The 7 habits of highly effective people

… let me explain. Not long ago a dear friend of mine got fired from her job. In addition to receiving the boot, she was handed a parting gift from a co-worker. A book titled “The 7 habits of highly effective people” authored by Stephen R. Covey (1932 - 2012). Lose a job, get a book? Well, let’s see what happened.

I picked up the book at her place, started reading and it immediately resonated with me. I had the distinct feeling that this book could be a gem so … I pocketed it discretely right then and there and started digging into it. Sidenote: I love me a quality read, even more so when it is free. Yes, unfortunately I can be cheap like that. It is one of many character flaws I am working on.

At first, I thought that it would be a relatively straight forward read. Just another self-improvement book? Well, I was mistaken. It soon turned out to be deeper and more demanding than expected as the book required quite a bit of effort on my part to properly digest and reflect upon. Imho what you get out of this book for yourself is directly proportional to the amount of time you are willing to spend pondering its concepts and implementing its advice. In a sense it is a bit like a good math or physics textbook. At first intensely feared, then conquered bit by bit and later looked upon fondly not in a small part for the blood and sweat associated with it. But I digress …

Let’s think …

So I guess I could write another book review of “The 7 habits of highly effective people” but there are plenty out there already. The book has sold over 30 million copies and was translated into 40 languages. What do you expect?

What I am attempting with this post is more like a “I reflect upon The 7 habits of highly effective people”. So I guess the goal is to put into writing some of the thinking and reflecting that this book prompted me to do. In the process of sorting out my own thoughts I will hopefully illustrate the way this book was and is helpful to me. From there you, dear reader, may decide for yourself if it can be helpful to you as well.

So let’s start by summarizing what this book is about. On a fundamental level it is about abstract principles. Principles the author Stephen R. Covey argues can be used as guidelines to improve ones own self and life in various ways. The book proposes that by observing these principles and their implications, one may foster continued development and success - both in private and professional capacities. The author is quick to insist that these principles have been around for ages, and he did not invent any of them. What he did admiringly however, is to flesh them out on an abstract level, assemble them in a logical structure and derive actionable and practicable insights from said structure as to enable personal growth. Combine this with a host of stories, experience reports, how-tos and solid advice and you get the gist of “The 7 habits of highly effective people”.

Principles as a form of abstraction

When I first started reading the book, what grabbed my attention at once is the fact that it is about principles first and about techniques second. To me, principles are powerful because they are a form of abstraction. They give you long-term goals and paths towards achieving them, but they will not tell you how and where to place each individual step along the way. Since principles are abstract, they can be applied effectively to a variety of different settings, be it in the context of family life, relationships, personal development, business relations and much more. As is often the case, abstraction leads to applicability and applicability leads to applications and applications lead to value.

Please observe the difference between principles and techniques! Principles focus on goal-setting, are abstract in nature and can broadly be applied. Techniques however, are concrete, work on shorter time-scales and focus on immediate action. For those you in the know, principles are to techniques what strategies are to tactics.

Note also that principles are designed to reflect values. Stephen R. Covey discusses in his book at length how a common-sense set of values including classic virtues such as fairness, integrity, truthfulness, openness etc. are tied to principles and can become catalysts for a fulfilled and successful live. He argues that key-virtues form the basis for a valid set of principles.

7 principles arranged to promote an abstract path of personal growth

In “The 7 habits of highly effective peopleStephen R. Covey achieves three major things:

  • He identifies a small but powerful set of important principles and their implications.
  • He identifies different stages of personal development in relation to said principles.
  • He arranges principles and stages together in a logical picture, mapping out a path that promotes personal growth.

The fact that the author does all of this in an easy-to-read, yet clear and concise manner is worth mentioning and adds immensely to the appeal of the book, at least for me.

Next, let us introduce the figure that summarizes the core of the book as described above and discuss it in detail.

7 habits graphic Figure: Stephen R. Covey’s 7 habits arranged to support a journey of personal development.

First note that the author proposes a life-long journey of personal growth consisting of three distinct stages of development: Dependence, independence and interdependence. Let us discuss these stage in more detail:

  • Dependence: A state where one cannot do properly without external support. Babies and children depend on their parents for example. However, grown-ups too may also critically depend on external factors such as their parents, friends, partners, circumstance or even luck to get by. Clearly, neither of these factors constitute very robust modi operandi in the long run.

  • Independence: A state where one is self-reliant without a need for external support. It implies a general capability of dealing with the challenges of life in an effective manner. External support is not required, so it is deemed unnecessary or even meaningless. Nevertheless, it is a sustainable modus operandi, albeit with limited potential for growth.

  • Interdependence: A state where one is independent, yet actively seeking the benefits of additional support. It acknowledges the fact that an individual alone is just that, alone. It is limited in its capabilities and information intake that more can be learned and achieved by seeking out the advice and help of others. Simultaneously, it becomes apparent that giving advice and lending help is beneficial in much the same way. All in all, a sustainable modus operandi actively fostering growth.

Stephen R. Covey proposes that we all start at the dependence stage and, while growing-up, learn how to become individuals achieving various degrees of independence. That first leg of the journey is what he calls “Private Victory”. He discusses in his book that there are many paths to reach independence. He advises however, to construct any path around key principles or habits.

I stated at the beginning that I found the book difficult to read. Mostly because it prompted a large amount of reflection on my part. When I first read about the author’s definition of being independent I started to reevaluate myself and my own life. I arrived at the conclusion that it was fairly likely that I had somehow managed to claim my own “Private Victory”. After all, most would say that I am a fairly functional grown-up, whatever that means. I enjoyed my time at university learning how to be a scientist and now I am learning how to run a business. Evidently, I somehow managed to get something done up until now. Then it struck me, I had a severely limited understanding of why or how I had reached Independence.

Looking back - My path to independence

Thus I was forced to go back and analyze my own life up until now in detail, to figure out what got me here. I quickly found that what I did, could very well be viewed through the lens of the book I had in front of me. Let me discuss what came of it by going through the first three habits one by one.

  • 1. Be Proactive: Being proactive basically implies to stop sitting around waiting for things to happen to you and start to make things happen.

Looking back I realize that it took me a long time to cultivate this virtue and it almost didn’t happen. In school things basically always happened around me and to me, there was nothing to do but to sit and learn. The latter came easily to me, so I didn’t really bother. The first years at university studying physics looked much the same. I did have fun with my friends, my hobbies, etc, but I was somehow moving in a safe and largely familiar environment. Again, there was little pushing me towards becoming more proactive.

All of that drastically chanced when I went to do an Erasmus year in Naples Italy. I was still a student but a premise, which I had come to accept as fundamental to my life back then, had turned on its head. Studying as an Erasmus student was about living first and studying second! What better than to move to a country with an unfamiliar language and dive right into a completely unknown city where you don’t know a single soul? Basically overnight, going out meeting new people and exploring new places became a top priority, almost a necessity in my life. Note that being proactive is an abstract concept with a plethora of possible implementations. For me it was Erasmus that basically forced me to go out of my way and make things (read: an exciting year abroad with all implications) happen. I somehow managed to bring this trait back with me from Italy. Erasmus truly is a wonderful program which did a lot for me! Thank you European Union!

  • 2. Begin with the End in Mind: In other words, whatever you do, have a goal from the beginning.

Now this is something that always came to me naturally. All my life I loved playing computer games, many of which of the strategy game variety. When you play such games the first thing you are being presented with in every single mission is a set of objectives you are aiming to reach. Typically, you’d have to study them a bit in order to formulate a plan on how to beat the mission. This type of strategic thinking and the goal-setting that comes with it is in itself an abstract skill that translate from gaming to other challenges easily. It doesn’t matter whether you command an aggressive campaign as a conqueror, plan your financial investments or organize your term at university. It always boils down to setting goals, formulating a plan and then executing it to the best of your current ability. To this day, my mind loves to operate in its strategic mode.

  • 3. Put First Things First: In other words, prioritize correctly in order to spend resources correctly.

Another thing that comes easily to me. It too can be properly learned playing games, particularly computer games that force you to multitask in real-time. When you e.g. are leading a civilization that is simultaneously starving and under attack you have to make a decision and prioritize if you want to prevail. If you mess up, the game will soon teach you that dead men don’t need food. Games typically present a variety of tasks that need to be done. Some are important and urgent. Some are important but not urgent. Others are urgent but not important and others still are neither urgent nor important. Is it a good idea to spend limited resources on things that are not important? In most cases, probably not. Note that these categories are abstract, which means they apply to all types of task and are not at all restricted to things happening within a computer game. This categorization is precisely the well-known Eisenhower classification of tasks. Given its general applicability it appears frequently in various forms in different books on self-improvement, time management or management in general.

I’d like to stress at this point that my experiences with Erasmus and computer games are an interpretation of how the path towards independence played out for me up to this point. By no means do I intend to imply that you need to go on Erasmus to be proactive or that playing games is a necessary condition for learning how to prioritize things. What I do want to stress however, is that whatever way you choose to implement these habits, it is all about practice. Just reading about them will do you little good, I truly believe that you have to absorb them by continued practice over and over. I guess “The 7 habits of highly effective people” can also be seen as a guide to continued practice of certain virtues.

Looking forward - My path towards interdependence

So I have tried to discuss my path to independence. Although I am still working on improving my habits, I am fairly confident that I am doing well. Given my experience with the book I have a significantly better understanding of some major influences in my past that allowed me to get where I am today. Somehow a bunch of loose pieces came together for me on this facet of my personal development.

So I submit to you, dear reader, that I have gained independence which according to Stephen R. Covey it a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for reaching interdependence. So what about the next leg of the journey towards “Public Victory”? The short answer is, it remains a work in progress. I am certainly not confident enough to say that I am there yet but I recognize the importance of continuing the journey. This part of my personal development has started a couple of years ago and experienced a significant gain in importance with the founding of my own business and the challenges that come with it. Let me discuss this further by going through the next three habits one by one.

  • 4. Think Win-Win: In other words, strive for outcomes that are beneficial for anyone involved.

Not long ago, I would have claimed that nothing should be easier for people than working towards win-win situations. After reading books on negotiation and the nature of giving and taking, I realized that the different aspects of human psychology which come into play complicate things quite a bit. Thinking win-win and truly living it requires significant effort, insurmountable effort perhaps, for those who aren’t naturally inclined to collaborate. I must admit, that it wasn’t until entering university that I myself changed my mind on the topic and discovered the benefits of collaboration in study groups and the like. While I probably could have completed my studies by myself, the pain would have been significantly higher and the gain significantly lower. In time, I developed a tendency to establish collaborations with turned out become a key enabler during my rather interdisciplinary PhD research. Today I actively look for win-win situations in a business context seeking to build relations and collaborations with people who have a mindset similar to my own. In fact, it is a key element of my business strategy today and I tend to practice it. The beauty of the win-win mindset is that it does away with the notion of competing for everything and opens up the possibility of thriving together in collaborations. Needless to say, the habit of win-win thinking is an abstract concept and applies to all sorts of circumstance outside of academia or business.

  • 5. Synergize: In other words, bring the right pieces together such that the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts.

In my eyes enabling synergies is an intrinsic aspect of collaboration. In an academic context this is often quite explicit in research teams. One group for instance could be leveraging their experience and equipment to producing unique experimental data while another group applies their expertise to the challenge of analyzing the data to create new insights. Either group on their own is unlikely to achieve a significant result by themselves. When we collaborate we do not simply add up knowledge and manpower. We try to combine each others strengths and compensate each others weaknesses. Thus, we increase the likelihood of achieving more.

Although collaborating seems fairly straight-forward, it requires a deep understanding of ourselves to productively contribute. Sometimes it is not obvious what our strengths are and sometimes it is hard for us to admit to our weaknesses. In any case, creating a proper environment for synergies to develop is a difficult task and requires experience and practice. After leaving academia I have begun to do just that by translating my experience from research collaborations to projects in a business context. I view my ability to promote synergies as a strategic advantage and am thus actively working on improving it. For the record, the abstract concept of synergies is not restricted to academia or business applications. It just as well applies to interactions with family, friends or even partners.

  • 6. Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood: In other words, listen first, talk second.

This principle is so simple to state and yet so difficult to consistently put into practice. Everyone agrees that being a good listener is a key social skill. Then why is it so hard to listen more and talk less? I must admit, that I do not have an answer to this question. I consistently find myself talking about nodes and edges at great lengths just because the person next to me made the mistake of asking me what it is that I do. I must admit to my shame that sometimes I realize after such an encounter, that I have no idea what the other person is doing. That’s when I figure that I managed to botch it. I believe that this kind of failure can add up to a serious problem in the long run, since it makes for a bad impression and at the same limits my current and future information intake and by extension the opportunities available to me. I trace my overzealous behavior to my desire to my passion and my desire to “get my stuff out there” but I recognize that overdoing it isn’t helping. Ever since I’ve diagnosed this flaw of mine, I am actively working on mitigating it, with some success. Interestingly it seems that as far as I am concerned this flaw triggers primarily in a business context. It won’t come as a surprise when I tell you that listening first and talking second has the potential to enhance all sorts of personal interactions. I maintain that being a good listener can also be seen as an abstract virtue.

Again I’d like to remind you that what I report here pertains to my own personal and ongoing journey towards becoming interdependent. I do believe that there are many other avenues one can walk down in order to practice the habits discussed above. I am not gonna lie, I have a long way to go with regard to achieving my personal “Public Victory”, however, I believe that aiming for it is a worthwhile effort.

Watering the plants

The seventh and final habit that ties everything together and permeates the entire growth journey explored in “The 7 habits of highly effective people” is

  • 7. Sharpening the Saw: In other words, work on all aspects of yourself.

In the book, the final habit is presented as the holistic goal of continually improving oneself in all possible dimensions. What comes to my mind first is mental improvement including reading and continued learning. This also includes critical thinking and frequent challenging of one’s own point of view. Personally, I believe this is the key to becoming and remaining an expert, no matter your field of expertise. I admit that it is easier said than done for it requires both effort and a willingness to let go of possibly long-held yet outdated beliefs when their time has come. For as long as I can remember I have enjoyed asking questions and learning things. One thing that I practice frequently these days is exploring the viewpoints of others in discussions in an attempt to improve my understanding. Needless to say, I fail my attempts on a regular basis.

Sharpening the saw also pertains to physical health. The author strongly recommends investing time and energy into one’s own body and health. During my PhD I started training in martial arts twice a week. Initially, I thought it would be beneficial mostly on a physical level, hopefully counteracting the negative effects of sitting at a desk all day. However, after a couple of years worth of focused training I started to realize mental benefits as well. Not only was I enjoying increased physical relaxation, I also felt an increased capacity to deal with the mental burdens that come with trying to obtain a PhD in computer science.

Next is the social dimension, focusing on improving oneself by helping others. It is natural to help out your friends, families or partners in times of need or even crisis. As soon as fires are put out, take a second to reflect on what it was that dealt with the crisis. Lending a hand not only improves your own crisis management skills but it also deepens the relations to people you support. Lately, I am more active in supporting my friends when I realize that they are struggling. Would I have done this a couple of years ago, certainly, but I would have approached it with an entirely different mindset.

Finally, the recreational and emotional dimension including the cultivation of personal value systems and private commitments. It also includes paying attention to things like music and art and drawing inspiration from them. For me trying to learn an instrument (much like practicing martial arts) is a fine way to operate my brain in an entirely different mode every once in a while. I will refrain from reporting on my attempts at painting.

In his book Stephen R. Covey advises to invest equally in the different dimensions of “Sharpening the Saw”. He states that the quantity of time invested is not the critical factor. Instead, persistent investments are believed to yield the largest returns over the years. My own experience with cultivating knowledge, relationships and skills like playing an instrument or relaxing my body are perfectly consistent with what I found described in the book.

Final thoughts

To me “The 7 habits of highly effective people” by Stephen R. Covey turned out to be a challenging yet extremely valuable and inspiring read. The principles laid out by the 7 habits form an abstract map navigating a possible live-long journey of personal growth.

I strongly suggest any reader to evaluate for herself whether this map and it’s suggested journey aligns with personal values, past experiences and future goals. If so, the book has the potential to become a useful multi-tool of sorts. It allows you to determine where you are currently at in your personal journey of growth, helps you develop a better understanding of how you got here in the first place and gives guidelines to identify what to work on to progress further.

Let me again stress that this book, first and foremost, is about abstract principles that can be applied across all areas of live. The growth journey it suggests applies to dealing with partners, friends, family, raising children, personal development, business and all sorts of other areas.

I illustrated that reading “The 7 habits of highly effective people” prompted me to reevaluate myself and my own life up to this point. On top of that it illustrates one of many possible paths forward. Lately I have begun to observe the behavior of people I know well through the “lens” of the 7 habits. It seems that some of the people I admire most consistently display an uncanny ability in the habits associated with the “Public Victory” while others that report to be somewhat unhappy appear to struggle with one or more habits in the “Private Victory”. Another piece of evidence supporting the validity of the book.

I now repeat what I said in the beginning, because it is fundamental: What you get out of this book for yourself is directly proportional to the amount of time you are willing to spend pondering its concepts and implementing its advice across various areas of your life. As a result, if you simply intend to read the book without the effort of working things out for yourself, do not expect much good to come of it.

Personally, I will keep working on “The 7 habits of highly effective people” in the future as I have (it seems unknowingly) done in the past in my own way. And of course, I will keep this gem of a book on my bookshelf close at hand.

Ah yes, and for those of you who were wondering … my dear friend whose getting fired made it so that this book ended up on my bookshelf, what happened to her? She’s already back at it working at a much better place now, and I mean MUCH better. So, I submit that getting fired was a good thing for both of us.

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