Have you ever wondered if you were truly in command of your life? Perhaps you’ve had trouble controlling your temper, managing relationships, staying healthy or saving money. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People* by Stephen R. Covey offers ways to make lasting changes in your life, regardless of your surroundings or upbringing.
As Covey explains, maturity comes in three stages: (1) dependence, (2) independence and (3) interdependence. The first three habits in Covey’s book deal with how to become independent, or how to become effective as an individual. The next three habits deal with how to become interdependent, effectively synergizing through relationships with others. The final habit deals with constant personal growth and renewal. This is the habit that makes all the other habits possible.
Habit 1 – Be proactive.
The first habit is to realize that you have a choice. In other words, we can either believe that we are the product of external factors or we can actively try to change ourselves into the person that we want to be. Covey characterizes this as acting rather than being acted upon. In the context of anger management, this means realizing that we can choose a different response when someone else is rude. In the context of health, this means that we can change our diets in the face of junk food advertising or peer pressure. In the context of relationships, this means that we can actively invest in our loved ones to strengthen our bonds. And in the context of finances, this means that we can refrain from spending money on unnecessary things.
A great way to examine our degree of proactivity is to look at where we focus our time and energy. Covey identifies two areas: (1) the Circle of Influence and (2) the Circle of Concern. Proactive people tend to focus their efforts on the Circle of Influence, or things that they can control. By doing so, they slowly expand their Circle of Influence, bringing more or more things under their control. In contrast, reactive people focus on the Circle of Concern, problems and circumstances over which they have no control, thereby allowing their Circles of Influence to shrink. Covey sums this habit up with the famous Alcoholics Anonymous prayer:
Lord, give me the courage to change the things which can and ought to be changed, the serenity to accept the things which cannot be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Habit 2 – Begin with the End in Mind
If the first habit is to realize that you have a choice, the second habit is to choose. Here, Covey encourages us to visualize what we’d like others to say at our funeral. How do we want our loved ones to remember us? By having a clear idea of the type of person that we want to be, we can then start to grow into that person. Covey suggests writing a personal mission statement that captures our guiding principles.
A key part of Habit 2 is to become principle centered, rather than possession centered, work centered, money centered or even family centered. By doing so, we can stay grounded as our environments change. In terms of work, this means working late because you truly care about your company rather than just to impress your boss. In terms of relationships, this means doing nice things because you care about others rather than to manipulate or expect favors in return. And in terms of finances, this means saving money for a higher cause rather than for purely selfish motives.
Habit 3 – Put First Things First
Once we’ve chosen the person that we’d like to be, we then choose the activities that’ll help us become that person. Covey illustrates four “quadrants” of to-dos that we can focus our time on: (1) important and urgent, (2) important and not urgent, (3) urgent and not important and (4) not important and not urgent. While Quadrant I (important and urgent) activities normally deserve our attention, Covey encourages us to focus on Quadrant II (important and not urgent). This means embracing activities like daily exercising, relationship building and planning. The more we focus on Quadrant II, the more effective we become and the less likely we’ll be slammed with Quadrant I.
Quadrant III and Quadrant IV, on the other hand, are areas to avoid. Quadrant III (urgent and not important) consists of activities that appear urgent based on the priorities and expectations of others. Some examples would include interruptions, unimportant phone calls and popular activities. Similarly, Quadrant IV (not urgent and not important) can best be described as a basket for busywork and time wasters.
Habit 4 – Think Win/Win
After thoroughly addressing the first three habits of independence, Covey moves on to the first habit of interdependence: thinking win/win. To be precise, Covey has six paradigms of human interaction: (1) win/win, (2) win/lose, (3) lose/win, (4) lose/lose, (5) win and (6) win/win or no deal. When asked which one is optimal, the obvious answer is win/win, but each of the other paradigms can be useful in specific situations. For example, win/lose is optimal in competitions while win is optimal in situations when there’s no contest or competition at all. The only goal then is to secure one’s own needs and leave others to secure theirs.
One common problem to the win/win paradigm is that sometimes you may think win/win when you’re actually embracing lose/win. For example, you might submit to the desires of your friend or loved one when in fact, you may resent them in the long run for giving them that win. Thus, Covey encourages us to think of alternative third options when we run into conflicts. He even suggests throwing in the option of no deal so that neither party will end up feeling like they’ve lost. For instance, if a family is unable to agree on a movie to watch, that family can agree to play a board game instead.
Habit 5 – Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
To get to win/win, we must first understand others, then allow others to understand ourselves. In other words, it’s not enough to just tell others who we are without trying to understand who they are. It’s also not enough to understand the priorities of others without allowing them to understand our own needs and wants. This concept falls in line with Covey’s emphasis on balancing consideration and courage. We need consideration to understand others; we need courage to make ourselves understood.
When communicating with others, Covey encourages emphatic listening, or listening to truly understand without pushing our own perceptions on others. By way of example, four types of ineffective listening are (1) evaluating – we either agree or disagree, (2) probing – asking questions from our own frame of reference, (3) advising – giving counsel based on our own experiences or (4) interpreting – trying to figure out and explain the motives of others based on our own motives and behavior. In contrast, effective listening allows us to truly understand, demonstrate our understanding and then present our own ideas, viewpoints and recommendations based on that deep understanding of others.
Habit 6 – Synergize
Now that we’ve started to embrace the first two habits of interdependence, Covey introduces the habit of synergy. To sum it up, synergy means 1+1=3 or more (the sum of the whole is greater than the parts). Here, Covey encourages us to value our differences with others:
The person who is truly effective has the humility and reverence to recognize his own perceptual limitations and to appreciate the rich resources available through interaction with the hearts and minds of other human beings. That person values the differences because those differences add to his knowledge, to his understanding of reality.
Habit 7 – Sharpen the Saw
As we continue to practice the first six habits of effectiveness, Covey encourages the process of “renewal” by focusing on the four dimensions of our nature: (1) physical, (2) mental, (3) social/emotional and (4) spiritual. The physical dimension involves caring for our health. The mental dimension involves studying, reading and writing to stimulate knowledge and creativity. The social/emotional dimension involves building our relationships with others. And the spiritual dimension involves achieving inner peace with our core values and principles, whether through mediation, prayer or connection with nature.
At first glance, many of Covey’s habits seem obvious, and we’ve likely heard of them at one point or another. But his detailed explanations and personal anecdotes inspire self-reflection. Personally, the book helped me realize that even though I had internalized these habits in some areas of my life, there were many other areas that needed work. In short, I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to feel and be more in control. As an extra plus, I found the book easy to read and directly applicable to my current situation of changing jobs and moving cross country.
*Note that if you buy the book from that link, I’ll get a small commission so thanks in advance!