The 7 Habits Revisited

Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was originally published in 1989 and has sold many millions of copies in the past 29 years. I originally read it in 1995, before marriage, children, or having a real job.

I rarely revisit books once I have finished them. There are many great books that I have yet to read, and life is too short to waste on reruns.

However, I wanted to revisit this book, as I had a vague memory of what the seven habits were, but I wanted to see how much of what I remembered was from the book or from hearing other people talk about the book.  The 7 Habits has been a victim of its own success, and during the 1990’s, every wannabe motivational speaker would rehash the 7 habits in some form, and many Michael Scott style managers used the principles from the 7 habits as cliches to manipulate their employees, and the terminology from the book has been commoditized into business-speak. So if someone says to you “let’s meet together and synergize” you probably would roll your eyes.

But put all that aside and go back to the book. Despite all of the technological change that has happened in the three decades since 7 Habits was published, the book still holds up quite well. I’ve recently read some other business books that were published around the same time, and none of them are as still relevant as the 7 habits. I think this is because Covey focuses on principles and avoids the temptation to reference popular companies and people of the late 1980’s–he does include stories about companies that he has advised but doesn’t include many specific names.

Another reason that 7 Habits holds up well is that it is a reaction to popular self-help quick fix books. Those don’t work. Just seeking to be efficient also doesn’t make you successful.

In some ways, the 7 habits seem more meaningful now than it was 30 years ago–the pace of life and business has increased exponentially, with the internet and smartphones increasingly merging work life and personal life together. If you aren’t proactive, if you don’t prioritize (put first things first), and sharpen the saw, it doesn’t matter how efficient or productive you are. Seek to be as productive as you can, but stay grounded and true to your core principles.

The p/pc balance is still true. P (production) is what you do, PC (production capacity) is what enables you to do what you do–learning, feeding your soul, your relationships with others, getting enough sleep and exercise. Over the years I’ve been successful and making the P side very efficient, while too often ignoring the PC side (like trying to get by with too little sleep). Focusing on the P can give you short-term gains, but there is a price to pay down the road. This is the Biblical principle of sowing and reaping.

And in case you haven’t read the book, here is a summary of the 7 habits.

  1. Be proactive–this chapter has a really helpful discussion of the circle of concern vs. the circle of influence. The circle of concern is everything that you are concerned about–injustice on a macro level, taxes, national politics, etc. You have very little control over these areas. The circle of influence is the things within your circle of concern over which you have direct or indirect control–your job, your relationship with others, organizations that you are associated with. Focus your energy on the things within your circle of influence and seek to expand your circle of influence.
  2. Begin with the end in mind–this builds upon habit 1 and talks about visualizing how the outcomes you want. It starts with imagining seeing yourself at your funeral and what you want to hear the people in your life saying about you. Covey recommends writing a mission statement that covers all of your roles in life–father, son, mother, boss, employee, student, etc. I have mixed feelings about mission statements–it’s too easy to write something that sounds good and then forget about it. I agree with identifying the roles in your life and thinking through the “why” behind the role–this is helpful to ensure that you aren’t neglecting any of them.
  3. Put first things first–this habit takes the outcomes and roles that you have visualized in Habit 2 and puts it into practice for how you approach scheduling your life. You are going to play by someone’s script–either you have a script or someone will write one for you. Prioritize your activities based on the four quadrants: quadrants Most people spend all of their time in quadrants 1 and 3, then they get burnt out and retreat to quadrant 4 (hello Netflix). If you feel like you are always putting out fires, this is where you are. By identifying your goals and mission (habit 2), you can take proactive steps to spend time on quadrant 2 activities–this goes back to the P/PC balance. What this looks like for me is every weekend I review my calendar for the next week and verify that I have time scheduled for things that matter to me–meeting with friends, learning, and personal development, etc. If my schedule is overly booked and will prevent me from spending time in quadrant 2, I will reschedule or cancel less important meetings to make time.
  4. Think win-win–do you find yourself competing with your spouse? Do you secretly resent your colleague’s promotion? Do you view sales relationships as a winner take all sport? This is the habit for you. Thinking win-win has been helpful for me when negotiating conflicts with my children–sure when you are bigger than them, you usually can win the fight, but over time lose the war. And it’s important to note that Covey doesn’t suggest just being the nice guy–this is not capitulation. Stay true to your principles and what is important to you, and if you can’t reach a win-win outcome, no deal is an option. And he also doesn’t suggest win-win is the only viable outcome–there are short-term transactions where win-lose and lose-win might strategically be the preferred option. But when dealing with those close to you–your family, your children, your coworkers, and long-term customers, win-win is the way to go.
  5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood–this is probably the hardest one for me. If you went to the eye doctor and said that you had trouble with your vision, and he just gave you a prescription without first diagnosing you, that doctor would not be much help. The same applies to business and our interaction with those close to us. It’s easy to see things through our experiences and to prescribe fixes for others without first understand where they are coming from. After re-reading the book I immediately saw several interactions where my knee-jerk reaction wasn’t really listening to the other person. I find the author’s discussion of empathic listening very helpful–as someone who approaches life more logically, it takes work for me to really listen to what people are saying, rather than how they are saying it. This chapter also talks about the emotional bank account–in your relationship with others you are making deposits in their emotional bank account. If you listen to them and keep your commitments, you will build trust and credibility. If you mess up, don’t listen, or break commitments, you make withdrawals from the emotional bank account. This is an important reminder to always be making deposits in the emotional bank account of those close to you so that the relationship can take some inevitable withdrawals. And when you make a withdrawal, be quick to apologize for it.
  6. Synergize–the team is greater than the sum of its individual parts. If you are a leader, you are not the most important person or the reason for the success of your organization.
  7. Sharpen the saw–this is the PC in P/PC balance. Take the time to invest every day to grow in the four areas of life–physical, mental, spiritual and social. He talks about the upward spiral–iteratively growing in each of these areas. I find I’m really strong at some of these areas, like continually learning new things, but I do them at the expense of others (like physical). This is a reminder to me to seek a balanced life and invest more in the areas that I ignore when life gets busy.

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