The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey

Before reading The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, I thought of it as the canonical cliché self-help book. But as the saying goes, clichés become clichés because they’re true. The book’s insightfulness surprised me, and I found many of its ideas useful in my everyday life.

The book is goofily over the top in its business-speak of “win/win,” “synergy,” and “paradigm shifts.” When I first brought the book home, my girlfriend rolled her eyes hard when the random page she flipped to began with the passage, “When properly understood, synergy is the highest activity in all life…”

It’s also clear to me why the book is a classic. Throughout the book, I experienced several — I’ll say it — paradigm shifts, where Covey introduced a simple idea that genuinely changed my perspective.

One example was his idea of the circle of influence vs. the circle of concern. The circle of concern includes all things you care about, whether or not you affect them. So the national debt and your diet are both in your circle of concern even though you only control the latter. The circle of influence is the subset of those things where you can make a difference. I find myself thinking about that often now, most recently when I was deciding whether to argue with one of my Facebook friends about a conspiracy theory she’s promoting. There were several similar ideas in the book that I’ve found helpful for prioritizing my activities and managing work/life balance.

What I Liked 🔗︎

  • The author genuinely finds human behavior delightful and fascinating, and his writing shows it.
  • Lots of useful takeaways that I’ve been applying in my life.
  • It’s genuinely funny and moving in parts.
    • He draws many stories from experiences with his family, and one of them made me tear up, while others made me laugh out loud.

What I Disliked 🔗︎

  • Certain topics could have been explained better.
    • e.g., the terms “character ethic” and “personality ethic” sound similar to me, but Covey uses them to represent opposite ideas.
  • Some chapters didn’t connect with me at all.
  • It comes across a little tone-deaf in that the author seems to imply that unsuccessful people would be successful if they simply practiced better habits.

Key Takeaways 🔗︎

Character ethic vs. personality ethic 🔗︎

  • The first 150 years of American literature on success focuses on principles, values, and how to deeply examine oneself to live with integrity.
  • After World War I, there’s a shift toward short-term, superficial techniques to achieve success.
  • “Character ethic”: people can only experience true success and sustainable happiness if they learn principles of effective living and consciously align their lives with those principles.
  • “Personality ethic”: people can achieve success through short-term, superficial techniques like smiling more or reminding themselves of motivational catchphrases (e.g., “your attitude determines your altitude”).
I wonder if this is a critique of How to Win Friends and Influence People, which came out around the time Covey claims this shift occurred.
  • Personality ethic strategies are sometimes beneficial, but they’re secondary.
    • Character ethic is foundational to success. Personality ethic techniques can only follow character ethic techniques.
  • Seven Habits of Highly Effective People focuses on character ethic, a principle-oriented approach to personal growth.

Maturity continuum 🔗︎

  • The habits in this book move a person progressively through a maturity continuum:
    1. Dependence: You need others to sustain you and help you achieve your goals.
    2. Independence: You’ve achieved enough competence that you’re self-reliant.
    3. Interdependence: You find opportunities to work with others to achieve greater things than you can achieve separately.
  • Americans tend to overemphasize independence and undervalue interdepence.

Production vs. production capability 🔗︎

  • In Aesop’s fable, “The Goose & the Golden Egg,” a man discovers a goose that lays one golden egg per day. He kills the goose in hopes of collecting the eggs all at once, but finds no eggs inside and loses his source of golden eggs.
  • The story reveals a general lesson about managing resources and relationships.
  • You must manage both production and production capability.
    • If you maximize production (slaughter the goose), you destroy production capability (get no more eggs).
    • If you maximize production capability (dote on the goose and ignore the eggs), you exhaust yourself (without selling eggs, you run out of food and money).
  • Production vs. production capability examples
    • Physical (lawnmower)
      • If you keep using a lawnmower and ignore maintenance tasks, the engine and blades will degrade beyond repair. If you maintain it regularly, it will continue functioning much longer.
    • Financial
      • Withdrawing money from an investment reduces the returns it generates.
      • If you fail to advance your career, you get stuck in a dead-end job.
    • Personal
      • It’s easy to focus on the fun, easy parts of a romantic relationship while neglecting the difficult work of maintaining it (i.e., taking your partner for granted).
      • It’s easy to coddle your children and never invest time in helping them become independent.

Habit 1: Be Proactive 🔗︎

  • Most theories of behavior assume a direct relationship between stimulus and response.
    • e.g., your genes give you your temper, your upbringing gave you neuroses
  • Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist tortured in Nazi concentration camps.
    • He discovered “the last of the human freedoms” that Nazis couldn’t take away: his response.
    • Frankl could decide how he would allow the torture to affect him.

Proactive vs. reactive 🔗︎

  • Proactivity means taking responsibility for one’s behavior regardless of circumstances.
  • “Reactive” people let their circumstances determine their feelings.
    • e.g., when the weather is gloomy, they feel sad.
    • “proactive people can carry their own weather with them”
  • People achieve professional success by identifying problems and taking the initiative to solve them.
    • Proactive: Identifies a business problem and creates a presentation pitching a proposal to solve it.
    • Reactive: Waits for someone to teach them how to make a presentation or solve the problem.

Reactive vs. proactive language 🔗︎

  • The language we use reflects the degree to which we think about things in proactive terms.
  • We often say, “I have to do X” when we’re actually choosing to do X.
Reactive languageProactive language
There’s nothing I can do.Let’s look at our alternatives.
That’s just the way I am.I can choose a different approach.
He makes me so mad.I control my own feelings.
They won’t allow that.I can create an effective presentation.
I have to do that.I will choose an appropriate response.
I can’t.I choose.
I must.I prefer.
If only.I will.

Circle of influence vs. circle of concern 🔗︎

  • Circle of concern: the set of all things in the world that occupy your thoughts, whether or not you can change them.
  • Circle of influence: the subset of items in your circle of your concern over which you can have an actual impact.

Circle of Concern contains everything you think about. Circle of Influence contains the subset of those things that you can impact.

  • Proactive people focus their energy on their circle of influence.
    • They care most about things they can change, and doing so expands the set of things they influence.
  • Reactive people focus their energy on issues outside their circle of influence.
    • This leads them to focus on the faults of others or in their environment and fosters a victimhood mentality.
    • This contracts their circle of influence.

Types of problems 🔗︎

Three main types of problems:

  1. Direct control: problems we solve by managing our own behavior (e.g., exercise more, quit smoking)
  2. Indirect control: problems whose solutions require influencing other people’s behavior.
  3. No control: we can’t change the situation at all.
  • We can address (2) by strengthening our communication skills and learning new ways to influence people.
  • We can address (3) by choosing a response that allows us to live peacefully with the situation.

Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind 🔗︎

Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things.

-Peter Drucker, the “founder of modern management”

  • Good leadership requires you to know what you’re trying to accomplish.
  • Good management is useless without good leadership.
  • You must decide what your “center” is.
    • Your “center” determines how you judge all situations and make decisions.
    • If your center is something external like your marriage or your job, you’ll make poor decisions.
      • e.g., if your center is your family, you’ll be hopelessly distraught when your children go through phases of resenting you.
  • You should be principle-centered because principles can’t change out from under you the way a job or money can.
    • Example: You have tickets to take your spouse to a concert, but just before you leave, your boss asks you to work late to prepare for an important meeting.
      • If your center is your spouse or your family, you decline the request but may resent your spouse for limiting your career.
      • If your center is money, you ditch your spouse to advance your career, potentially harming your marriage.
      • If you’re principle-centered, you evaluate your values and make a decision that best serves them.

I either didn’t understand this part, or it’s really stupid.

What Covey describes as “principle-centered” decision-making sounds to me like the normal way that everyone makes decisions: weighing competing interests.

Even if you have crystal clear principles, the concert example is still a difficult decision because it requires you to predict outcomes with limited information. Will your spouse’s disappointment create a rift that ultimately leads to divorce? Will your boss pass you over for a promotion?

  • Covey recommends drafting a personal mission statement and updating it regularly.
    • He recommends that families collaboratively draft a family mission statement and update it regularly.
    • For an organizational/business mission statement to be effective, every member of the organization should have a voice in shaping it.

Habit 3: Put First Things First 🔗︎

Question 1: What is one thing could you do (you aren’t doing now) that if you did on a regular basis would make a tremendous positive difference in your personal life? Question 2: What one thing in your business or professional life would bring similar results?

  • To decide what “first things” are, you need leadership.
    • You then need good management skills to prioritize those things so they happen first and consistently.

The successful person has the habit of doing the things failures don’t like to do. They don’t like doing them either necessarily. But their disliking is subordinated to the strength of their purpose.

Albert E.N. Gray, The Common Denominator of Success

  • The most extreme approaches to time management require you to schedule every moment of your day.
    • Most people dislike having their day overly scheduled because it feels restrictive and leaves too little space for spontaneity.
  • The proper way to approach time management is to focus on relationships and results rather than on things and time.

Time management matrix 🔗︎

Not Urgent
  • Crises
  • Pressing problems
  • Deadline-driven projects

Quadrant I

  • Prevention, production capability activities
  • Relationship building
  • Recognizing new opportunities
  • Planning, recreation

Quadrant II

Not Important
  • Interruptions, some calls
  • Some mail, some reports
  • Some meetings
  • Proximate, pressing matters
  • Popular activities
  • Quadrant III

  • Trivia, busywork
  • Some mail
  • Some phone calls
  • Time wasters
  • Pleasant activities

Quadrant IV

  • If we don’t take the time to figure out what’s important, we default to doing what’s urgent.
  • People who focus their time on Quadrant I just learn to manage crisis after crisis.
  • People often spend time in Quadrant III thinking they’re in Quadrant I because they neglect to think critically about what’s important.
  • Effective people:
    • Minimize time in Quadrants III and IV.
    • Spend time in Quadrant II to minimize their time in Quadrant I.
  • The questions from the beginning of this section are meant to elicit Quadrant II activities that we’re starving because they’re non-urgent.
  • To ensure you reserve time for Quadrant II activities, you must decline commitments that are not aligned with your goals.
    • Many people take on extra commitments to be polite, but they don’t reserve enough time to proactively handle important things.
    • This is the same thing Cal Newport encourages in Deep Work.

Managing time with people 🔗︎

  • You can’t think “efficiency” with people.
    • You can’t accurately predict how long it will take to have an important conversation with someone close to you.
    • If it takes longer to have an important conversation than you expected, you’ll feel resentful that they’re throwing off your schedule.

…you simply can’t think efficiency with people. You think effectiveness with people and efficiency with things.

  • People are more important than things.
  • The relationship where you should care most about effectiveness is with yourself.
  • It can be frustrating when relationship complications throw off your schedule, but in those instances, take a step back to recognize that if maintaining the relationship is in line with your goals, you can afford to adapt and be flexible.

Effective delegation 🔗︎

  • Delegation is the most effective way to increase your results.
  • An individual producer can create one hour’s worth of output for every hour of work.
  • An effective manager can produce 10-100 hours’ worth of results for one hour of work.
Gofer delegation vs. stewardship delegation 🔗︎
  • Gofer delegation
    • Manager tells underling, “go for this, go for that, do this, tell me when it’s done.”
    • aka “micromanaging”
  • Stewardship delegation
    • Focuses on results rather than methods.
      • The subordinate is free to choose any method that achieves the desired results.
  • Stewardship delegation requires mutual understanding across five dimensions:
    • Desired results: Focus on the “what” and not the “how.”
    • Guidelines: Identify restrictions or pitfalls.
      • Focus on what not to do, not on required methods.
      • Share any lessons you’ve learned from failure.
    • Resources: Human, financial, technical, or organizational resources the person can use to accomplish the task.
    • Accountability: Identify the criteria by which they’ll be evaluated and when evaluation will happen.
    • Consequences: Identify what happens as a result of evaluation, both good and bad.
  • Stewardship delegation occurs between employers and employees but also between parents and children.

Emotional bank account 🔗︎

  • Relationships with others have an implicit “emotional bank account.”
  • The emotional bank account grows through kindness, courtesy, and a track record of delivering on commitments.
  • Discourtesy, disrespect, and lies drain an emotional bank account.
  • An emotional bank account with a high balance results in easy communication because there’s high trust.
    • Mistakes are not a big deal because there’s so much accumulated goodwill.
  • When the bank balance is low or overdrawn, communication is difficult and tense.
  • Relationships, especially family relationships, require continual deposits.
  • Major types of deposits
    1. Understand the individual: e.g., getting into baseball because your son loves baseball
    2. Attending to the little things
    3. Keeping commitments
    4. Clarifying expectations
    5. Showing personal integrity
    6. Apologizing sincerely when you make a withdrawal

Habit 4: Think Win/Win 🔗︎

This chapter is exactly what the title sounds like. I didn’t have any useful takeaways here.

Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood 🔗︎

  • Rather than listen empathically, most people listen with the goal of formulating a response.
  • Empathic listening is a good way to build an emotional bank account with someone.
  • Instead of replying to tell someone your own story, show empathy by describing the speaker’s feelings.
    • This is different than “active listening,” where the listener mirrors speech in a shallow way.
  • When you understand the other person’s needs, you can make compelling arguments for change by connecting your proposal to their needs.
This section aligns well with much of the discussion in Nonviolent Communication.

Habit 6: Synergize 🔗︎

  • Synergy requires people to value and respect differences among those with whom they collaborate.
    • Synergy builds on strengths and compensates for weaknesses.
  • Synergistic communication requires high trust and openness.
  • When someone disagrees with you, it’s an opportunity to say, “Good! You see it differently.”
    • You can work to understand their perspective before trying to convince them of yours.

Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw 🔗︎

Suppose you were to come upon someone in the woods working feverishly to saw down a tree.

“What are you doing?” you ask.

“Can’t you see?” comes the impatient reply. “I’m sawing down this tree.”

“You look exhausted!” you exclaim. “How long have you been at it?”

“Over five hours,” he returns, “and I’m beat! This is hard work.”

‘Well, why don’t you take a break for a few minutes and sharpen that saw?" you inquire. “I’m sure it would go a lot faster.”

“I don’t have time to sharpen the saw,” the man says emphatically. “I’m too busy sawing!”

  • “Sharpening the saw” is about finding ways to improve efficiency for common or high-impact tasks.
  • Physical: eating the right foods, exercising
    • “If it’s raining on the morning you’re scheduled to jog, do it anyway. ‘Oh good! It’s raining! I get to develop my willpower as well as my body!’”
  • Spiritual: Meditation, great literature, music
  • Mental: Learning new subjects, limiting TV consumption
  • Social: Investing in personal relationships