The classic. The foundation of success in life and business. In this masterpiece, Stephen Covey explains exactly what it is all successful and effective people have in common. Let’s figure them out together.
Part 1: Paradigms & Principles
Before getting into the 7 habits or principles of effectiveness, it is very important to know what a ‘paradigm’ means.
So what does it mean?
A paradigm is basically the way by which we – people – see and perceive the world around us. And this is VERY, VERY powerful. Why? Because our paradigm influences our behaviour and attitude. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The key message Covey is trying to give here is that real, long-term and significant change is only possible with the ‘right’ paradigm.
Covey makes a distinction between 2 types of ‘success’ paradigms: the Character ethic and the Personality ethic.
The Character ethic believes that people can only experience real success and happiness if they integrate some basic principles into their character such as courage, fairness, integrity, honesty, etc. These principles are deep, fundamental truths that have universal application. Among Covey, when these truths can be internalized into habits, they will empower people to deal with life situations effectively.
The Personality ethic believes that our attitude and behaviour is the key towards success. Covey puts a much higher value on the Character ethic, stating that the way we are (our character) determines the way we see and perceive the world. He therefore believes more in the importance of the paradigm and the principles people are living by instead of their behaviour and attitude (the words they’re saying and their actions). Our paradigms – he states – are the sources of our behaviour and attitude and are therefore more important.
The problem with the Personality ethic is that it thinks short-term. It wants the shortcut, the ‘quick fix’, the ‘fast’ solution. They will then find people who will teach them, and for a short time things might get better. But the underlying chronic condition remains unchanged. It’s still there somewhere deep inside and you know it. As Covey explains, all growth and development in life is naturally slow and incremental. You can’t skip ahead. Take for example, growing muscle in the gym. It may take you 100 to 200 gym sessions to see some decent results.
The solution Covey provides is to take a character-based, inside-out approach. Start with yourself first : your paradigms, your character, and your motives & principles. As Covey says: “Private victories will precede public ones.” Now, let’s kick into the 7 principles and make them yours.
Part 2: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
The first 3 habits focus on independence or ‘private victories’, while the following ones focus on interdependence or ‘public victories’.
As Covey explains, all human beings go through 3 sequential stages of maturity: dependence – independence – interdependence. As an infant, we are totally dependent on the support of others (our parents) in order to survive.
Then – as we hit adulthood – we become more and more independent. Thoughts that characterize this stage are “I’m responsible for my life, I can do it myself now, I can choose”.
However, the ultimate goal of effective living is the interdependence or the “we” – paradigm. In this stage, people realize that they can accomplish far more by companionship and cooperation than alone. It’s the paradigm of togetherness, teamwork and love. Covey explains that in order to reach the interdependent stage, people first need to be fully independent. As Covey argues, once you become truly independent, you have the foundation for effective interdependence.
Therefore, let’s start with the first 3 habits.
HABIT 1: BE PROACTIVE ( ~ REALIZING YOU ARE ‘THE PROGRAMMER’)
By this, Covey means that YOU are responsible for your life. YOU are free to choose. Your behaviour is function of your decisions, not your conditions. Responsibility or “response-ability” actually means that YOU have the ability to choose your response. Highly effective people – as Covey argues – embrace that responsibility. They do not blame their circumstances, conditions or the people around them. Their behaviour is a product of their own conscious choice – based on their values – rather than their conditions – based on feelings.
You probably already noticed a difference between 2 kinds of people in the world: proactive and reactive people.
Reactive people feel constantly affected by their physical and social environment. If the weather is good, they feel good. If other people are nice to them, they feel good and vice versa. Reactive people are driven by feelings and think that they are determined by their circumstances, conditions and environment.
Proactive people are driven by values, not feelings. Their response to external stimuli is always a value-based choice. They can reframe a negative stimuli from outside into something positive, something they value. They realize that they are always free to choose their response towards a specific situation.
A good way to evaluate your own degree of proactivity is to look at which things consume most of your time and energy. Highly proactive people focus solely on the things they have control over. Covey calls this “the circle of influence”. All things within this circle are under your direct control and are therefore worth focusing on. Reactive people however focus most of their time and energy on things they don’t have control over, which Covey calls the “the circle of concern”.
For all people who start realizing that they aren’t very proactive, try to work in your circle of influence for 30 days and see what happens.
HABIT 2: BEGIN WITH THE END IN MIND (~ REALIZING YOU CAN WRITE THE PROGRAM)
Covey wants YOU to have a clear picture of where YOU want to go in life. In modern society – with all its external stimuli – it has become very easy to get caught up in busyness, losing yourself in (often meaningless) day-to-day activities. It is important to understand that busyness does not equal effectiveness. You might work very hard and do a lot of things, that – at the same time – lead you to “no-man’s-land”.
An effective person has a destination, something he or she lives for day in – day out. That person knows exactly what he or she wants out of life and where he or she is going.
That person begins with ‘the end’ in mind.
As Covey explains brilliantly, all things in life are created twice: the first one is a mental creation, the second a physical one. Think of building a home: you first create a construction plan before actually start building the house up. The same holds for starting a business, parenting and many other life areas. The key message is that YOU are responsible for both creations, especially the first one. If you are not self-aware enough, you risk that the first creation comes from other people’s agendas (friends, family, etc.), pressures of circumstances, or past habits and conditioning. Therefore, in order to really become your own first creator, you have to use your self-awareness, conscience and imagination to decide for yourself what you really want out of life.
The best way to begin with ‘the end’ in mind – among Covey – is to create a Personal Mission Statement. This statement will express the values and principles you want to live by – and therefore -give you a basis for making daily, effective decisions. It gives you direction and purpose in life and helps you to focus your time and energy on the things you really want. It can also be a basis for long- and short term goals. Writing a personal mission statements is highly personal: it requires deep introspection, careful analysis and thoughtfulness. Creating a personal mission statement always begins with knowing yourself: knowing your values, principles and your vision. If you can detect these, you can write your personal constitution.
See below an example of how your personal mission statement could look like:
- Always be sincere, yet decisive / Plan tomorrow’s work today/ Maintain a positive attitude/ Keep a sense of humour/ Do not fear mistakes/ Listen twice as much as you speak/ etc.
- These are just bullet-points. Of course, you can also write a full text format. It’s just to show you the idea of how a PMS could look like. It represents your mission, values and priorities.
HABIT 3: PUT FIRST THINGS FIRST (~ REALIZING YOU CAN EXECUTE THE PROGRAM)
Once you made clear the values and principles by which you want to live and set out your vision, it’s time for effective self-management. This is the ability to set priorities and execute on them. As Covey argues, this requires self-discipline or the ability to delay short-term gratification in order to live in accordance with your values and purpose in life. It will require you to control your feelings, emotions, impulses and moods in order to move toward your ultimate goals.
The key for effective self-management – among Covey – is to focus more on important things, rather than urgent things. Be aware of the difference. Urgent things require immediate attention. They act on us, press on us and insist immediate action. We live in reaction to them. It can be a ringing phone, a new email, a Facebook poke, etc. People often think these are important, but – in reality – they aren’t. Important things contribute to your mission, values and high priority goals. Important matters that are not urgent require us to be more proactive. These can include activities such as planning, building relationships, exercising, preparation, etc. All these activities may not be ‘urgent’, but they are highly important. They require us to act, to seize opportunities and make things happen. Effective people focus on important matters and try to limit the ‘urgent’ ones. They think preventively. They plan now to avoid urgent matters arising in the future.
Covey further explains an interesting planning method that will allow you to put first things first and focus on the important matters in your life. The method consists of 4 key activities:
- Identifying roles: Find out your key roles and write them down. For example, you can have a role as a family member (child/parent), a spouse, a manager, a young entrepreneur, a soccer player, etc.
- Selecting goals: Think of one or two important results you want to accomplish in each role for the next week. Covey highly recommends to organize on a weekly basis, since it provides much greater balance and context than daily planning.
- Scheduling: After you identified your roles and goals, you can translate each goal to a specific day of the week.
- Daily adapting: Of course, things might not always go according to your plans. Therefore, you might take a few minutes each day to review your schedule. Always remember to prioritize those activities that are in touch with your values.
Another key towards effective management – among Covey – is delegation. This means: transferring responsibility to other skilled and trained people. It will enable you to give your energies to other high-leverage activities. And the best way to do it, is through stewardship delegation: it gives the people under you the freedom to choose the method, as long as the desired results are delivered. Covey argues that trust is the highest form of human motivation and that it brings about the best in people. Effective delegation, he argues, is the ultimate basic requirement for both personal and organizational growth.
HABIT 4: THINK WIN-WIN
Once you have internalized the first 3 habits, it’s time for the public victories in which – not only you – but the people around you can benefit. The principle of win-win is fundamental to success in all our day-to-day interactions. Firstly, let’s explore how Covey reveals the 6 paradigms of human interaction. I will shortly explain them so you can see which one is prominent in your life and realize that moving to a better paradigm might be a good idea.
- Win/Win: Paradigm that seeks out mutual benefit in human interactions. Relies on the principle that all parties win. Everyone feels genuinely good about the decision that is made.
- Win/Lose: Paradigm that says: “I win, you lose”. Mostly characterized by people that are ‘ego-centered’ and therefore eager to use their position, power, credentials, possessions to get things their way. This paradigm is often reinforced by social conditioning, through our educational systems (f.ex: A-B-C grades), peer group pressure, sports and law.
- Lose/Win: Paradigm that says: “I lose, you win”. Characterized by people with no OR lack of standards, vision and personal boundaries. They typically have little courage to express their own thoughts and feelings and are eager to please other people. Win/Lose people love them, because they can take advantage of them.
- Lose/Lose: Paradigm arising from 2 Win/Lose people fighting to ‘win’. Eventually, they will both lose.
- Win: Paradigm where people just want to win and don’t care about the result of the other person(s) involved. Probably the most common paradigm if there is no competition.
So which one is best? : In an interdependent reality, Win/Win is the only viable alternative. As Covey explains, there are exceptions. In some cases, the best option is dependent upon the situation. For example, if you value a relationship more than the outcome, you can go for a Lose/Win paradigm. Think of a parent that let his/her child win a game, just because the parent loves the child and wants the child to feel happy.
However, there is a 6th paradigm – and in my opinion – the most powerful one:
- Win/Win or No Deal: Paradigm in which both parties go for a win/win situation. It says: ‘I want to win and I want you to win too’ . However, if no win-win solution is found, both parties agree on a ‘No Deal’. Nothing happens. This is a very honest and liberating approach to human interactions. Recommended at the beginning of a business relationship. But not always realistic, for example in continuing business relationships.
How do “Win/Win people” look like?
–> Win/Win-oriented people have 3 characteristics in common:
- Integrity: The degree to which you can ‘walk your talk’ and keep your commitments.
- Maturity: The ability to express one’s own feelings and convictions (courage) balanced with consideration for the thoughts and feelings of others (consideration).
- Abundance mentality: flows out of a deep inner sense of personal worth and security. This is a mentality that there is enough for everybody and results in sharing of prestige, profits, decision-making, etc. All public victories in life flow out of this mentality.
Once you’ve internalized these traits, high-trust and quality relationships can flourish and win-win performance agreements can be made. The Win/Win-principle thrives because of habit 5 and 6. Let’s examine them.
HABIT 5: SEEK FIRST TO UNDERSTAND, THEN TO BE UNDERSTOOD
Did you ever feel like you were listening to another person with the solely goal to respond, to speak again or preparing to do so? Exactly. That’s how most people listen: with their own stories in their head, impatiently waiting for their turn to speak again. They listen ‘autobiographically’. They want to be understood first.
As Covey argues, it requires a total paradigm shift to move away from this type of listening. In order to “seek first to understand, then to be understood”, Covey wants you to move to empathic listening. What does this mean?
It means that you listen with the intent to understand first. You move into the other person’s frame of reference and understand how he/she really feels. It means listening with your heart, not only your ears. Giving the other person this feeling of understanding is one of the most appreciated things in the world. It is a fundamental need of every human being. By listening first to understand, you give that other person – what Covey calls – “psychological air”. It is space you’re giving to another person so that person can feel comfortable opening up to you. You’re giving that person space to talk about his or her deepest problems, desires, wishes, etc. This is why habit 5 is another key principle to effective communication.
HABIT 6: SYNERGIZE
Synergy is – among Covey – the highest activity in all life. It is a true test and manifestation of all other habits I’ve discussed above. What does synergy mean? Very simple: 1 + 1 = 3. To put it in words: ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’ It refers to the deep realization that you can achieve more in team and collaboration than on your own. It is the fundamental principle of interdependent effectiveness.
The key of synergy?
Not only physical differences, but also mental, emotional and psychological ones. In order to synergize, you have to realize that every human being sees the world through his or her own paradigm. In other words, each human being sees the world – not as it is – but as they are.
In the book, Covey explains this concept brilliantly with the following words:
“The person who is truly effective has the humility and reverence to recognize his own perceptual limitations and to appreciate the rich resources available through interaction with the hearts and minds of other human beings. That person values the differences because those differences add to his knowledge, to his understanding of reality.”
Please read this a couple of times to fully grasp this idea. I think it’s brilliantly described. To communicate synergistically starts with being open to new possibilities, new ideas and new options. The more open you are regarding personal experiences and doubts, the more people can relate to your expression and the bigger the chance they will open up to you too. A synergy can be created.
An interesting model related to this idea comes from Kurt Lewin, a well-known sociologist. He created the Force Field Analysis. The driving forces are generally positive, conscious, logical and reasonable. They guide you towards your desired state or goal. The restraining forces are generally negative, unconscious, emotional, and illogical. They discourage the achievement of your goal. When you make it a habit to synergize, you create an atmoshpere where it is safe to talk about these restraining forces. By being open about your feelings, desires, ideas and experiences, the restraining forces will eventually dissolve and turn into driving forces.
HABIT 7: SHARPEN THE SAW
What does ‘sharpen the saw’ mean?
It means exercising and renewing the 4 dimensions of our nature in a frequent and balanced way: physical, spiritual, mental and social/emotional. These will make us move on an upward spiral of growth and change, of continuous improvement. Let’s take a look at them:
- The physical dimension: involves caring effectively for your physical body. How? By eating the right kinds of foods, getting sufficient rest and relaxation and exercising on a regular basis. Covey argues that a good exercise program contains endurance, flexibility and strength Endurance includes all cardiovascular exercises like running, swimming, cycling, etc. Flexibility refers to stretching. Strength comes from muscle resistance exercises (lifting weights, calisthenics, etc.)
- The spiritual dimension: involves your core, your centre, your commitment to your value system. How to renew it? Meditation, reading, nature are all things that can help you to become spiritually centred again, ready to serve.
- The mental dimension: involves educating yourself and expanding your mind in order to become more creative. How? This can be reading great literature, writing, organizing and planning, etc.
- The social/emotional dimension: involves exercising our social interactions. This requires us to ‘own’ the 7 habits since these will make it possible to control our emotions and having effective social encounters.
As Covey explains, the self-renewal process in all 4 dimensions must be balanced. When you neglect one area, it will negatively affect the other areas. Each dimension is important.
Balanced renewal is optimally synergistic: the things you do to sharpen the saw in one dimension have a positive impact in other dimensions because of their interrelatedness. For example: your physical health affects your mental health.