7 Lessons From “The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People” By Stephen R. Covey
Educator, keynote speaker, author of many masterpieces such as “The Leader in Me” and “First Things First”, Stephen Covey is certainly one of the most recognized educators of all times. Despite having heard his name in so many domains throughout my life, this was actually the first time of me reading one of his books, and I’ve to admit, it was easily one of the best choices I have ever made. This book has taught me more about leadership and social effectiveness than almost any other book I’ve read in the past, so much so that I’ve immediately decided to share with you what it personally taught me. In this short article, therefore, I’m going to go over the book’s principles and lessons that struck with me the most.
- Be proactive.
The first, and probably one of the most important lessons contained within the book, is that of being proactive, which basically means that our life doesn’t have to depend on external circumstances at all. The opposite of being proactive is being reactive: this is the case of those who, unconsciously or just for a feeling of inadequacy, tend to behave the same way as the people around them. Covey points out that, rather than what happens to us, it’s our consent to what happens that harms us the most.
Covey himself proposes a solution to reactiveness, which concerns the analysis of how we spend our energies. Essentially, we do spend them on either of two spheres:
- Circle of Concern, composed by factors that cannot be directly influenced by our actions (i.e. global warming, war, recession), and
- Circle of Influence, made up of things that we have the power to affect through our actions (i.e. a broken marriage or health issues).
Covey notices that every proactive person focuses all of his energies towards things that are under his control, leaving no room for external concerns. As a result, proactive people tend to show more responsibility, as they constantly strive for bettering their lives and those of the people around them instead of shying away from problems and obstacles.
- Start with the end in mind.
Starting with the finish line in your mind signifies having a clear picture of how you want your life to look like when you’ll be older. When you put everything you do today in a future perspective, you can make sure that your principles and values are coherent with who you are and how you want to be remembered as a person. In this regard, it becomes very useful to write a personal mission or a list of principles that will guide your throughts and actions moving forward. An example may be that of saying “I’m going to treat my body as a temple” if you have health and fitness goals to accomplish; in this case, everytime you’ll be confronted with a choice between a healthy meal and a sugary one, you’ll know exactly how to behave and you’ll therefore make the choice that is more logical according to your principles.
Our values and principles are like our personal constitutions: once we write them down, we create a solid foundation on which to build our persona.
- Principles of personal management.
Granted that success is the result of small efforts repeated day in and day out (as opposed to the image of the visible and superhuman effort that most of us envision when it comes to achieving big results), Covey argues that our virtual “time matrix” is constituted by four quadrants:
- The first quadrant represents all those stressful activities that all of a sudden pop up and require our immediate availability (i.e. crises or immediate deadlines); these activities are time-consuming and, most importantly, they rob us of the energy required to get more meaningful work done;
- The second quadrant is the one that talks in terms of opportunities rather than problems or crises. It is composed by things such as relationship development or long-term planning, matters that will certainly be important in the near future. Despite its lack of urgent tasks, this is by far the most important quadrant, one that should constantly be revisited over time to make sure we are moving forward on the right track;
- The third and fourth quadrants are the least in order of importance, and there’s a reason for it: they basically involve unimportant chores, which may be urgent to some extent but not fundamental for personal productivity. Pertain to this category duties like checking the junk mail, playing videogames (or at least doing it too frequently) or participating to meetings not properly scheduled in advance.
As it’s easily understandable, our time should be allocated for the most part on quadrant number two, and this can be accomplished through extracting time from the other quadrants (primarily number three and four). Also, being able to say “no” to meaningless and unfruitful activies is the essence of personal productivity, and a skill worth learning if we want to unleash our full potential in life.
- Principles of interpersonal leadership.
In the fourth chapter Covey lists six different types of human interaction:
Obviously, the writer’s choice lies in either Win/Win, which stands for finding solutions that bring benefits to both parties in an interaction, and Win/Win or no deal, which is considered an even higher form of cooperation by Covey himself; “no deal” essentially means that, in a human interaction, I’ll look for the other person’s benefit as much as my own. If mutual benefits are nowhere to be found, then I’ll let go of it altogether, especially if the most plausible alternative would be that of taking a decision that will bring angst and bitterness from the counterpart further down the line. That’s why, when it comes to building meaningful relationships, whether it’d be with a customer, a friend, your spouse, or your son, it’s always better to avoid the other four approaches, since they will lead to a one-sided win in the best-case scenario.
However, doing what is right all the time is easier said than done. If you’re armed with a personal mission and a series of principles as we’ve outlined earlier, you just have to act according to them. If your principles and your actions are coordinated, then you’re good to go; otherwise, you may want to fine tune either your principles or your actions to get better results.
- Principles of empathic communication.
“Seek first to understand…then to be understood.” This quote pretty much sums up one of the biggest communication problems that we face as human beings: the urging need of spouting out our feelings, our emotions, our stories and everything in between, without caring much about the needs and situations of those we talk to. Basically, instead of listening with the intent to understand, we listen with the intent to reply. Not only this indicates a lack of empathy and social skills, it also signals to the other person that we’re desperately seeking external approval (a particularly common trait among insecure people). Ultimately, we throw the whole interaction and its potential benefits away, unless you’re talking to another insecure human being of course.
I guess that, to some degree, we’re all a little bit self-centered, so the practice of abandoning the walls of our minds and give our complete attention to other people is definitely something we’re not accustomed to. However, just like any skill, empathetic listening can be learned over time through practice, and the great thing is that you can start right away. As Covey himself suggests, you can look at your family and the challenges that await them, or you can go out with your boyfriend and ask him about his day and what he’s looking forward to. Just try to maximize your listening capacity: listen, listen, listen, not only with your ears, but with your heart and with your eyes. Understand that you’re just a fragment in this planet, and your life will either blossom or wilt based on how you relate with others and how you make them feel. Therefore, put aside your personal autobiography, and sincerely connect with humanity.
What does “synergizing” actually stand for? Synergizing means considering and respecting differences. Contrary to popular belief, a synergetic type of communication doesn’t happen when two individuals have the exact same opinion on everything (oh lord, could you imagine how boring that would be?); instead, it happens when you acknowledge that not everyone has your same opinion on something, accept it, and build on the differences. When two or more people work together in a seamless, synergetic environment, almost at all times they’ll be able to produce far more than they would if they would work on their own. That’s just an example of synergy. It basically means that 1+1 can equal more than two; it can equal four, eight, sixteen or sixty-four.
Synergy also means opening up ourselves to others, in the sense of being authentic, genuine; in essence, being ourselves without fearing other’s judgment; when we do things that we like to do, when we express our true feelings and even our vulnerabilities to others, we allow them to do the same, and that sparks a new level of comprehension and understanding.
- Sharpen your saw.
With the expression “Sharpen your saw” Covey refers to the four dimensions necessary for us to live a balanced and fulfilling life:
- Physical. Take care of your body and your health: eat the right foods, give yourself time to relax, and stay in a good physical shape. These are all things that everyone should find time for; they’re “quadrant two” activities that will make sure you have the necessary energy to tackle your goals in life.
- Spiritual. What about meditation? Or music? Or just spending some time in nature? These are all spiritual activites, activities that give us time to unplug from the daily routine and allow us to reconnect with our true self. In these times we can check our state of mind, trying to understand what really matters in our lives, where we’re going and if we’re living according to our principles in the process.
- Mental. Always remember to keep your brain in shape as well. In that regard, the best activity you can ever engage in is reading. Reading gives you a completely different outlook on a lot of things that you took for granted in the past. It stimulates your mind, expands your vocabulary, improves your focus and concentration, reduces stress and a lot more.
Other forms of mental renewal concern planning and organizing: starting with the end in mind, as we’ve previously seen. Plan your future life, split your journey in small steps that you can take right away, and enjoy the process of becoming the person you really want to be.
- Social/Emotional. Unlike the previous three, this dimension doesn’t require much time; we can improve our social and emotional skills by simply engaging in our daily conversations with a different approach, possibly a less self-absorbed one; it all comes back to empathic listening, or listening to comprehend.
Now, acknowledged that each of these dimension is important per sé, it is only when we integrate them all together that we fully experience a balanced life. If we don’t, every neglected dimension create a field of negative energy that will affect all the other ones sooner or later.