The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey Book Summary & Commentary
— Stephen Covey
Who was Stephen Covey?
Stephen Covey was an American author and speaker. He’s probably best known for writing this book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which is one of the most popular non fiction books ever. Some major influences on his thinking include management guru Peter Drucker, psychotherapy pioneer Carl Rogers and his faith The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
1. Change the lens through which you see the world
We all see the world through a certain lens or perspective or paradigm. This means two people can look at the same event and perceive it very differently. Imagine a new McDonald’s opens up in your neighbourhood. Is it:
- A nice new convenient food option?
- A place of fond childhood memories?
- A multinational corporation taking over the local area?
- A place where innocent living creatures are consumed?
Obviously, your interpretation of the event depends on the lens through which you see the world—capitalist, vegan, your unique upbringing, etc.
The central idea of this book is that we must focus on changing the basic lenses or paradigms through which we see the world, if we want to become more effective in our relationships and careers.
Stephen Covey believes over the past few decades most self help books offered only superficial “quick fix” techniques, like telling us to smile more and have a positive attitude. While those techniques can be useful, they should never be the primary focus of our personal growth.
Rather, the big changes in our lives come from improving our character. This means integrating timeless principles deep into our personality like integrity, honesty, courage, openness, patience, work ethic, etc. In fact, this is what many of the earlier personal development authors like Benjamin Franklin advised readers to do.
Covey believes there are principles that make us more effective, and these principles are “natural laws” just as real as gravity. We can choose NOT to live our life according to these principles, but we will fail. Just like a farmer must follow the natural rules of planting in the spring, taking care of their crops in the summer, then reaping the harvest in the fall. They can’t shortcut any steps just because they want to!
In the same way, there are no shortcut to developing true character. We must start from the inside out, changing the lens through which we see the world, then building effective habits and principles into our basic personality. Before we can win victories in our outer public life, we must win victories over ourselves in our private life where nobody is watching.
By the way, the book Atomic Habits by James Clear is a great complement to this book. In that book, James shares the most recent science around habits and practical strategies to create new positive habits in your life. He writes “Changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them for years.” I think that really captures the long-term mindset needed to create real changes in our character like Covey is saying. So go read our summary of Atomic Habits by James Clear.
In the past few decades, self help books have fixated on “quick fix” techniques like “thinking positive.” But true change begins with character, which means changing the lens through which we see the world and integrating moral principles into our everyday actions. There are no shortcuts to this.
2. Create your circumstances rather than waiting for things to happen
In this book, Stephen Covey’s first official habit is to “Be proactive.” The word proactive means to create your life situation rather than just responding to what happens to you. And the first step is accepting responsibility that we DO have control in our lives, and we are not a victim of circumstances or what other people did to us.
Some people may doubt that last sentence. But the ultimate example to prove it’s true is the life story of Viktor Frankl. He was a psychology professor sent to the German concentration camps of World War 2. In those camps, he witnessed the prisoners who could find meaning in the middle of all the suffering survived. The other prisoners gave up and perished.
In that book, Frankl wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.” So in the middle of the worst circumstances imaginable, Frankl learned that humans always have the freedom to choose their response to what is happening and to find meaning. If you want to learn more about Frankl’s story, then read our summary of his book Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl.
Covey believes humans are fundamentally different from other animals. Animals are driven by their instincts and impulses, while humans have self awareness, which means we can step back and examine our very impulses and choose to act on them or not. We don’t need to be slaves to our impulsive feelings. Rather, we can choose to live by certain values, rules and standards of behavior. And that is how we live “proactively.”
The ability to subordinate an impulse to a value is the essence of the proactive person. Reactive people are driven by feelings, by circumstances, by conditions, by their environment. Proactive people are driven by values—carefully thought about, selected and internalized values.
We can start being proactive by putting ALL our attention into the areas of life that we have some power to change. This is the opposite of what most people do, they spend time worrying about things they have no control over.
For example, how does anyone benefit from spending hours watching the news every week and worrying about a possible economic recession? Listening to pundits or worrying in your head does not make your finances more stable. It only helps big media corporations earn more advertising dollars by hijacking your lizard brain. Instead, you could spend that same time learning new sales or marketing strategies that could grow your career or business.
We can also be proactive in our relationships. One time a man confessed to Covey that his marriage was declining. Covey said that all the man could do was to love his wife. The man was confused and said Covey didn’t understand—they weren’t feeling as much love for each other and that was the problem. But Covey told the man that love is also a verb. He told the man to love his wife through appreciation, attention, service… then the feeling of love would come afterwards.
Covey’s first habit is to “Be proactive” which means taking responsibility over creating our life situation rather than seeing ourselves as the victims of circumstances or other people. Start by focusing ONLY on what you have the power to change, rather than worrying about things you don’t have control over, like the past.
3. Visualize your desired end destination to guide your actions
Covey’s second official habit is to “Begin with the end in mind.” This is about having a clear picture of your end goal or destination, so you can remain headed in the right direction. At first this sounds like common sense, but people often make big mistakes in their life because they don’t keep in mind their most important long-term goals.
Covey gives a great example related to parenting. Imagine you’re a parent and your kids are misbehaving. What do you do? The quick solution would be to yell at them and intimidate them with your larger size. Yet if we follow Covey’s principle of “beginning with the end in mind”, then we can see why this may be the wrong move. As a parent, you’d probably want your kids to remember you as a caring, patient and wise guardian. If that is true, then getting them to behave better quickly so you don’t feel embarrassed becomes less important than your long-range goals in parenting.
One exercise for understanding where you want to go is to visualize your eventual funeral. Imagine you’re already dead and at your funeral, some of your friends, family, work associates and other acquaintances are giving short speeches about the type of person you were. So what would you like them to say about you? (It’s worth spending a long time to think about that question and write down your answer.)
Another very popular self help book is called Think and Grow Rich. In that book, Napoleon Hill interviewed 500 millionaires and found they all had something in common. They all had a definite goal, which means they could visualize exactly what kind of life, wealth or reputation they wanted to have, before they built that life for themselves.
That book also contains a 6-step action plan for turning your desires into riches. The first five steps are about writing down exactly how much money you want, when you will get it by and your definite plan for getting it. Then the last step is to “Read your written statement aloud, twice daily, once just before retiring at night, and once after rising in the morning. AS YOU READ, SEE AND FEEL AND BELIEVE YOURSELF ALREADY IN POSSESSION OF THE MONEY.” So visualizing what we want in vivid detail is the key step of the process. To learn more, check out our full summary of Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill.
In The 7 Habits, Covey recommends a similar but more sober exercise of writing your own mission statement. Your mission statement should clarify what your most important values, goals and aims are. The funeral visualization we mentioned before can help you understand what you truly find important. And this statement will help keep you on track when inevitable daily crises and conflicts show up.
Covey also says a shared mission statement is one of the best things families and businesses can do. Not some abstract paragraph written by the CEO that nobody cares about, but a statement that all employees collaborate together on that says what kind of environment they want to create for themselves and customers.
The second habit is to “Begin with the end in mind.” A great exercise for this is visualizing your future funeral and what you would want everyone to say about you. Write down a mission statement that expresses who you want to be, then keep this in mind during the daily problems and headaches.
4. Invest time into the non-urgent but important activities
In this book, the third official habit is to “Put first things first.” This means doing the activities that make a huge positive impact in the long term, even though they don’t call our attention.
Let’s explore what that means deeper. All the daily activities we do could be put into one of four categories (or “quadrants” as Covey calls them):
- Quadrant 1 contains urgent and important activities. These are the critical deadlines and emergencies that we must respond to.
- Quadrant 2 contains non-urgent but important activities. These are the long-term projects that don’t seize our attention by themselves, but truly drive results. This includes setting up business systems, cultivating relationships and proactive rest. These Quadrant 2 activities are the ones we should do more of.
- Quadrant 3 contains urgent and unimportant activities, like random phone calls or alerts. These grab our attention, but don’t really help us move towards our goals, so we should find ways to stop doing these.
- Quadrant 4 contains non-urgent and unimportant activities. This is busy work or spending too much time in pleasure, entertainment or distractions. We should usually say no to these.
Building relationships is one of the most important Quadrant 2 activities. Covey shares a valuable concept to help us out called “The Emotional Bank Account.” Imagine every relationship in your life has a bank account. When you are kind, considerate or dependable, then you’re making deposits in this bank account. (The biggest deposits you can make in a relationship is to listen with the goal of understanding the other person, without judgment or advice.)
Later on, when you have miscommunications or misunderstandings, this bank account is a stockpile of trust which smooths out bumps in the relationship. But if we neglect to make regular deposits into an account, then trust in the relationship goes down. And then any mistake can blow up into a major conflict, and we no longer get the benefit of the doubt. So our goal in relationships should be to build up these Emotional Bank Accounts.
The third habit is to “Put first things first” which means prioritizing those activities which bring us huge long-term results even though they don’t seize our attention right now. This includes creating strategy, building systems and cultivating relationships through strong emotional bank accounts.
5. Make sure everyone feels good about your mutual agreements
The fourth habit is to “Think win/win.” This means genuinely seeking solutions and agreements with others that everyone feels good about. This is about finding creative solutions that everyone involved feels are to their benefit and satisfaction. And if you can’t find this type of agreement, then it’s better to walk away with no deal.
To better understand win/win, let’s look at the alternatives:
- Win/lose thinking is believing that one person must beat the other person to get a good deal. This frame of mind is based on belief in scarcity, the feeling there’s a limited amount of resources in the world, and we must greedily grab what we can for ourselves. (Win/win thinking is based in the opposite belief in abundance—there’s more than enough in the world for everyone and by working together we can find brand new resources, wealth and opportunities.)
- Lose/win thinking is giving up what we want to please others. This appears to smooth over conflicts, but the suppressed emotions can later come out in uglier ways.
- Lose/lose thinking happens when two Win/lose people can’t work together, so they just try to make the other person lose out of pride.
- Win thinking is only considering your end, and not the other person’s outcome.
Stephen Covey consulted for a company where the manager was complaining his employees didn’t cooperate at all. Well, it turns out the manager had set up a competition between his top employees to win a trip to Bermuda, and he constantly reminded them of this. This competition was based on the paradigm of Win/lose—for one employee to win, all the others had to lose. No wonder they weren’t cooperating! (Covey says competition can work when the opponents are outside the workplace, in a separate branch or different company. Otherwise it’s much better to have employees working towards personally set targets rather than against each other.)
The Win/win frame of mind requires a shift in our paradigm, or way we see the world. We have to go from dependence to independence to interdependence:
- Dependence is obviously not a good position to be in, if we can help it. When we are emotionally dependent on other people, then our own self worth hinges on their approval.
- Independence is the next step up, and this is a very popular message in our society today. While being independent is an obvious improvement, it’s not a good finish line because relationships are what give our lives meaning. Plus, even from a business point of view, we achieve far more in positive cooperation with others than we ever could alone. So the next step up is…
- Interdependence, which means having a life that is interwoven with others, but not being dependent on them. An essential part of this is creating win/win agreements.
The fourth habit is to “Think win/win” which means finding creative agreements that everyone feel good about. These are essential for productive, cooperative and interdependent relationships.
6. Listen with the goal of truly understanding the other perspective
Covey’s fifth habit is to “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Most of us fail at listening to others because we’re not really listening, we are already thinking about how we will respond, comment or advise them.
This habit is not about superficial conversation techniques, but a shift in our basic character. Whenever we open ourselves up to see the world through another person’s lens there is always the possibility they could influence us. So to listen with the intention to understand requires feeling very secure in ourselves. Covey says this is a paradox of communication: In order to influence, you first have to take the chance of being influenced.
For example, in sales or marketing you should always start with understanding your prospect. Bad salespeople launch right into a pitch of what they believe the other person should want. Good salespeople take the time to find out what the unique needs and concerns are of the person in front of them, then they show how their product can meet those needs. And if you learn from listening that your product won’t help them, then a salesperson with integrity would walk away.
A practical way to start is by reflecting back what other people say to you. This basically shows that you’re paying attention and you’ve taken in what they were saying. For example, if a child told their parent “I hate school!” then many parents would reflexively say something like “but school is good for you” or “don’t worry, you just had a bad day.” But those comments do not ‘seek to understand’, they seek to advise or judge. In the end, the child feels unheard so the parent’s advice falls on deaf ears. A better approach would be for the parent to reflect the child’s statement by saying “It sounds like you’re frustrated with your classes.” Showing understanding is not about agreeing with everything people say, it’s just giving them some “psychological air” so they feel someone has accurately received their thoughts and feelings.
You may be surprised that crisis negotiators at the FBI use similar techniques. Chris Voss was the lead hostage negotiator at the FBI for years. In his book, Never Split the Difference, he shares some of the most effective negotiation techniques he used with criminals, kidnappers, and then later in his business and personal life.
One of the most important techniques Chris discovered was to give a summary of the other person’s position. For example, when he was negotiating with a terrorist leader in the Philippines who was ranting on and on about historic injustices, the FBI’s first aim was to reflect back what the leader was saying. Rather than arguing the leader was wrong and biased, Chris reflected the worldview of the leader, until he felt understood by Chris and said “That’s right!” From that point, the negotiation could productively move forward. If you want to learn more cool and practical negotiation techniques like this, then I definitely recommend our summary of Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss.
The fifth habit is to “seek first to understand” which means reflecting what the other person communicated, rather than giving advice, judgment or commentary. This requires a fundamental shift in character, feeling secure enough to open ourselves up to be influenced.
7. Spend time resting and learning, and your productivity will soar
Finally, the seventh habit is to “Sharpen the saw.” This means to set aside time into caring for yourself and improving your skills.
Covey says we need to find a balance between what he calls production and production capacity. Some people view any time off not being productive as time wasted, but this isn’t true. Sometimes taking time off can increase our ability to produce. Imagine an amateur cook spending 30 minutes chopping vegetables with a dull knife, versus a professional chef spending a couple minutes sharpening the knife then cutting everything in 10 minutes. In the same way, rest and learning can make our future work time far more effective.
There are a few ways we can increase our production capacity:
- Physical care: The right food, exercise, sleep and relaxation. Regularly scheduled vacations.
- Spiritual rejuvenation: Prayer, meditation, walking in nature, great art, music, etc.
- Mental expansion: Reading challenging books, writing regularly and having deep conversations. Spending less time on television, social media or distractions.
The seventh habit is to “Sharpen the saw” which means more time for rest and growth, and that can actually improve our future productivity. This includes good nutrition, sleep, time off, prayer, meditation, nature walks, music, challenging books, etc.
You may have noticed that I skipped habit number six, “synergize.” I did that because synergy is really about using all the other habits together, including win/win thinking and seeking first to understand. The word synergy means different things working together to produce a result far far greater than they could alone.
So this was a brief overview of some ideas that will make you more effective in your relationships and professional life. And if you liked this summary, then definitely check out the full book which shares a lot more details and examples. I’ll see you in the next one!