If the phrases “begin with the end in mind” or “think win-win” sound like timeworn clichés to you, you’re not alone. Maybe you heard them in grad school, sitting around a conference table, or even during a phone call home to your parents.
The fact that these snippets of advice feel so familiar is a testament to the staying power of the source: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey. The perennial classic has enjoyed huge, lasting success, selling more than 25 million copies since 1989.
While some of the habits Covey outlines sound cheesy or trite by today’s standards, many can help you make meaningful progress by teaching you how to achieve your goals (and slow down enough to celebrate success), navigate differences in communication, and inspire others.
In an era where we’re constantly bombarded with distractions, Covey’s ideas around self-preservation, rest, and renewal resonate deeply. Frameworks within 7 Habits can also help us differentiate “shoulds” from “musts” and create a life grounded in authenticity and true happiness.
Let’s take a look at each of the seven habits and how to get the most mileage out of them.
The Basics of Covey’s 7 Habits
1. Be Proactive
Self-awareness is man’s competitive advantage over other animals. According to Covey, this is a powerful gift, because it means we can consciously select how we respond and ascribe meaning to circumstances. You can let rejection, failure, or devastating events define you, or you can refocus your efforts on what you can control. For example, did losing out on an opportunity inspire you to work harder? How has adversity shaped you? Instead of sitting back and passively letting life happen to you, be proactive about changing the situation or reframing your attitude toward it.
2. Begin with the End in Mind
“It’s incredibly easy to get caught up…climbing the ladder of success only to discover that it’s leaning against the wrong wall,” Covey says. In other words, you need a sense of what your values and passions are in order to live more out of intention and less out of default. You don’t need a fully detailed vision (even a desired feeling will do to start), but you do need to be thoughtful about the path you’re charting.
3. Put First Things First
This habit is all about mastering the art of self-discipline and saying no to distractions and interruptions. It also involves pursuing hard but important tasks over busy work to move you closer to your goals. (More on this later.)
4. Think Win-Win
Shifting to an abundance mentality — the outlook that there’s plenty of money, success, and happiness to go around — is key to improving your relationships. Most people default to a zero-sum thinking, otherwise known as scarcity mentality, but Covey argues that focusing on deficits doesn’t serve anyone involved. Search for workable compromises and mutually satisfying agreements.
5. Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
Before we can effectively get a point across, we first have to listen and understand the other person’s perspective. Barreling into a conversation making demands isn’t productive, but transitioning to empathetic communication can be equally challenging. It’s a process to learn how to greet others with compassion and respect, especially when you disagree with them. Using active listening skills like reflection, validation, and asking clarifying questions helps create harmony and reduces time wasted on arguing or talking in circles. Efficiency achieved!
Synergy is the king of corporate buzzwords, but despite its corny reputation, Covey was on to something with this habit. When you encourage diversity, collaboration, and healthy creative conflict as practices, you can reach a collective state of peak experience. Picture a team that operates like a finely oiled machine or the couple who effortlessly orchestrate the demands of work and home life together.
7. Sharpen the Saw
Because continuous self-improvement requires intense energy and commitment, it can be draining. No one else can shepherd the health of your inner world except you, so it’s important to tend to your well-being on a regular basis.
Applying Covey’s Principles in 2018
Over time, much of Covey’s wisdom has been co-opted or boiled down to empty buzzwords. You probably associate The 7 Habits with snooze-inducing work trainings. Others may shudder at terms like “abundance mentality” as being reminiscent of The Secret and the Law of Attraction. One writer even found himself “oddly embarrassed to be seen reading [the book] on the subway.”
Yet decades later, insights from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People — particularly those about optimizing energy and avoiding needless distraction — may be more relevant in 2018 than when the book was published 30 years ago.
Time to give The 7 Habits a fresh look. Here are some suggestions of where to start.
Carve Out Time for “Personal Maintenance”
The human brain isn’t designed to work all the time — a fact hinted at in the seventh habit, “sharpening the saw,” and proven true by neuroscience. High achievers in particular need to be careful about falling into the trap of overworking and be aware of the downsides to self-destructive ambition (burnout being number one).
But as Covey suggests, you can be driven and have inner peace. (You’ll also be embracing the habits of “win-win” and synergy, so high-five!) In fact, he says it’s essential to routinize rest and renewal if you want to perform at your best, and I would agree. I call this constructing a plan for personal maintenance, which essentially means scheduling self-care practices within the four dimensions of well-being outlined in The 7 Habits: physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional well-being.
However, with the frenetic pace of life today, sometimes it’s impossible to focus on all four areas at once. When that happens, embrace the trade-offs. Find a more integrative approach to work-life balance like the Four Burners Theory, or try alternating periods of intensity with a deloading phase to give your body and mind time to recoup.
The Covey Trick You Can Implement Right Now
The average person juggles a dozen projects at once. To stay focused, you need to keep obvious time-wasters (like TV, social media, or toxic people) at a minimum. More important, you need to quit sacrificing your long-term goals in favor of every menial request or distraction that comes your way.
If you feel like you get little accomplished despite working all day, then you may want to try Covey’s time management matrix, otherwise known as the Eisenhower Method. It’s designed to help you prioritize the mountain of tasks and obligations that compete for your attention daily.
Quadrant 1: Important and Urgent
Crises and looming deadlines fall into this quadrant. Do these tasks immediately. There could be consequences if you don’t. You’ll also be too consumed to focus on anything else until they are resolved.
Quadrant 2: Not Urgent But Important
This is the most productive zone and is associated with long-term goal achievement. But these tasks are easily ignored or pushed off because there’s typically no tangible, immediate payoff for doing them in the moment. Things in this quadrant are those you know you “should do” but never seem to get around to. That includes researching, planning, and strategizing. Activities like relationship building (networking, spending quality time with family), developing a sustainable workout routine, or finding a diet plan you can stick with also fall into this category.
Quadrant 3: Urgent, Not Important
Many phone calls, emails, and obligations that we’re peer-pressured into make up the distracted zone, or Quadrant 3. Constant interruptions need to be minimized to the extent possible in order to free up mental bandwidth for deeper work. Assess whether tasks can be eliminated entirely or delegated. For example you can outsource cleaning, laundry, and meal prep or hire a personal assistant.
Quadrant 4: Not Urgent or Important
Obvious time sucks like TV, social media, eating junk, and hanging out with toxic people go here.
One of the biggest challenges we face today is figuring out what’s urgent and what’s not. To identify what goes in your zone of productivity (Quadrant 2), you can ask yourself a few questions like:
- What could you do [today, this week, this quarter] that your future self would be proud of?
- What’s one action that, if accomplished, would make [today, this week, this month] so memorable, exciting, or satisfying that it would deserve popping a bottle of champagne?
As Covey writes, “The challenge is not to manage time, but to manage ourselves.” Spending more time in the zone of optimal effectiveness doesn’t happen overnight, but deciding to live more intentionally can be made in an instant. And with The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People as a guide, you can edge closer to stepping into your full potential.