I first read Stephen Covey’s book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, in July 2012 whilst on a very challenging assignment in Western Australia, inheriting an off the rails $XXXm project, I felt I needed a miracle.
That miracle came in the form of 7 Habits. Over the last 7 years I have come back to reference the book, I want to say – 50 times. Like me, you will learn some of the most effective ways in which you can improve your professional and personal life. Here are the key ideas that we will discuss in the following chapters:
- How to become proactive
- How to start tasks with a clear goal in mind
- How to set priorities
- How to think win-win
- How to understand others
- How to synergize
- How to sharpen the saw
So dive in and join the millions of people who have already benefited from Stephen R. Covey’s advice!
If you want to see lasting change, start by adjusting your character, not just your behavior
When covey embarked on his quest to gain a better understanding of the complex nature of success, he began by reading as much as he could.
Covey immersed himself in some 200 years worth of literature on the topic of success, starting from 1776. Based on what he had read, he concluded that, more often than not, there are two major ways in which people can improve their lives.
One way is by cultivating the skills that are necessary for achieving the desired behavior. For example, if you want to have healthier relationships with other people, you might want to start by studying body language and communication techniques. This method is referred to as the personality ethic and it gained a lot of popularity in the 1920s. The personality ethic method sounds like a solid path for improvement, but it is merely a shortcut.
If we take a closer look, we notice that this method allows us to avoid working on the essential character traits that are holding us back. It also promises that by learning some simple techniques, we can solve most of our problems. Unfortunately, real change doesn’t come easy, so this method rarely results in consistent and lasting personal growth.
The second method that Covey describes in his book is much more effective as it involves working on our character– that is, making adjustments to our fundamental belief system and habits that form our view of the world. Our true character will, sooner or later, shine through, so the change needs to go deeper. This method is referred to as thecharacter ethic, and it focuses on things like integrity, courage, and the golden rule.
This approach was actually more popular before 1920, and it is clearly distinguishable in the writings of steadfast men such as Benjamin Franklin. So, if you are serious about making a change, then you need to start working on yourself from theinside out. If, for instance, you want to improve your marriage, you need to become a more understanding partner. Mastering a few easy communication techniques that might make your partner like you more is simply not sufficient. So how can you improve your character? Read the next chapter to find out!
Getting the right perspective
Align your holistic views with the basic principles of way the world spins.
If you have ever been in a new city and tried to get from one place to another, you might have noticed that a map is an incredibly useful tool. But what can you use when you are trying to navigate life, instead of a city with clear streets and addresses? The answer is paradigms. Paradigms are the subjective ways in which we perceive life and the world around us. After all, we are never one hundred percent objective. We filter everything through our own sets of paradigms.
For example, a person who has a predominantly negative paradigm will perceive getting lost in an unknown city as a horrible experience and a frustrating waste of time. Someone with a positive paradigm, on the other hand, might see it as an opportunity or an unexpected adventure. Shifting our paradigmsis essential if we want to make lasting changes because our paradigms are at the core of our character. This is the only way in which we can change our worldviews and our subjective realities, and with them, our behaviors and character. It is quite obvious that we need to monitor and become aware of what our own paradigms are because if we don’t, we’ll only have ourselves to blame for failure.
Covey went through a radical paradigm shift during his commute on the New York subway. It was a Sunday morning, and the subway car was not crowded. Most passengers were relaxed, reading their books or newspapers or resting their eyes. When a man and his children entered the car, everything changed. Chaos ensued as the children began throwing things, shouting, and disturbing the previously relaxed passengers. Meanwhile, the father of the undisciplined children just sat down and closed his eyes. The author was so annoyed by the disturbance caused by the children and by the father’s apparent indifference that he felt compelled to ask him to control his children. Softly, the man answered that he is aware of what he should do, but that he doesn’t want to do it because his wife and the mother of the children had died that day and they were all in shock.
The answer took the Covey by surprise and shifted his whole paradigm completely. From being annoyed and irritated, he became profoundly compassionate and wanted to help. Not all paradigm shifts are as sudden as the one that the author experienced, but most of them are similarly powerful. So which paradigms should we strive to change? Well, we should all work on the paradigms that are aligned with important and large universal principles such asintegrity, honesty, and fairness.
Since most people agree that these principles are positive, we can consider them natural, permanent laws. Consequently, the more we align our personal principles with the natural ones, the more realistic our worldview becomes, and our chances to succeed and to obtain lasting change will increase. The seven habits are closely related to attaining this type of principle-based paradigm. Read the next chapter to learn more about the first habit.
7 Habits of Highly Effective People
7 Habits – Habit#1: Be proactive!
What differentiates us humans from animals? For starters, a huge difference is that unlike animals, we are not slaves to external stimuli. Animals can only react to external stimuli in a way that is preprogrammed by their nature. In contrast, we humans are able to analyze a stimulus before acting and we can even reprogram our brains to respond in a more desirable and more appropriate way. In other words, instead of just reacting to the world around us, we are able toproactivelycontrol and influence it.
But even though humans have the ability to be proactive, many of them still prefer to bereactive. The behavior and emotions of the people who are reactive are dictated by external circumstances. For instance, it is quite common for people to be in a bad mood if it’s rainy outside or if their neighbors were rude. This type of behavior can be observed from the way reactive people speak. We will often hear them say things along the lines of “It’s out of my hands”, “It wasn’t my fault”, etc. Proactive people, on the other hand, will not let external circumstances dictate their emotions and behaviors. Additionally, they will take responsibility for their own actions and lives and will often say things like “Let’s try to find a better solution” or “I’m going to do something about it!”. A great way to understand the differences between the aforementioned attitudes is by thinking of two concentric circles. The bigger circle is our Circle of Concern and it represents all of the things that we worry about such as our bills, potential health problems, a nuclear war, etc.
The smaller circle that is inside the Circle of Concern is called the Circle of Influence and it represents all of the aspects that we can actually change or do something about. People who are proactive will often concentrate on the Circle of Influence and will work on those aspects that they can control. By working on the Circle of Influence, they can expand it. On the other hand, people who are reactive will more often than not focus on the Circle of Concern, worrying about things that they can’t change. This, in turn, makes their Circle of Influence smaller and smaller. Proactivity can be a very effective habit. It even works in circumstances that might seem extreme.
Take Viktor Frankl, for example, who was imprisoned several times during World War II in German concentration camps. He was in a dire situation and in the midst of everything, despite living in an environment controlled by guards, he understood that he was free to choose his worldview and how he responded to his circumstances. Although he was suffering terribly, he made efforts to imagine himself in the future. He thought of living happier days and teaching others about the things that he experienced in the concentration camps. In the small gaps between the external stimuli, Viktor Frankl was able to find his freedom and he was able to be proactive.
He decided that no one could rob him of his freedom of thought and he nurtured it until he became an inspiration for other inmates and even for some of the camp guards. Just like Viktor Frankl, we also have the power to make decisions when it comes to the small gaps between external stimuli and our actions. Thus, we can actively change our behavior and emotions. A great way to put this strategy into practice is by committing to a proactivity challenge: for 30 days, whenever we are tempted to blame someone else or an external element for one of our problems, we should remind ourselves that our reaction is the root cause of the problem. By focusing on finding effective solutions, instead of playing the blame game, we nurture our proactivity and become free.
7 Habits – Habit #2: Start with the End in Mind.
Whenever we perform an action, we are in fact performing it twice: first when we imagine it in our mind, and a second time, when we actually do it. For instance, if we build a house, the first thing that we will do is to visualize the type of house that we want. We make plans for the layout of the house, for the rooms and the garden, and we go through a very long and elaborate process before a single brick is laid. If we skipped this step, the physical process would probably be very expensive and chaotic.
Without a well-formulated plan, we would make costly mistakes such as omitting to leave room for a staircase. That’s why it is so important to start by understanding what the desired end should be. The more realistic and exact our mental picture is, the better the execution, and the more likely we are to get the best results. This type of visual anticipation is very effective in all possible situations. For instance, the sprinters who are the most competitive admit to visualizing how they will sprint from the starting block, surpass their competitors, and finish in first place.
So whether we are at home or at work, it is important to always allocate some time for visualization. As the saying goes, “It’s always better to ask twice than to lose our way once.” Spending some time envisioning the desired outcome is a more productive strategy than plowing head-on in the wrong direction. For starters, we can practice this strategy by thinking of an upcoming project and writing down our end goals and the steps that we need to take in order to achieve them. But beginning with the end in mind is the key to much more than just small projects. As we’ll discuss in the next chapter, we can use this strategy for our major life goals.
Write and integrate a personal mission statement into your everyday life.
Let’s do a small mental exercise by imagining that we are looking three years into the future and, unfortunately, we’ve passed away. Let’s take a moment and imagine our own funeral. Our loved ones, our spouses, our best friends, and our closest colleagues are giving eulogies. What would we like them to say? What do we want to be remembered for and what kind of person would we like them to describe us as? Unfortunately, most of us spend our whole lives working towards goals that will not matter in the end.
This is mainly owed to the fact that we never stop to define them properly. In other words, we are unable to understand the differences between beingefficientand beingeffective.Being efficient means doing as much as possible in the shortest amount of time. However, this can be quite pointless if we don’t have a clear goal in mind. This is a bit like climbing a ladder that is placed against the wrong wall: we are making some progress, but not in the right direction. On the other hand, being effective means placing the ladder on the right wall, or knowing exactly what our end goal is. People who are effective don’t just make efforts towards reaching a random goal, they pursue things that matter because they understand that everything else is a waste of time and effort.
So what can we do in order to have a clear destination in life? One useful strategy is by imagining the aforementionedfuneral scenario and then using our answers as a basis for formulating a personalmission statement, which is a document where we define our end goals and our own creed. By writing our mission statement we are able to learn more about the person that we want to become, about our principles and basic values, and about the things that we want to achieve. The mission statement is like our personal constitution or like a standard that has been established and that helps us measure and value everything around us. Having it will give us a sense of security and direction and will allow us to align all your actions with it.
Some thoughts that we could include in our mission statement would be: valuing our family and work equally and finding the balance between the two; striving to live in a fair and just society and making our voices heard in political decisions; becoming more proactive and finding better solutions to our everyday problems, and so on. It is worth mentioning that this document represents a healthy foundation for our lives and a lot of thought needs to be put into it. Writing it will probably be a long process that will require deep introspection.
7 Habits – Habit #3: Put First things First.
How can we take charge and become more proactive now that our mission has become clear? The answer is very simple: by taking things one day at a time, day in and day out. Of course, in the midst of our daily routines, hassles, relationships, and roles this can be quite challenging and might require great time-management skills. Sadly, the great majority of time-management strategies focus on increasing efficiency and not on effectiveness. On the bright side, we don’t really need to apply any complicated techniques in order to succeed.
More often than not, it will be enough to remember a simple phrase: “first things first”. Putting first things first means that we prioritize everything we do rigorously and that the important things are always at the top of our list. The less important things are put aside and dealt with at a later time. Okay, but how do we differentiate between the important and unimportant things? We can start by categorizing things by these two dimensions:urgencyandimportance. This strategy will give us a 2×2 matrix with four quadrants:
- In the first quadrant, we have things that are both important and urgent. These things need to be dealt with right away.
- In the second quadrant, we have things that are important but are not as urgent. For example, writing our mission statement can fit this category, or building healthy relationships and planning our future.
- In the third quadrant, we have things that are not important but are quite urgent, such as answering the phone while working on something else.
- And in the fourth quadrant, we have things that are unimportant and not urgent. Taking care of these tasks might be a waste of time.
The most important quadrant of the four is the second one because the tasks found in this quadrant will generally have a huge impact on our lives. And if we focus on quadrant two tasks, we will eventually have fewer urgent issues to deal with in the first quadrant. Unfortunately, people fail to understand the importance of the second quadrant. The book’s author came to a very interesting conclusion while working with a group of shopping-center managers. He found that although the managers were aware that having good relationships with the store owners had a very positive impact, they still neglected this task. The majority of shopping-center managers only spent five percent of their time doing it and were, instead, filling up their time with calls, reports, and interruptions. Encouraged by the author, they decided to change their work routine and started allocating a third of their time to the store owners. Unsurprisingly, the lease revenue skyrocketed. A great first step in implementing this strategy in our everyday lives consists of identifying is the quadrant-two activities that we’ve been neglecting. More specifically, allocating time to those activities that would have a great impact on our lives.
7 Habits – Habit #4: Think “win-win.”
When you interact with others, what kind of outcome do you usually look for? Most people’s worldviews are shaped by a strong “win-lose” paradigm. This means they see any interaction with others, whether at work or in their personal life, as basically a competition, where they need to fight the other person for the bigger slice of pie. But most situations in life don’t need to be competitions. There is usually enough pie for everyone, and it is far better when all parties work toward a “win-win” solution that is beneficial for everyone, rather than fighting for a “win-lose” outcome. The major disadvantage of the “win-lose” mentality is that when two people of this mentality come up against each other, the situation usually becomes a “lose-lose” one. After a bitter fight, both parties end up losing. Meanwhile, the dog gets the entire pie, which was knocked to the floor during the argument. Furthermore, it is impossible for a long-term positive relationship to form between two people who are constantly in competition with each other. For example, if your company sells services to a customer, and you argue for a higher price with a strong “win-lose” mindset, you may succeed in increasing the value of the deal a little bit. But the customer will probably prefer to take their business elsewhere the next time, so that, in the long term, you lose also. But if you think ”win-win,” you’ll find yourself building lots of positive relationships because each interaction strengthens the relationship, rather than eroding it. In the previous example, if you’d instead sought a mutually satisfactory deal, the customer would probably remember that you’d been fair – and he or she would come back again the next time, thereby increasing your profits in the long run. So it’s necessary to keep negotiating and communicating until a solution is found that suits all parties. This is not an easy task. It requires both sensitivity and patience, but the reward is a lasting positive relationship and the creation of a mutual trust, from which all parties can profit. A good exercise to start with is to think of an important relationship you have where you’d like to develop a “win-win” mentality. Now put yourself in the shoes of the other party and write down what you believe would constitute a wins for them. Then think about what results would be wins for you. Finally, approach the other party and ask if they’d be willing to try to find a mutually satisfactory agreement.
Having healthier relationships with others.
We can think of our relationships with other people as emotional bank accounts: by investing goodwill, time, and effort into it, the balance of our accounts grow. This growth is directly proportional to the amount of trust that exists between the two parties. If our accounts have a positive balance, it means that we have healthy relationships and that solving any potential problems will be quite easy. If, however, the balance of our account is zero, then the relationships can be a time bomb that will go off when the first small problem appears. Furthermore, with unhealthy relationships, we often feel that we need to choose our words carefully to prevent an explosive conflict. So how can we grow the balance of our relationships accounts? We could make payments in the shape of win-win solutions by sticking to the promises that we make and by being empathic and really listen to the other person. Withdrawals from our relationships account, on the other hand, would consist of a win-lose situation such as pretending to listen, being self-involved, or breaking a promise.
To build strong, healthy, and long-lasting relationships, we can make a few different major deposits: be very explicit about our expectations, always keep our promises, be empathetic, courteous and sensitive as much as possible. Other major relationships account deposit consists of maintaining our utmost personal integrity. This means that we need to be loyal to others, even when they are not present, and avoid bad-mouthing them or revealing the things that they tell us in confidence. Bad-mouthing only proves to the people who are present that we are not to be trusted. But perhaps one of the most essential deposits that we can make consists of doing our best to really understand other people.
This deposit allows us to learn what are the things that they deem important and that can contribute to growing our balance. The book’s author once had a friend who had a very good understanding of the importance of such a deposit. He took his son on a road trip to see every major-league team play, despite not being a baseball fan. The trip took six weeks and it was very expensive, but it really helped strengthen the relationship between him and his son. When the author asked his friend if he liked baseball that much, the man answered: “No, but I like my son that much.” If somehow, we happen to make a mistake, the equivalent of a withdrawal from your relationships account, it is very important to pluck up the courage to apologize sincerely. People are usually happy to forgive someone who is honest and genuinely regrets making a mistake.
7 Habits – Habit #5: Understanding before asking to be understood!
Let’s try to imagine that we are walking into a doctor’s office and the doctor is absentmindedly listening to us. After only hearing a few words, the doctor hands us a prescription and says: “I’ve heard enough”. Or what if when we go see an optician, instead of bothering to check our eyesight, he just gave us his own glasses. He can see perfectly fine with them, so they should work for us too, right? This advice doesn’t seem very trustworthy. As surreal as these examples might seem, they are actually common occurrences in our everyday lives, especially when it comes to our relationships with others. Not listening to what others have to say and projecting our own thoughts and situation onto them is a very common mistake. Generally, giving one-sided advice is never a good idea, especially since people tend to trust the judgment of others only when they feel that they have been fully understood.
So if we want our loved ones to consider us good listeners and to take our advice, we need to develop the skill of empathic listening. In order to develop this skill, we might have to change our attitude from “I’m listening because I want to give an answer” to “I’m listening because I want to really understand the situation.” Empathic listening consists of trying to understand the other person’s worldview and frame of reference and have a clear image of what they feel and how they think. According to experts in communication, just 10 percent of our communication consists of actual words, while 30 percent consists of sounds, and body language makes up 60 percent.
So, if we want to become better at empathic listening, we need to understand that listening to words and answering back is not enough. We need to pay attention to feelings, behavior, body language, and the true meaning that lies behind them. A great way to work on our empathic listening skills is to try to observe other people without focusing on the words. By focusing on the emotions that they are communicating, we can finally get the whole picture. Mastering the skill of empathy takes a lot of time and effort but it is well worth it. If we learn to listen to other people in a truly empathic way, we will immediately notice that people will be more willing to open up to us and will take out advice. A good listener is always appreciated and will always have healthy relationships.
7 Habits – Habit #6: Synergize
Being respectful and open to others.
All the previous habits that we’ve discussed throughout this book summary have prepared us to discuss this chapter’s habit:synergizing. Synergy is a situation in which the things that many people offer add up to a total that exceeds their combined contributions. In other words, when one plus one equals three or more, we can say that we’ve achieved a synergy. So how can we implement this principle in our everyday lives and social interactions? First, we need to understand that each of us has a different worldview and a particular set of strengths and weaknesses. We can leverage the power of synergy by owning up to our differences and individuality and valuing them.
When we listen to one another, when we are empathetic, and when we use each other’s contributions to create something good, it’s safe to say that we are synergizing. When we try to solve a shared problem instead of fighting amongst ourselves, it means that we are on the same side. After World War II, David Lilienthal received a task that consisted of heading the Atomic Energy Commission. The first thing that he did was assembling a team of highly influential and capable people. Knowing that each member of the team had a personal agenda and a set of skills, Lilienthal then allocated several weeks for the group to get to know each other better, to connect, and to learn about each other’s skills, hopes, fears, and dreams. Some of the team members saw this strategy as highly inefficient, and Lilienthal was criticized.
However, by enforcing a basic levle of human interaction, he ensured that the team had a trusting, open, and synergistic mind-set. Furthermore, whenever people would disagree, instead of opposing one another, they made an effort to understand each other better. This resulted in a very creative, respectful, and productive work environment. If we see our interactions with others as an adventure, we are on the right path. Although we might not have full control over the outcome of our adventure, we can still embrace it with optimism and openness. A significant degree of self-confidence is required in order to embrace synergy, as well as an understanding of the fact that the combined contribution of each party can lead to something amazing, even if the journey there seems complicated and chaotic.
So, in order to achieve synergy, we can start by making a list of the people that we have a difficult time engaging with and analyze their views. If we were more open-minded and more self-confident, would we be able to find a synergy between our perspective and theirs?
7 Habits – Habit #7: Sharpen the saw.
If we want to keep sawing, we need to sharpen the saw
If lumberjacks spent all their time cutting down trees without ever pausing to sharpen their tools, they’d soon become unable to do their jobs. Similarly, if we never take a break to focus on ourselves, our effectiveness gains will most likely be short-lived. We would soon become exhausted and unable to maintain the healthy habits that we’ve developed. That’s why an essential part of achieving long-term effectiveness consists of “sharpening our saws” in each of the four key dimensions of our lives: If we want to stayphysicallyfit, we need to eat healthily, exercise regularly, and avoid undue stress. To achievespiritualhealth, we need to meditate or pray, or simply reflect on our values, goals, and worldviews.
To stay mentally healthy, we need to avoid spending too much time in front of the TV, read plenty of good books, and make time for our hobbies. Writing something, be it poetry, letters, or keeping a diary is very effective. Planning and organizing things work wonders on keeping our minds sharp and fresh. Last but not least, we need to remember to take care of oursocial and emotionalhealth by making efforts towards understanding others, building positive and healthy relationships with them and giving them valuable advice that will help them improve their lives. We need to consciously allocate time to recharging and recuperating.
While most people find excuses and don’t make time for self-reflection and rest, we need to understand how important these things are, especially if we want to achieve sustained effectiveness and to reap the rewards that come with our increased productivity. To make sure that our saws are truly sharpened, we need to write down the activities that help us evolve and improve each of the aforementioned directions. We then need to pick one such activity for each direction and practice it for one week.
By evaluating our performance we get a clear image of the things that we need to work on.
Key Take Aways – 7 Habits
- Be proactive: Humans have a natural need to control the world around them. But we should avoid spending too much time reacting to external events and circumstances. Instead, we should assume responsibility for our lives and become proactive.
- Begin with an end in mind: If we want to be successful, we need to avoid wasting time by working without a clear goal. Having a vision for our future and aligning our actions accordingly is an essential step towards making real progress.
- Put first things first: We need to focus on the important things and to prioritize our tasks. By not getting distracted by unimportant but urgent tasks, we have more time to focus on the ones that are truly important.
- Think win-win: When we negotiate with other people, we need to avoid trying to have a substantial advantage. Instead, we should find a division that is positive and that has benefits for all parties involved. This way, we get our fair share, but we also build healthy relationships in the process.
- Seek first to understand, then to be understood: When we are presented with a problem, our first instinct is to offer a solution without taking the time to analyze the situation. This is a very common mistake. We should first ensure that we really listen to the other person and that we pay attention to their emotions and worldviews.
- Synergize: We need to work towards adopting the principle that by working together we can have better results. The principle of synergy will help us accept other people’s help to achieve goals that we never would have reached on our own.
- Sharpen the saw: We need to know when to take the time to recharge and recuperate. If we want to have a sustainable lifestyle and to achieve long-term effectiveness, we need to avoid working ourselves to death.
What to read next:The 8th Habit, by Stephen R. Covey Now that we are more familiar with the seven habits that can make us more effective in work and in life, we can look at yet another habit – a habit that will help us become truly great at what we do. InThe 8th Habit, Stephen R. Covey explains that to live a fulfilling life, we need to focus on our inner voice. And how do we do that? Well, we first need to understand that we are more powerful than we think and that we can choose the type of life that we want. But that is just the first step. To learn more – including how our lives will improve if we start trusting others, check out Covey’sThe 8th Habit.
Something else you may like to read What Great leaders do First!