I’d heard a lot of good things about Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. And when I finally found the time to read the book, it occurred to me that not only is this a valuable asset to anybody’s personal growth — it has the potential to be a workplace mantra.
The first thing to say about this book is that, to apply the advice that it gives you, you have to be prepared for your current perception of the world to be challenged. In life and work, we often look for quick fixes to issues that we’re neglecting. But as Covey writes, “the way we see the problem is the problem.” Growing both personally and professionally requires us to stop seeing everything from our own frame of reference. And this takes courage.
By proposing seven habits, which take us from dependence, to independence, and ultimately to growth, Covey’s book sheds light on the attitudes we need to encourage in order to create more successful people.
I’ll certainly be adding this book to our company’s reading list. And while I would strongly recommend to everybody that they read it from cover to cover, I understand that many of you might feel that you don’t have the time.
So to help as many people as possible to benefit from the advice that this book gives, I wanted to share a summary that you can get through in 5 to 10 minutes.
Habit #1: Be Proactive
I love that this habit comes first, because it’s all about taking initiative. In my 15+ years in business, It’s always been clear to me that the most successful people are the ones who want to keep moving and don’t wait for others to make decisions for them.
The discussion here is about what makes a person proactive. They need to have an internal locus of control; an understanding that they have the power to create outcomes. Reactive people, on the other hand, exhibit the attitude that life just happens to them, and they have no control over it.
Covey writes that we have a circle of influence (things that we have control over) and a circle of concern (things that we don’t). If we want to be proactive, we need to donate positive energy to the things in our circle of influence, instead of dwelling on things that we can’t change and are upset about.
The first step to adopting this habit is to change the language we use. Instead of talking about what people have said or done to us, we should start talking about the action we will choose to take.
Habit #2: Begin with the End in Mind
Covey stresses the importance of having a clear vision of where we want to take ourselves. Without this, we get caught up in the never-ending chaos of everyday life and struggle to make any real progress.
Reading about this habit made me realise how easy it is to make ourselves busy without actually accomplishing anything. People spend years chasing things that lie in their path, such as promotions and raises, without considering whether or not the path they’re on is the right one.
And we can only know what is the right path by understanding our personal values. This self-awareness allows us to do what’s actually best for ourselves instead of following what others have laid out for us. Covey calls it “rescripting” — recognizing ineffective scripts that have been written for you, and rewriting them with ones that reflect your own values.
What can you do to get the ball rolling here? Try thinking about your own funeral. What would people say about how you lived your life? Consider how your priorities would change if you had only 30 more days to live, and start living by these priorities.
Habit #3: Put First Things First
The second habit leads perfectly into the third. Because once you’ve established what you stand for and what’s actually important, executing on your vision is about prioritizing your time.
Prioritizing in such a way that helps you to reach your goals often means having the willpower to do something when we don’t want to do it. We should act according to our values, not our impulses and temptations at any given moment.
To illustrate this, Covey presents the classic comparison of urgent vs. important. By spending all of our time doing what’s urgent, we end up never doing what’s important. So a critical element of putting first things first is having the courage to say “no” to things, even if they seem urgent.
Thinking about what I’ve experienced throughout my life, doing what’s important often resolves the recurring urgent issues that threaten to monopolize your time. Thinking ahead in this way is the only way you can keep moving forward in the long run. Otherwise you’re just putting out fires.
Habit #4: Think Win-Win
In this next part of the book, Covey talks more about collaboration than self-awareness. Because, although we need to develop our independence, effective teamwork and communication is essential in reaching our goals too.
Thinking “win-win” means always seeking an outcome in which everybody stands to gain. This requires both the courage to stand up for yourself, and the considering needed to secure a positive outcome for somebody else.
Although this might seem like a no-brainer, a lot of people struggle with it because of fear. If you’re worried that someone else’s success will always be at the expense of yours, then you are more likely to make decisions driven only by self-interest. People who adopt an abundance mentality — believing that there’s enough success to go around — tend to make better decisions.
Securing a win-win outcome isn’t always easy. But a good first step is to consider what another person is looking for when you’re trying to reach an agreement or solution. Then try to meet their needs while still reaching an outcome that works for you. This will help you in all areas of life, from negotiations to personal relationships.
Habit #5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
“You’ve spent years of your life learning how to read and write, years learning how to speak. But what about listening?”
In this chapter, Covey writes about how people are often eager to give advice without fully understanding a situation. And rushing to offer a solution without understanding the problem is a dangerous mistake that I’ve seen many times during my time in business.
Empathy is a crucially important leadership skill, and it starts with taking the time to listen. And listening properly means first detaching ourselves from our own preconceptions. Covey argues that without doing this, we respond in one of these 4 ways:
- We evaluate. This means agreeing or disagreeing with what’s being said.
- We probe. We ask questions from our own frame of reference.
- We advise. This is when we give counsel based on our own experiences.
- We interpret. This means trying to figure out the person’s motives from their own behaviour.
Instead of doing this, if we practice empathic listening we spare ourselves of the time it takes to back up and correct misunderstandings.
Habit #6: Synergize
The next level after understanding another person’s perspective is to create synergy with them. Synergy means combining with somebody else in such a way that the outcome exceeds what would be possible from both parties working individually.
The beauty of this book is how each habit seems a natural progression from the last. And establishing synergy appears to be a culmination of all of the habits discussed up to this point. Now that we understand the people we’re dealing with, and we know how to create win-win situations, we can use this to open doors and create excellent opportunities.
Covey stresses that the real essence of synergy is in valuing people’s differences. It’s an acknowledgement that if two people have the same perspective, then one of them is unnecessary. Embracing other people’s perspectives allows us to expand our own and achieve greater things.
So to help you establish synergy, try to see the positive in other people. Think even about somebody who irritates you, and try to put yourself in their shoes for a moment.
Habit #7: Sharpen the Saw
The final habit discussed by Covey is all about looking after ourselves to ensure that we are in fit shape to achieve our goals.
He encourages devoting time to the following of life’s dimensions:
- The physical dimension. We must eat well, rest and get sufficient exercise so that we can enhance our capacity to work, adapt and enjoy life.
- The spiritual dimension. Spending time in nature and appreciating music or art can help us to realign with our personal values.
- The mental dimension. Accumulating knowledge, feeding our intellect and reading things that expand our consciousness keep us mentally sharp.
- The social or emotional dimension. Being considerate and trying to understand people deeply improves the quality of our relationships.
Taking care of these elements of our lives allows us to renew and find the energy that we need to succeed.
A book that’s useful to all of us
In conclusion, The 7 Habits of Highly-Effective People is a fantastic set of guidelines for becoming a better person and a more valuable contributor to the lives of the people around you.
The encouraging thing about this book is that, while it might lead you to identify a lot of areas in which you can improve yourself, it also makes you realise that improving yourself can happen one bit at a time. Each habit flows into the next, and adopting each habit seems to make it a little easier to take on the others.
If this book inspired you in other ways than those I’ve mentioned here, I’d love you to share it with me.