True North Principles: A Paradigm for Success

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "First Things First" by Stephen R. Covey. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are true north principles? How can these principles help you on your life journey?

In his book First Things First, Steven Covey introduces the notion of true north principles. These principles—like true north—give you direction and context for where you are and how to reach your destination.

Keep reading for more about Steven Covey’s true north principles.

Understanding “True North” Principles

There are a number of fundamental principles that govern the world, and if you lead your life in accordance with these, you’ll have a much smoother experience. While you can control your actions, you can’t control the external consequences to those actions; principles determine those consequences. True north principles include integrity, moderation, self-discipline, loyalty, responsibility, honesty, and patience.

Just like true north is the same regardless of where you’re standing in the world and which direction you’re facing, principles are the same no matter your paradigms, culture, or generation. And principles—like true north—give you direction and context for where you are and how to reach your destination. True north principles are the key to the First Things First method of time management. 

Principles Are Not Practices

To better understand true north principles, let’s look at what they’re not. Principles are not practices: Practices are skills and actions that emphasize methods but fail to create foundational change. Practices can help you achieve short-term results in certain situations, but they won’t be universally applicable and their effectiveness tends to dissipate in the long term. 

For example, you can develop and implement practices to make you appear more trustworthy that may garner short-term positive results. However, if you don’t have a paradigm based on the principle of honesty, people will eventually see through your act.

People are often tempted to cling to practices in an effort to impose some form of structure and stability on their lives. People tend to develop a practice based on what works in one situation, but when they try to apply it to the next situation and it doesn’t work, they’re at a loss or they try stubbornly to make a square peg fit in a round hole. This can create major problems for both institutions and families: Think of parents who try to apply the same parenting practices that worked with their first child on their second child, who is totally different in character and temperament. 

Implementing a practice is like getting a fish, whereas implementing principles is like learning how to fish. You can apply true north principles to any situation in life, and you can then develop practices for individual situations that are based on those universal principles. 

There Are No Quick Fixes

We all like to believe in quick fixes, but if you want to make substantial change in your life—even in one area of your life—you need to address the root cause of the issue, and this always comes back to paradigms. Your principles govern your behavior, and if your behavior is creating an undesirable result, the only way to change it in the long term is to shift to an importance paradigm and focus on true north principles such as integrity and patience. This isn’t a quick process.

Think of how true north principles pertain to each of your four fundamental needs. 

The well-being of your physical needs—which include your body as well as your finances—depends on healthy habits that you maintain over time. This requires the principles of self-discipline and thrift. To keep your body healthy, you must exercise, eat well, get enough sleep, and try to avoid stress; attempting to shortcut this process with quick-fix diets, energy drinks, and makeup won’t actually benefit your health. Similarly, your financial health is determined by your ability to save and manage your money well, not by jumping on get-rich-quick schemes or praying for a winning lottery ticket. 

Developing deep, intimate relationships to fulfill your social need takes time, effort, and the principle of trust. Trust, in particular, takes time to develop through positive interactions, kept promises, and displays of love and caring. If you try to shortcut your social needs with purely sexual relationships or by using your money or position to gain affection, you won’t feel truly fulfilled and satisfied. 

Satisfying your mental needs is a process of continual growth and learning;  it doesn’t stop when you finish school. However, many people take the short-term view of learning in school in order to get high grades, to get into college, and ultimately to get a good-paying job. But even if you follow that progression and reach your goal, how satisfied do you expect to be working at a job where you don’t feel that you’re challenging or expanding your mind?

True spiritual satisfaction involves finding a higher meaning and purpose and helping others. This requires the principles of reciprocity and service. The quick-fix our society tends to promote is achieving spiritual fulfillment through self-focused efforts, like raising your self-esteem and working on self-improvement. Although these are valuable practices, you won’t feel a greater sense of purpose if your effort doesn’t reach beyond yourself. 

True North Principles: A Paradigm for Success

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  • How to work effectively, not just efficiently
  • Why you need to think more about what you're spending time on than how much time you're spending
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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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