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Book summary: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R Covey

Want to know the secrets to success? This iconic 1989 self-help book by Stephen R Covey shows you how to become a more effective person in business and for the rest of your life by changing how you see the world and better understanding your definition of success. The book has sold more than 25 million copies worldwide since its publication and may owe its success to the fact that Covey tries to help readers adopt a set of timeless and universal values to aid them in creating habits that can be applied to any situation.

His book isn’t about giving you a set of rules or principles to follow; instead, it’s about changing your character and how you see the world. This then informs your behaviours and how you react to different situations. There are no quick fixes here!

The book uses the example of getting lost in a new city. A person with a negative paradigm (the way you see the world) will see it as a frustrating waste of time. Someone with a positive paradigm will see it as an exciting adventure.

Covey’s 7 habits aim to adjust your character so you see the world in a positive paradigm. The titles of these habits can seem a little cryptic at first, so we’ve tried to unpack them for you.

  1. Be proactive
  2. Begin with the end in mind
  3. Put first things first
  4. Think “win-win”
  5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood
  6. Synergise
  7. Sharpen the saw if you want to keep sawing

So what do these mean? Read on to find out.

  1. Be proactive

In this first chapter, Covey highlights the importance of taking responsibility for our lives and choices. Being proactive means recognising that we have the freedom to choose our responses to any given situation, regardless of external circumstances. It involves shifting from a reactive mindset to a proactive one, where we focus on what we can control and influence rather than concerning ourselves with what we can’t. By being proactive, we become the architects of our lives, actively seeking opportunities, taking the initiative, and embracing a mindset of personal accountability, ultimately leading to greater effectiveness and personal growth.

  1. Begin with the end in mind

Covey says that when you take an action, you actually do it twice. The first time is when you imagine doing it, and then again when you actually do it in real life. He uses the example of building a house. First you visualise the house and make the detailed plans of the layout and the materials needed, then you start building it. If you didn’t make the plans first, it is likely that you would make lots of costly mistakes.

The message here is that you are more likely to succeed if you visualise an action and its desired consequences first, instead of just ploughing on, possibly in the wrong direction.

This is the difference between being efficient and being effective. There’s no point in getting lots of tasks done quickly, if the end outcome isn’t what you really want.

  1. Put first things first

This habit is all about prioritisation. You need to figure out the things that are most important and always put them first. But how do you work out what’s most important? Look at this 2×2 matrix:

  Important Not important
Urgent Quadrant 1:

Important and Urgent

Quadrant 3:

Urgent but not Important

Not urgent Quadrant 2:

Important but not Urgent

Quadrant 4:

Not Urgent and Not Important

Covey categorises tasks into one of these four quadrants. He says to focus on Quadrant Two first – these things will have long-term positive impacts and help you towards your larger goals. The more you focus on these, the fewer tasks will eventually appear in Quadrant One, which most people mistakenly believe to be the most important. Of course, you should do the tasks in Quadrant One first, but Covey recommends always working on tasks in Quadrant Two on the side, a little each day.

  1. Think “win-win”

Life is a negotiation. When going into a situation with others, many people seek a “win-lose” outcome – every interaction they have, whether at work or in their personal lives, is seen as a competition. Effective people, on the other hand, see the benefit in giving everyone a fair share of the pie and fostering positive long-term relationships. If you try to approach every situation willing to negotiate until both parties are satisfied, the author suggests that you’ll see greater returns in the end.

Covey says that relationships can be compared to ‘emotional bank accounts.’ This means that you are either paying into or withdrawing from the account whenever you interact with someone. A ‘payment’ could be finding a win-win solution or listening to someone properly. A ‘withdrawal’ could be fighting for a win-lose outcome, breaking a promise, or only pretending to listen.

The most important payment you can make into the emotional bank account is trying to understand someone and truly discover what’s important to them.

  1. Seek first to understand, then to be understood

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply,” says Covey. He explains that we often don’t really listen to people but instead project our own situation onto them and assume that what they think and feel is the same. We then prescribe solutions to them that don’t really work. People rarely trust the advice of someone they don’t feel understands them or the situation.

You need to emphatically listen to others and get inside their frame of reference to understand them intellectually and emotionally. Take note of what they’re saying, but also consider their body language to get the full picture. Only then will people start to really trust your opinions and advice.

  1. Synergise

Synergy means that if you combine two things, the outcome is greater than the combined total of the two separate components. 1+1 can equal 3 or more if you work together. When people work together to tackle a challenge, using everyone’s individual strengths, it’s always better than fighting each other and trying to go it alone. For this, you need to understand, trust and respect each other.

  1. Sharpen the saw if you want to keep sawing

The seventh habit is all about self-improvement. Your tools may be adequate for the job, but if you never stop to sharpen them, they will become less and less effective. Covey uses the analogy of a lumberjack sawing down trees – if he keeps sawing without stopping to sharpen his saw, eventually, it will become blunt, and he won’t be able to cut down trees anymore.

Covey’s key message here is that you need to take care of yourself, stay physically fit, and maintain your emotional and mental well-being through expanding your knowledge and social well-being by having good relationships with others. Give yourself time to recharge instead of working flat-out all of the time, and in the long run, you’ll be a far more effective person.

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