long-term. The Seven Habits he suggests we should develop are as follows:
- Be proactive
- Begin with the end in mind
- Put first things first
- Think win/win
- Seek first to understand, then be understood
- Sharpen the saw (the importance of renewal)
#1. Be Proactive
Covey stresses that we need to develop our own internal strength and sense of balance before we can be successful in accomplishing anything else for anyone else. He stresses that the best ways to do that are to pay attention to what we value, notice where what we believe we value doesn’t align with our behavior, make a decision to change it and follow through on the commitment. In his view, we need to focus on ourselves first because if we can’t follow through on commitments to ourselves, we’re not likely to follow through and be of true service to others.
Finally, focusing on what we can do for ourselves means focusing on things we have total control over, something that is within what he calls our “circle of influence”. Indeed, we should only worry about what it is that is within our control because focusing on what is external to this is a waste of time and, worse, can result in a reactive victim mentality that is of no use to anyone.
In accomplishing the above, the author stresses the importance of focusing on the change(s) we want most and to pull the trigger when we’re fully committed to change. Trying to change too much too soon or changing before we’re fully committed are recipes for failure and disappointment, making us less likely to try to change for the better again, at least in the short to medium term.
“Anytime we think the problem is ‘out there,’ that thought is the problem.” (pg. 89, emphasis is the author’s)
#2. Begin With the End in Mind
Covey is a big believer in visualization, the idea that if we can picture it, create it in our mind’s eye, we’re more likely to bring it about in physical form. He stresses the importance of getting clear about what we want and making plans to get it because if we don’t guide our own actions and our own lives, our lives will become what other create for us and that result is unlikely to match our aspirations and desires.
“In developing our own self-awareness many of us discover ineffective scripts, deeply embedded habits that are totally unworthy of us, totally incongruent with the things we really value in life.” (pg. 104)
In order to know what we want, we need to increase our awareness of what we want out of life. To accomplish this, the author suggests writing your own personal mission statement to serve as both a reminder, as a guiding “why”. He states that when we know our “why,” when we know what we deeply value, it makes it easier to deal with change, both planned and unplanned. Having a solid view of who we are greatly increases resilience and makes us less likely to attach our sense of self to the external, such as to things, hedonism and other people.
A further benefit of understanding and observing ourselves is that it gives us a better appreciation of the incongruence between our thoughts, beliefs and actions. We become better able to appreciate how easy it is to not “walk the talk” when we’re not paying attention to what we really want. And that makes us much better at empathizing with others when they face similar struggles.
#3. Put First Things First
Covey is not a big fan of popular time management techniques. How should we manage our time then? By doing the most important thing(s) first.
In his opinion, we tend to think in terms of a weekly calendar, yet current systems have us organize out activities on a daily basis. In his view, managing our lives on a weekly basis provides a better opportunity to ensure that what we value gets the attention it requires in the bigger picture (after all, we don’t tend to everything that’s important every day). Further, looking at time on a weekly schedule allows us to be more flexible and readjust when “life happens,” helping us ensure that what isn’t urgent but yet important still gets the time and focus it requires—and according to the author what is not urgent but still important is usually what contributes most to our success in the long run.
What might we determine to be important but not urgent? We determine that by identifying the what activities will help us fulfill the mission statement we’ve developed for ourselves (see Habit 2 above).
“What one thing could you do in your personal and professional life that, if you did on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your life?” (pg. 154, emphasis is the author’s)
#4. Think Win/Win
The first three Habits set the stage. They are what we can most easily control about our environment: our behavior and our reaction to what happens to us. They are the foundation that sets us up for success as we start to move beyond the self toward also being more effective in our interactions with others. The first habit to develop as we move from what Covey calls Independence to Interdependence, is to rethink our approach to interactions, including negotiations.
First, our own behavior toward others established their level of trust in us. Increasing it depends on:
- Understanding the individual – others need to see us demonstrate an understanding of what they value (even if it’s not something we value ourselves)
- Attending to the little things – we can’t discount the smallest of gestures because they often matter more than the grand ones
- Keeping commitments – we need to do what we say we will do and, if we break a commitment, we should ask for permission to do so whenever possible as opposed to simply renege on it
- Clarifying expectations – trust requires clarity and that means dealing with the discomfort of being clear about what we will and will not do up front
- Showing personal integrity – this goes beyond honesty into, as the author puts it, being “loyal to those who are not present“
- Apologizing sincerely – apologies can be difficult to offer, especially when they are most warranted but that’s what makes them so important to building lasting trust
And all of these can also help establish our character when it comes to negotiations. From an early age, we receive many conflicting messages about the art of negotiation. We’re told we should maximize our value for money, yet at the same time we’re told we should respect others. The author suggests that, more often than not, both parties can have their needs met to their satisfaction. According to Covey, “win/win” and “win/win or no deal” are the only ways to negotiate that are sustainable over the long term, both for individuals and for organizations.
How is it possible to get to a win/win outcome to nearly every negotiation? By getting to the root of what each party really wants and that means approaching negotiations with an open mind and with the full intention of getting to the bottom of what each party is after. That’s when communication skills come in because nearly everything we do as we navigate our day is a negotiation.
#5. Seek First to Understand, Then Be Understood
To be an effective communicator, Covey suggests that we should first do our very best to understand what the other party is after, that is what they really want, not what they say they want. This goes beyond active listening. We need to reflect back what the other party is expressing (emotions), not just their words. We need to put ourselves in their shoes and feel empathy for their situation. Only then can we even start to connect, let alone be helpful. This takes time, but it works and it saves effort over the long run by avoiding misunderstandings and the hurt feelings that come from them (see fourth bullet in Habit 4 above).
And echoing what the other party is feeling, experiencing and wanting offers an exciting result: when someone feels heard and understood, they are much more receptive to hearing what you want and need, and more receptive to finding a way to make it happen. How powerful is that!?
I hope you can see how The Seven Habits build on each other.
By getting real about improving ourselves over time to become our best selves and by having regard for others in enabling them to do the same, everyone can get what they want most over the long term, and more.
The “more” is what happens when a group of two or more work together sincerely and openly to come up with more and better alternatives than the parties could have come up with on their own. It’s what Covey calls “synergy.” To the author, these situations are nothing less than pure magic. They are memorable, energizing, even awe inspiring in some cases. It’s in these moments, which can only happen when we’ve done the hard work of the other habits, that we experience the ultimate payoff of the investments we’ve made in ourselves and others.
#7. Sharpen the Saw
The first six Habits represent quite an investment in time and energy. It would be a shame not to protect it. That’s where the seventh Habit comes in. Sharpening the saw means taking care of ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually:
- Physically – if we don’t take care of our health and energy levels, we can’t hope to be successful over the long term in any of the other areas that matter to us
- Mentally – learning about ourselves and about the world keeps us curious, engaged and effective (we should read, visualize, plan and write regularly, all of which helps us stay sharp)
- Socially/emotionally – engaging with others keeps us empathetic, connected and can feed our sense of meaning and purpose
- Spiritually – clarifying our values, studying ourselves and practicing meditation can help us stay connected to who we are and what we want to become
By focusing on the above, we can ensure we address our needs in these important areas, which are sources of energy that enable us to focus on and do what it is we want most. And that is the key to living the good life.
Stephen R. Covey’s Seven Habits serve as a timeless and powerful guide to becoming better versions of ourselves, a key pursuit in living a fulfilling life.
“The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” is not only a professional development book. It’s a personal growth guide that contains powerful ideas that invite further exploration in and of themselves. See below for other books of this type that explore only some of the habits he introduced, and other books still that further explore some of the insights that lead to the development of one or more of the habits.
Other suggested books of this type: “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working” by Tony Schwartz (Habit 7 fully explored, a very similar model), “Enough” by John C. Bogle (all Habits, at a conceptual level)
Books on prioritization: “Essentialism” by Greg McKeown (Habit 3), “The Power of NO” by James and Claudia Azula Altucher (Habit 3), “Peak” by Anders Ericsson (Habit 7), “Rich Habits” by Thomas C. Corley (part of Habits 1 to 3)
Books on self-awareness: “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl (Habits 1 and 2), “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)” by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson (part of Habits 1 to 3), “Scarcity” by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir (part of Habit 4)
Other authors referenced and/or quoted more than once that might invite further exploration: Henry David Thoreau and Peter Drucker
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