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

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Arguably the best self-help book I’ve ever read, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a manifesto on how to live a truly meaningful, effective, and fulfilling life.

Every year, dozens (if not hundreds) of really good books about how to build a better life come out into the world. Some of these books are more than good – they’re outstanding! And while I do keep my eyes and ears open for what’s new in this literary space, I like to pay particular attention to the truly special masterpieces that have stood the test of time. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is one of those masterpieces.

Who was Dr. Stephen R. Covey?

Dr. Covey was an internationally-renowned teacher, speaker, consultant and author who taught concepts of effective business and living all over the world. A highly-educated man, he earned an MBA from Harvard, and a Doctorate in Religious Education from Brigham Young University. He put the Covey name into FranklinCovey, a publicly-traded company which specializes in helping organizations foster significant changes in culture and human behaviour. Stephen R. Covey died after experiencing a bike accident in 2012, at the age of 79. 🙁

What did The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People teach?

The book focuses on seven main “habits” or behaviour patterns, with six of them split into two main categories.

The first three habits, “Be Proactive, Begin with the End in Mind, and Put First Things First,” fall into the category of “Private Victory,” which will be discussed later. Habits four through six, respectively titled “Think Win-Win, Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood, and Synergize,” made up the components of what he called “Public Victory.”

The seventh habit, called as “Sharpen the Saw,” is a lesson on the importance of doing regular renewal work. It talks about the need for all of us to do enough self-care, so that we’re able to consistently function and perform at high levels. In Covey’s model, “Sharpen the Saw” encircled the other six habits. Without our basic ability to live a healthy life, all of the other habits are useless to us.

Returning to the concept of private versus public victory, Covey explained that before a person could lead an outwardly successful life, they would first need to lead an internally successful one. He emphasized that we must first win the battles taking place inside of us (against procrastination, distraction, lack of direction, etc.) in order to show up in the world as a capable individual and leader.

The Private Victory

In brief, Be Proactive talks squarely to the principle that we have the ability to choose our response to all stimuli or events that come into our lives. Between stimulus and response, there is a space in which we can choose our next move. As long as we maintain that space, we maintain a level of command of our lives. Without it, we are simply reacting to everything and anything, becoming victims of circumstance instead of masters of our domain.

(On a side note, this chapter reminds me a lot of point #5 of this post).

Begin with End in Mind takes the reader through an important thought experiment (which I won’t spoil here!). The chapter gets us to start thinking long-term, with an eye toward what we most want to accomplish during our time on this planet. It explores the concept of what Covey calls “principle-centered” living and the adoption of natural laws which govern all people on Earth. This chapter will question and challenge how you see the world, and is a very thought-provoking section of the book.

“Begin with the end in mind” is based on the principle that all things are created twice. There’s a mental or first creation, and a physical or second creation, to all things.

Stephen R. Covey, from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Put First Things First is about deciding on what your priorities in life should look like and how you will go about their execution. The chapter teaches us the crucial difference between “important” and “urgent” tasks. Dr. Covey strongly encourages us to consistently pursue the former before the latter. He presents a quadrant system into which each activity in our lives can be classified, and guides us to act on items in one quadrant in particular above all others!

The importance of mastering oneself

Dr. Covey often taught the habits of Public Victory before teaching the habits of Private Victory. However, he leaves no doubt that without the firm establishment of the first three habits, an individual cannot consistently access habits four, five and six. They can’t be outwardly effective before first becoming inwardly effective. Once the first three habits are practiced well on a regular basis, the second set can begin to receive the attention they deserve.

Employing the first three habits in our lives moves us out of a reality that is highly dependent on others. As we better implement the Private Victory habits, we become more and more independent people. A person who can incorporate the first six habits successfully ends up creating an even more powerful reality for themselves: a reality of interdependence. At this stage of maturity, people are able to lead exceptional personal and interpersonal lives.

The Public Victories

Habit 4, Think Win-Win, is a critical habit of effective living, especially in business. In any given interaction, negotiation, or transaction, the idea is to create a mutually beneficial outcome for both parties. Covey talks extensively about the alternatives (win-lose, lose-win, compromise) before directing our attention to the ultimate option – win-win, or no deal. In this scenario, if a mutually beneficial agreement can’t be reached, it’s called off before any damage to the relationship is done. Talk about a game-changer in our world of today!

Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood was the most difficult habit for Covey himself to try and master. It’s hard for most of us to go into a conversation, hear something that strikes an emotional chord, and not immediately react. We can all have our buttons pushed from time-to-time. Habit 5 revisits the concept of the space between stimulus and response (flashing back to Habit 1), and how we can apply it to create a new approach to communication. In attempting to better understand another person’s perspective before adding to it or interjecting with our own, we can ask questions and gain a clearer understanding of what the real underlying concerns in an issue are. In a nutshell, this allows us to solve problems more effectively.

Habit 6, known simply as Synergize, combines Habits 4 and 5 with a big, difficult task to accomplish in a team setting. Habit 6 is about recognizing that the different points of view on an issue held within a group represent a terrific advantage when it comes to problem solving. When Habit 6 is applied in this setting, new options for action become available for the group to take, something Dr. Covey referred to as the “3rd Alternative.” It’s a fascinating chapter about what ideal teamwork can look like.

The habit that ties it all together

Sharpen the Saw (in my humble opinion, the best-named habit in the group!) touches on an a critical concept that Covey scratched early on in the book: balancing Production with Production Capacity.

As you can imagine, Production broadly refers to our performance – it’s what we do when we work, create, assist others, etc. You could think of Production as simply “doing stuff.”

Production Capacity is where a lot of people struggle in their lives (especially high-achieving, driven individuals). Our ability to produce work at a high level is dependent on how much gas is in our proverbial energy tank. If the tank runs out of gas, we stop functioning effectively, and the tank needs to be replenished. Sharpen the Saw is all about how we can refill ourselves as we burn through our limited (but renewable) fuel to produce effectively. It talks specifically to what we can do to restore ourselves physically, socially/emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

What were my biggest takeaways from the book?

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a deep volume – there is simply an extraordinary amount of learning that can be done through reading this book. Here are some of the points that I remember the most clearly, and try the hardest to apply in my daily life:

  • Focus on your Circle of Influence, not your Circle of Concern. Control what you can control.
  • Play the long game – our lives are both long and short. We can accomplish much if we become intentional in how we use our time while we’re alive.
  • Prefer “important” over “urgent,” tasks, and seek to tackle the important before it becomes “urgently important.” When we let this happen, our schedules and to-do lists begin to dictate our lives, as opposed to the other way around.
  • Aim to understand the concerns of others and remain empathetic to their situation – this is the key to Thinking Win-Win.
  • We can always be greater than the sum of our parts. You don’t have to do it all alone (I actually really struggle with this!).
  • To paraphrase from airline safety videos, “put on your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs.” If you want to serve others, you must first sufficiently serve yourself (through Sharpening the Saw).

Why is this book a must-read?

The book is a program (or a way out) for anyone who feels stuck in their life, or for anyone who is in search of the broad keys to success in virtually all walks of life.

The principles in this book apply to us all, regardless of our background, race, religion, mother tongue, etc. It’s a book for all of humanity, and while Covey himself was a devout Mormon (serving his church on two different missions), he reminds us that his teachings have been applied successfully by people of all religious faiths.

7 Habits has stood for 25 years as one of the best books ever written in its genre, and will likely remain among the greats for many decades to come.

Final thoughts

Dr. Stephen R. Covey touched millions of lives throughout his incredible career, and this book was his magnum opus. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People took the work of many others who had come before him (Frankl, Peter Drucker, Abraham Maslow, etc.) and blended it all into a beautiful volume boasting both rich explanations and practical real-world examples.

The book is not simply a magnificent theory – it is an actionable playbook for life itself. Among other things, it will help you change the programming of your internal world. This in turn will allow you to grow your self-awareness, respect and empathy for yourself and others, confidence in who you are, and your power to lead a more meaningful life.

Pick up a copy of the book, download its electronic version, or listen to its audible one. Take your time and enjoy the rich and thorough discussion of each of the 7 Habits. Reflect on where each habit shows up in your life, and how you can keep growing your capacity to perform each one.

As Dr. Covey himself mentioned, perfecting the 7 Habits is an endless journey – we never truly master them all. It’s through the journey, though, that we learn to live more effective, happier lives. All the best on your own!

Question: which of the 7 habits do you intuitively believe you need to improve the most on? Let me know in the comments section below!

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