The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
How do we define and sustain success? This was the question that drove Stephen Covey to pour over 200 years of self-help, self-improvement and popular psychology books in search of an answer.
What he found is that success is built on our character, not personality. What we are says far more than what we say or do. This ‘character-ethic’ is based on timeless principles of fairness, integrity, honesty, and human dignity. These principles form the basis for his best-selling book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which has sold over 40 million copies since its release over 30 years ago.
Covey’s thinking has certainly stood the test of time. In fact it’s more relevant than ever before, in this age where everyone wants a quick fix. Covey’s habits shift our thinking from being dependent on the world, to the independence of making our own world. From there, we can move to a state of interdependence where working together can achieve far greater results than working alone. This puts us in a better place to navigate real problems in challenging times, and also be ready to take advantage of opportunities that change creates.
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So here’s our short summary of the 7 Habits:
Habit 1: Be Proactive
Our behaviour is a function of our decisions, not our conditions. Stephen Covey
More than just taking the initiative, proactive people take responsibility for their life. Covey describes them as ‘response-able’. They don’t blame their behaviour on external factors such as the bad weather impacting their performance or attitude. They know they choose their own behaviour. Proactive people focus their efforts on the things they can change, whereas reactive people focus their efforts on the areas of their lives in which they have no control. Where reactive people are driven by feelings, proactive people are driven by values.
The language we use indicates our approach to challenges and opportunities. A reactive person uses reactive language like I can’t, I have to, if only. Whereas a proactive person uses proactive language such as I can, I will, I prefer.
Which one do you think opens up more choices and possibilities?
Habit 2: Begin With the End in Mind
Your most important work is always ahead of you, never behind you. Stephen Covey
How would you like your loved ones to remember you at your funeral? What would they say about your achievements or the difference you made in their lives? This is one of the exercises Covey suggests to get you thinking about the key values that underpin your behaviour.
Knowing what is most important to you allows you live your life with meaning and purpose. If you don’t make a conscious effort to visualise who you are and what you want in life, then you empower other people and circumstances to shape you and your life by default.
To help, Covey suggests creating your own personal mission statement which focuses on:
- What you want to be (character)
- What you want to do (contributions and achievements)
- The values upon which both of these things are based
Having a more principle-led life allows you to adopt a clearer, more objective worldview.
Habit 3: Put First Things First
Putting first things first means organising and executing around your most important priorities. It is living and being driven by the principles you value most, not by the agendas and forces surrounding you. Stephen Covey
Covey starts this chapter by asking two questions:
- What one thing could you do regularly, that you aren’t currently doing, that would improve your personal life?
- Similarly, what one thing could you do to improve your business or professional life?
Habit 3 is about life management – prioritising the things that matter most and putting them first. It builds on and brings together the strategies of Habit 1 and 2 in real action, reinforcing that everyone has the power to significantly change their lives.
As a tangible tool for sorting your priorities, Covey created the Time Quadrant, which places priorities under the headings of Urgent and Not Urgent, and Important and Not Important. To effectively manage your time, you should be focusing your efforts on the Not Urgent and Important tasks.
Habit 4: Think Win-Win
Win/win sees life as a cooperative, not a competitive arena. Stephen Covey
As the title suggests, Think Win-Win is all about working together to achieve optimal results. This can be hard for many people to grasp, as we’re brought up thinking that in order for me to win, someone needs to lose. And vice versa.
Covey’s viewpoint is that we should be focusing on cooperation; not competition. That doesn’t mean having to choose between being nice or tough. It’s striking the balance between acting with consideration and courage.
Win-win is a frame of mind that seeks out solutions between individuals and groups that everyone benefits from, and all are satisfied with the outcome. Everyone wins. To adopt this mindset, you must cultivate the habit of interpersonal leadership. This involves exercising each of the following traits when interacting with others:
- Integrity: sticking with your true feelings, values, and commitments
- Maturity: expressing your ideas and feelings with a balance of courage and consideration for others
- Abundance Mentality: believing there is plenty for all
To go for win-win, you not only have to be empathic, but you also have to be confident. You not only have to be considerate and sensitive, you also have to be brave.
If you like Stephen Covey’s thoughts and are looking for other great books to get your mind ticking, see our articles on Carol Dweck Felicity Harley, Brene Brown, Marie Forleo and our Tribe’s Top Ten must read books.
Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. Stephen Covey
We spend years learning to read, write and speak. But Covey feels like one of the most important skills – to listen – is given little attention.
Because of this, many people listen with the intent of replying, not to understand. We’ve all done this in conversation or meetings. Putting our views across and then thinking about our next point while selectively hearing what the other person is saying. And missing their meaning entirely.
Covey believes there are four levels of listening:
- Pretending to listen
- Attentive listening
- Empathic listening
Empathic listening is by far the most beneficial (but difficult) to master as it requires you to get into the frame of reference of the person speaking. It doesn’t just involve listening to their words, but looking at their body language and tone to gain an understanding of what they are truly saying.
Why this is so important is that for people to move to solutions, they need to feel you understand them. And it allows you to communicate in a way that has a greater chance of being trusted and respected as you’re speaking in the same language.
Habit 6: Synergise
Synergy is better than my way or your way. It’s our way. Stephen Covey
What is better, a champion team or a team of champions? Covey (and most people) would argue that it’s a champion team – utilising the collective efforts of everyone working together from differing points of view as opposed to a group of individuals bringing their ideas and skills in isolation.
It’s this valuing differences that drives synergy, enabling us to discover jointly things that we’re much less likely to discover by ourselves. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Covey says you know you’re in synergy with another person or group when you:
- Have a charge of heart
- Feel new energy and excitement
- See things in a new way
- Feel that the relationship has transformed
- End up with an idea or a result that is better than what either of you started with
At its core, synergy is a creative process that requires vulnerability, openness, and communication. It’s the essence of principle-centred leadership. It speaks to differences being seen as strengths, not weaknesses. By balancing the mental, emotional, and psychological difference between a group of people; growth and creativity come to the fore.
Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw
We must never become too busy sawing to take time to sharpen the saw. Stephen Covey
Taking care of yourself. This is the main message of Sharpen the Saw.
To do this, there are four areas that we need to take care of and keep in balance:
- Physical: exercise, nutrition, andrest. Caring for your body.
- Social/Emotional: meaningful human connections. Fostering a feeling of security and meaning.
- Mental: learning, reading, writing, and teaching. Expanding your mind to enhance effectiveness.
- Spiritual: art, meditation, music, time in nature, and service. Creating a closer connection to self and values.
Each one is interrelated, so by working on one it has a flow-on effect with the others. For example, improving your physical health will positively impact your mental state. And that leads you to being more open to enhancing social and spiritual aspects of your life.
As you renew yourself in the four areas, you create growth and change in your life. It also allows you to keep fresh to continue practicing the other six habits.
To mark the 30 year anniversary of the book, a special edition was released in 2020 including updated content from Stephen’s son Sean Covey, who has continued Stephen’s work since he tragically died following a bicycle accident in 2012.
You can purchase the book and Audible versions here.
Sean has also built on the themes of 7 Habits by writing versions for kids (7 Habits for Happy Kids) and teenagers (7 Habits for Highly Effective Teenagers).
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