During his 25 years of working with successful individuals in business, universities, and relationship settings, Stephen Covey discovered that high-achievers were often plagued with a sense of emptiness. In an attempt to understand why, he read several self-improvement, self-help, and popular psychology books written over the past 200 years. It was here that he noticed a stark historical contrast between two types of success.
Before the First World War, success was attributed to ethics of character. This included characteristics such as humility, fidelity, integrity, courage, and justice. However, after the war, there was a shift to what Covey refers to as the “Personality Ethic.” Here, success was attributed as a function of personality, public image, behaviors, and skills. Yet, these were just shallow, quick successes, overlooking the deeper principles of life.
Covey argues it’s your character that needs to be cultivated to achieve sustainable success, not your personality. What we are says far more than what we say or do. The “Character Ethic” is based upon a series of principles. Covey claims that these principles are self-evident and endure in most religious, social, and ethical systems. They have universal application. When you value the correct principles, you see reality as it truly is. This is the foundation of his bestselling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
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What Are the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People?
Covey’s seven habits are composed of the primary principles of character upon which happiness and success are based. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People puts forward a principle-centered approach to both personal and interpersonal effectiveness. Rather than focusing on altering the outward manifestations of your behavior and attitudes, it aims to adapt your inner core, character, and motives.
The seven habits in this book will help you move from a state of dependence, to independence, and finally to interdependence. While society and most of the self-help books on the market champion independence as the highest achievement, Covey argues that it’s interdependence that yields the greatest results.
Interdependence is a more mature, advanced concept. It precludes the knowledge that you are an independent being, but that working with others will produce greater results than working on your own. To attain this level of interdependence, you must cultivate each of the seven habits laid out in the book. The seven habits are as follows:
- Be proactive
- Begin with the end in mind
- Put first things first
- Think win/win
- Seek to understand first, before making yourself understood
- Learn to synergize
- Sharpen the saw
This 7 Habits of Highly Effective People book summary will look at each of these habits and show you how to put them into action to become more successful in whatever you want to achieve.
Habit 1: Be Proactive
The first and most fundamental habit of an effective person is to be proactive. More than just taking the initiative, being proactive means taking responsibility for your life. Consequently, you don’t blame your behavior on external factors such as circumstances, but own it as part of a conscious choice based on your values. Where reactive people are driven by feelings, proactive people are driven by values.
While external factors have the ability to cause pain, your inner character doesn’t need to be damaged. What matters most is how you respond to these experiences. Proactive individuals 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. They amass negative energy by blaming external factors for their feelings of victimization. This, in turn, empowers other forces to perpetually control them.
The clearest manifestation of proactivity can be seen in your ability to stick to the commitments you make to yourself and to others. This includes a commitment to self-improvement and, by extension, personal growth. By setting small goals and sticking to them, you gradually increase your integrity, which increases your ability to take responsibility for your life. Covey suggests undertaking a 30-day proactivity test in which you make a series of small commitments and stick to them. Observe how this changes your sense of self.
Habit 2: Begin With the End in Mind
To better understand this habit, Covey invites you to imagine your funeral. He asks you to think how you would like your loved ones to remember you, what you would like them to acknowledge as your achievements, and to consider what a difference you made in their lives. Engaging in this thought experiment helps you identify some of your key values that should underpin your behavior.
Accordingly, each day of your life should contribute to the vision you have for your life as a whole. Knowing what is important to you means you can live your life in service of what matters most. Habit two involves identifying old scripts that are taking you away from what matters most, and writing new ones that are congruent with your deepest values. This means that, when challenges arise, you can meet them proactively and with integrity, as your values are clear.
Covey states that the most effective way to begin with the end in mind is to create a personal mission statement. It should focus on the following:
- What you want to be (character)
- What you want to do (contributions and achievements)
- The values upon which both of these things are based
In time, your mission statement will become your personal constitution. It becomes the basis from which you make every decision in your life. By making principles the center of your life, you create a solid foundation from which to flourish. This is similar to the philosophy Ray Dalio presents in his book, Principles. As principles aren’t contingent on external factors, they don’t waver. They give you something to hold on to when times get tough. With a principle-led life, you can adopt a clearer, more objective worldview.
Habit 3: Put First Things First
To begin this chapter, Covey asks you to answer the following 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?
Whereas habit one encourages you to realize you are in charge of your own life, and habit two is based on the ability to visualize and to identify your key values, habit three is the implementation of these two habits. It focuses on the practice of effective self-management through independent will. By asking yourself the above questions, you become aware that you have the power to significantly change your life in the present.
Thus, having an independent will means you are capable of making decisions and acting on them. How frequently you use your independent will is dependent on your integrity. Your integrity is synonymous with how much you value yourself and how well you keep your commitments. Habit three concerns itself with prioritizing these commitments and putting the most important things first. This means cultivating the ability to say no to things that don’t match your guiding principles. To manage your time effectively in accordance with habit three, your actions must adhere to the following:
- They must be principle-centered.
- They must be conscience-directed, meaning that they give you the opportunity to organize your life in accordance with your core values.
- They define your key mission, which includes your values and long-term goals.
- They give balance to your life.
- They are organized weekly, with daily adaptations as needed.
The thread that ties all five of these points together is that the focus is on improving relationships and results, not on maximizing your time. This shares sentiments with Tim Ferris who, in The 4-Hour Work Week, argues that time management is a deeply flawed concept.
Habit 4: Think Win/Win
Covey argues that win/win isn’t a technique, it’s a philosophy of human interaction. It’s a frame of mind that seeks out a mutual benefit for all concerned. This means that all agreements or solutions are mutually beneficial, and all parties feel satisfied with the outcome. To embody this mindset, life must be seen as a cooperative, not a competition. Consequently, anything less than a win/win outcome goes against the pursuit of interdependence, which is the most efficient state to be operating within.
Therefore, to adopt a win/win mindset, you must cultivate the habit of interpersonal leadership. This involves exercising each of the following traits when interacting with others:
- Independent will
To be an effective win/win leader, Covey argues that you must embrace five independent dimensions:
- Character: This is the foundation upon which a win/win mentality is created, and it means acting with integrity, maturity, and an “abundance mentality” (i.e., there is plenty of everything for everyone, one person’s success doesn’t threaten your success).
- Relationships: Trust is essential to achieving win/win agreements. You must nourish your relationships to maintain a high level of trust.
- Agreements: This means that the parties involved must agree on the desired results, guidelines, resources, accountability, and the consequences.
- Win/win performance agreements and supportive systems: Creating a standardized, agreed-upon set of desired results to measure performance within a system that can support a win/win mindset.
- Processes: All processes must allow for win/win solutions to arise.
Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
If you want to improve your interpersonal relations, Covey argues that you must endeavor to understand a situation before attempting to make yourself understood. The ability to communicate clearly is essential for your overall effectiveness, as it’s the most important skill you can train. While you spend years learning to read, write, and speak, Covey states that little focus is given to training the skill of listening.
If your principles are solid, you’ll naturally want to engage and listen to people without making them feel manipulated. Consequently, it’s through your character that you transmit and communicate what type of a person you are. Through it, people will come to instinctively trust and open up to you. While most people listen with the intent of replying, the proficient listener will listen with the intent to understand. This is known as the skill of empathic listening.
An empathic listener can get into the frame of reference of the person speaking. By doing so, they see the world as they do and feel things the way they feel. Empathic listening, therefore, allows you to get a clearer picture of reality. When you begin to listen to people with the intent of understanding them, you’ll be astounded at how quickly they will open up.
Once you think you’ve understood the situation, the next step is to make yourself understood. This requires courage. By using what you’ve learned from empathic listening, you can communicate your ideas in accordance with your listener’s paradigms and concerns. This increases the credibility of your ideas, as you will be speaking in the same language as your audience.
Habit 6: Synergize
When synergy is operating at its fullest, it incorporates the desire to reach win/win agreements with empathic communication. It’s the essence of principle-centered leadership. It unifies and unleashes great power from people, as it’s based on the tenant that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The real challenge is to apply principles of synergetic creative cooperation into your social interactions. Covey argues that such instances of synergetic interpersonal group collaboration are often neglected but should be part of your daily life.
At its core, synergy is a creative process that requires vulnerability, openness, and communication. It means balancing the mental, emotional, and psychological differences between a group of people and, in doing so, creating new paradigms of thought between the group members. This is where creativity is maximized. Synergy is effectiveness as an interdependent reality. This involves teamwork, team building, and the creation of unity with other human beings.
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Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw
This seventh habit is all about enhancing yourself through the four dimensions of renewal:
- Physical: Exercise, nutrition, and stress management. This means caring for your physical body, eating right, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly.
- Social/emotional: Service, empathy, synergy, and intrinsic security. This provides you with a feeling of security and meaning.
- Spiritual: Value clarification and commitment, study, and meditation. In focusing on this area of your life, you get closer to your center and your inner value system.
- Mental: Reading, visualizing, planning, and writing. To continually educate yourself means expanding your mind. This is essential for effectiveness.
To “sharpen the saw” means to express and exercise all four of these motivations regularly and consistently. This is the most important investment you can make in your life, as you are the instrument of your performance. It’s essential to tend to each area with balance, as to overindulge in one area means to neglect another.
However, a positive effect of sharpening your saw in one dimension is that it has a knock-on positive effect in another, due to them being interrelated. For instance, by focusing on your physical health, you inadvertently improve your mental health, too. This, in turn, creates an upward spiral of growth and change that helps you to become increasingly self-aware. Moving up the spiral means you must learn, commit, and do increasingly more as you move upwards and progressively become a more efficient individual.
You can buy The 7 Habits of Effective People by Stephen R. Covey on Amazon.