Book Review: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey

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In a nutshell: Real effectiveness comes from clarity about your principles, value and vision. Change is only real if it has been habitual.

Stephen R. Covey’s book is one of the phenomena of modern personal development writing. It has sold a million copies a year since its release in 1989, has been translated into 32 languages, and forms the intellectual basis of a large corporation.7habits 4

Covey drew a distinction between what he termed the “personality ethic” (the quick-fix solutions and human relations techniques that has pervaded much of 20th century self-help writing) and the “character ethic”, which revolved around unchanging personal principles.

Covey believed outward success was not success at all if it was not the manifestation of inner mastery. In his terminology, “private victory” much precede “public victory”. It is a business plan for personal life.

The book is a compelling read, both as a self-help book and as a leadership/management manual. This book has become regarded as a classic of business thinking.

Habit 1: Be Proactive

Principles of Personal Vision

In everyone’s life, there are a multitude of events that occur every day. Out of all of these events, there’s only a subset that are actually of concern to us – the rest really don’t matter (think of things like the neighbour playing catch with his son and the ball bouncing into your back garden that you notice out the front door – an event that really doesn’t matter to you). Within that set of events that are of concern is a smaller set that you actually can do anything about, your sphere of influence, so to speak. Now, where is your focus? Is it on those events that you can do something about, or on the ones that are out of your control?

The idea is don’t spend your time focusing on events that you can’t control; instead, focus on what you can control. Let’s say, for example, that you’re waiting for a very important phone call. Some people stress out waiting for the call – that’s a bad habit because you can’t control when the phone call comes. On the other hand, others simply spend their time focusing on the things they can control – the phone call will eventually come, right?

How can you achieve that? Spend a day counting the number of times you spend focusing on stuff you can’t alter the outcome of. Do you daydream about unachievable things? Do you worry about stuff you can’t affect? Cast those efforts aside and spend your time on things that you can affect.

Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind

Principles of Personal Leadership

This chapter starts out literally at the end: imagine your funeral and what others there are saying and thinking about you. What do you want them to say? The things that you want them to say are the real core values that you care about the most, and thus they should be the ones that you focus your life’s work on, both personally and professionally.

This leads to something that I consider really worthwhile: writing your personal mission statement. Can you really codify in a few sentences what your mission in life is? It seems trite, but it’s truly effective if you really spend the time to work out what it really means and actually state it in words – in writing.

The chapter goes through several exercises for teasing out the meaning, but it really all comes back to that funeral scene at the beginning. What will your family say at your funeral? What will your co-workers say? What about your friends? What about people in the community? What do you want them to say about you? That’s your mission.

Habit 3: Put First Things First

Principles of Personal Management

Most things that we do each day can be divided up in two different ways: they’re either urgent or not urgent, and they’re either important or not important. Obviously, in our lives, we wish for the things we do to be important, but we’d also like for them not to be urgent, because urgent things cause stress. So, ideally, an effective person focuses on things that are important but not urgent.

Covey goes a long way with this central idea here, pointing out that we should strive to do this in all aspects of our life, no matter which hat we’re wearing at the moment: worker, parent, spouse, volunteer, and so on. Then, within each of those roles, one should define specific goals that they wish to accomplish, important short term ones. For example, in my role as a parent, I might have a goal of taking my son to the park this week for two hours.

Once you’ve defined a couple of goals for the upcoming week for each of your roles, literally schedule them in. Add these things to your schedule and don’t let anything interfere with them. Because these items are not urgent, you have some flexibility on when to do them, but because they’re important, you must schedule them and keep it on the schedule. He even gives a sample weekly planner page to make this easier. I think this is a fantastic idea and I’m using it to a degree with my 101 goals in 1001 days project.

Habit 4: Think Win/Win

Principles of Interpersonal Leadership

Yes, the whole “win/win” business-speak came from this chapter, but that doesn’t mean the idea is bad or flawed. Instead, take it as a fundamental way to see all interpersonal relationships. Is there a way where you both can come out ahead at the end of an interaction? If there is, that’s usually the best road to take, and that’s the real value of the whole “win/win” thing.

I tried some of the exercises from this chapter, and the one that really stood out to me was to think about a relationship in my life that wasn’t in a “win/win” state. I wrote down every notable aspect of the situation from my perspective, then tried to do the same from his perspective. Doing that brought me fairly close to seeing a win/win solution, so I went and had a talk with him, and things were quickly repaired. It really does work.

Habit 5: Seek First To Understand, Then Be Understood

Principles of Empathic Communication

This is probably the habit I’m worst at because I often fill in the blanks unnecessarily when talking with people, which is an incredible no-no. Instead, an effective communicator really tries to understand as much information as possible about the situation before providing a solution.

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Covey offers a great example of this in the middle part of the chapter, when he outlines a discussion with a teenage boy that goes terribly. The problem is that they’re speaking to two completely different things: the boy is having difficulty expressing his problem, while the parent is already trying to guess at the solution.

What can be learned? Don’t stab at solutions until the full story is told. If someone comes to you with a situation, hear them out; often it requires the full story and some questions before the correct plan of action is revealed. This means listening and attempting to see the situation from the speaker’s perspective, not just your own.

Habit 6: Synergize

Principles of Creative Cooperation

Although I expected this chapter to be similar to the buzz-speak of the fourth habit, this one actually turned out to be much more worthwhile, because it’s about dealing with the people that tick you off and turning that into something beneficial.

I’m as guilty of it as anyone else: I simply fail to get along well with some people, even people that I ought to get along with for the benefit of both of us. The real key to doing it is to identify what exactly about that person makes them beneficial, and also the specific traits about them that cause you not to like them. Once those are clear, how can those traits be used all together, perhaps along with your own, to make the situation better?

Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw

Principles of Balanced Self-Renewal

This final habit focuses on the need to do things that renew you in several different ways: physical, mental, spiritual, and social/emotional. Quite often, we get so caught up in the day-in and day-out business of life that we rarely step back and spend any time focusing on taking care of ourselves.

Covey ties this in with the third habit and encourages the reader to identify ways to really renew oneself in each of those areas, then literally schedule it in and stick to it, because it’s important but not necessarily urgent. For example, if the physical nature of things is what’s dragging you down (some extra weight, or a general malaise), schedule time to get some exercise two or three times a week and stick with it. If you’re feeling mentally drained, schedule a period of time to relax and let your mind float onto something outside of your normal thoughts (like a book or a movie) or even just meditate. And so forth.

When I was growing up, my family used to devote Sunday afternoons to such tasks. Everyone would take two hours to do something mentally invigorating, like reading a book or doing a puzzle, then everyone would spend two hours doing something physically invigorating, like doing some gardening or going for a walk. It wasn’t as formal as that description, but every Sunday afternoon, it was part of the routine, and it’s something I look back on with fondness as it really helped me recharge and shape my life.

Final Thoughts

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is more philosophical in nature than many I have read. It’s not full of action points you can immediately implement like many other books are; instead, it’s intended to provide a framework of reflection on your greater life from the personal to the professional. If that appeals to you, then you’ll like this book; if not, then you won’t.

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Because of the philosophical nature of the book and the very wide focus, 7 Habits is going to appeal in vastly different ways to different people. There isn’t a universal take-home message here; it really depends on the reality of your own life and where you’re at. Even re-reading it again at a different point in life is going to result in a vastly different interpretation of the materials within the covers.

What are your thoughts on The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People? Leave a comment below!

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