Since its initial release, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, originally published in 1989 by the late Stephen Covey, has gone on to sell over 25 million copies, and is consistently ranked in various Top 25 lists – and for good reason. In this timeless book, Covey lays out a set of principles, or habits, that lead to effective intra- and interpersonal management, what he calls the “Character Ethic.”
I must confess, I actually put the book down after the first 40 pages during my first crack at it, as I was both surprised and disappointed at the book’s subject matter. I went into the book expecting to read about business and management practices, as this is how the book is typically marketed. Instead, the reader gets a tour de force on how to effectively reach your goals through personal independence (Habits 1-3) and relationship development (Habits 4-6).
As I learned first-hand, one must approach this book with an open mind. It can be easy at first glance to dismiss 7 Habits as self-help nonsense. But given deeper consideration, the book serves as a blueprint for how to build the fundamental skills we all need to reach our personal potentials. It has easily become one of my all-time favorites, and will be added to the growing list of books I plan to revisit frequently over the years to come
There are two key concepts that Covey’s book is based around. The first is that effectiveness cannot be created through a quick fix. Learning new tips and techniques to handle email more efficiently or make more connections will not make you more productive over the long haul. Instead, it is our core values that propel us forward in a sustainable fashion, and therefore we must build proper ‘habits’ to capitalize on these values in our everyday lives. Improper habits can be broken, but not at a surface level; one needs deep, core shifts in perspective to make real change in yourself.
“For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root”
– Henry David Thoreau
The second key concept is that there exists a maturity continuum that dictates much of how we think and act. We all start as dependent individuals, reliant on our parents for physical, mental, and emotional security. But as we age, we begin to shift down the continuum, first moving to independence in these three categories, and finally ending at interdependence on the far right of the continuum. The problem, Covey states, is that many of us do not progress very far on this continuum, instead hovering somewhere between dependence and independence. We develop our own sense of self-worth solely from the opinions of the people we surround ourselves with.
The overarching purpose then of this book of to help move people down this continuum, and in doing so, the book breaks down the seven ‘habits,’ which are really more of life maxims. The first three are internally focused, revolving around building self-mastery to “move a person from dependence to independence.”
- Be Proactive – Things are going to happen to you that are out of your control, but it will always be your decision in how you choose to respond: “[Effective people] do not blame circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behavior. Their behavior is a product of their own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product of their conditions, based on feeling.”
- Begin with the End in Mind – Imagine you are nearing the end of the line, and are reflecting back on your life. What do you want to be remembered for? These are the core principles that matter most to you, and to live an effective life is to have the courage and independence to align your daily decisions to these principles.
- Put First Things First – Living in this manner requires a great deal of long-term thinking and prioritization – balancing the day-to-day of what is in front of you with what you know is most important over the long haul. These are what the author calls Quadrant II activities, things that are important but not necessarily urgent: delegating work, properly preparing for meetings, building relationships. Its basic Pareto Principle stuff – making time for the 20% of your work that will eventually net you 80% of your results.
Reaching this base level of personal independence positions you to then move on to the second half of the book, focusing around effective interpersonal habits –what is today mostly referred to as the concept of Emotional Intelligence. These are the skills needed to build effective and lasting relationships with others, which helps you further your progress down the maturity continuum from independence to interdependence.
- Think Win-Win – There is always a best of both worlds scenario. You just have to work to find it. Work with other people to always find a win-win solution, instead of being combative and protective of your own desires
- Seek First to Understand, then to be Understood – This Win-Win scenario can only be accomplished when you communicate effectively with others, which happens when you listen first to understand people’s viewpoint. This will build other’s trust in you, which will then make them must more likely to try and understand your point.
- Synergize – When we act synergistically, we utilize the above skills to collaborate with others to build far greater things than we ever could alone: “What is synergy? Simply defined, it means that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It means that the relationship which the parts have to each other is a part in and of itself.”
Finally, you reach the final habit of the book, which stipulates that one ‘rinse and repeat.’ In the same way that your education and learning do not stop when you graduate school, being an effective individual requires constant reflection to make sure you are progressing.
- Renewal: Sharpen the Saw – This is the preservation and continuous enhancement of our greatest assets – ourselves. “This is the single most powerful investment we can ever make in life – investment in ourselves, in the only instrument we have with which to deal with life and to contribute. We are the instruments of our own performance, and to be effective, we need to recognize the importance of taking time regularly to sharpen the saw”
- Ignore the pit in your stomach – This is the physical manifestation of emotional dependence on other’s approval: that gnawing feeling you get in your gut when someone disagrees with you. It compels you to cave in and go along with them, against your better judgement, just to appease the momentary situation. You are most effective when you ignore this feeling, an act of emotional independence – having the mental and emotional strength to pursue what you want, even when those around you try hard to dissuade you.
- Maturity: Courage vs. Consideration – Having emotional independence gives you the courage you need to do what you want. But too much independence can cause you to ignore and hurt the feelings of those around you. Maturity is the fulcrum point between these two extremes: balancing the desire to consider the needs of others in your decision making process while still maintaining an air of independence.
- Write a Personal Constitution – Similar in concept to goal-setting, Covey urges the reader to go one step further. Instead of writing down the things you want to accomplish, write down the person you want to be. When people think or talk about you, what are the traits you want them to identify you with? What are your values and ideals? On a grander scale, what is your reason for being? These answers form your personal constitution, a statement of what you are about and who you want to be, for you to review and adhere to in times of distress.
- Focus on the Important, not Urgent – Urgent tasks are the flash fires that come up during your day. While these tasks are no doubt critical, their completion brings very short-term benefits, before more seemingly urgent tasks pop up that again call your immediate attention. This cycle keeps you constantly busy, and prevents you from focusing on your long-term objectives, the things that are truly important. Example: Take time away from completing urgent tasks (email, reports, etc) to instead focus on completing the important task of hiring and training more staff. These staff members can then help handle most of the urgent tasks you were swamped with before, freeing up more of your time to handle the important long-term tasks.
- Have an Abundance Mentality –An abundance mentality is the belief that there is an unlimited pie. When someone else you know succeeds, that doesn’t mean that you lose out on a slice of the pie (with the exception of business deals. There is a finite number of customers and clients). When you envy someone’s success, there is a hidden fear that you cannot now succeed yourself as a direct result of their achievement. With an abundance mentality, you know there is plenty more of the pie left, and that you will get yours in time through your own work, freeing yourself to truly congratulate and appreciate the success of those around you.
- Security + Guidance = Wisdom -> Power – The formula for personal power: when we no longer depend on others for our sense of self-worth, and we identify our core values and what we are truly about, we gain sense of internal calm and wisdom, the foundation for power. Know what you want, the independent thought to get it, and blend that will with the needs of those around you
- The Four Dimensions – The author states that there are four essential dimensions to life that one must constantly balance and work to improve upon: the Physical, the Mental, the Emotional/Social, and lastly the Spiritual. For introverts, the most critical is the Emotional/Social, as the other dimensions can all be enhanced individually. We must continually work to ‘sharpen the saw,’ as Covey puts it, even in areas where we struggle, as without this fourth pillar, no building can stand for long on the remaining three alone.
- Varying Paradigm Centers – We all have different paradigm centers, or core values that drive the way we act and perceive the world around us. For some, it is Wealth; for others, it is Title and Status; and yet others are centered on Family or simply Pleasure. What is important is not that we all strive to have the same center, but that we recognize and respect the centers of others. These centers drive our psychology, and by being aware of them, we can better engage and relate with those around us.
- Balancing P and PC – To be an effective person, one must master the art of balancing their Production (P) with their Production Capacity (PC). The body cannot run (P) indefinitely without food or sustenance (PC), much the same as one cannot continue to produce at work without learning new skills or investing in new relationships. Eventually you will stagnate and be passed by. Similarly, we cannot be so forward focused that we ignore the present. You must eventually bring your investments and new skills to bear and turn the intangible tangible through production.
- Your Place in the World – The world is bigger than any one individual. It is our moral obligation to dedicate ourselves to the improvement of the larger whole, not just the improvement of ourselves, for this is when we do our best work: “As long as you feel you are serving others, you do the job well. When you are concerned only with helping yourself, you do it less well – a law as inexorable as gravity.”
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a foundational text that sets the groundwork upon which any person of ambition should build the rest of their knowledge, habits, and activities. I can’t recommend highly enough, especially if you are young and just starting out, that you prioritize the reading of this book and escalate it to the top of your reading list. But one must come into reading this book with an open mind; the text can at times be either overly convoluted (elaborates on building Emotional Bank Accounts with individuals to build relationships, otherwise known as trust), or overly dramatic (see Habit 6). But by bringing your past experiences to bear through active reading, you can uncover and start developing some of the foundational principles of effective human behavior that can collectively build momentum for yourself toward a life of success.
Additional Reads from the Month:
- Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
- Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
- The Alchemist
- Emotional Intelligence 2.0