In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey distills timeless wisdom into seven lifelong practices for building a successful, fulfilling life. Rather than small, daily actions like brushing your teeth, these habits are patterns of thinking and acting that represent a broader approach to life. They are:
Collectively, Covey’s seven habits help you to examine and adjust your character, your motives, and how you see the world in order to become more effective both personally and professionally.
(Shortform note: In the evolution of self-help books, 7 Habits takes a character-focused approach to self-improvement—changing perspective and motivation in order to alter behavior—amid a sea of behavior-focused self-help classics like How to Win Friends and Influence People, which share practical tips to conduct yourself differently.)
Before we dive into the habits, let’s examine Covey’s approach and goal for readers who adopt the seven habits.
Covey writes that changing your behaviors and your life requires you to change your paradigms, or perspectives. Your perspectives impact how you interpret situations, and your interpretations dictate your behavior; thus, changing your perspective changes your behavior. Taking this a step further, your behaviors determine your outcomes, which collectively shape your life.
(Shortform note: Covey doesn’t specify how to change your perspectives. James Allen argues in As A Man Thinketh that problems arise from negative thinking, so you should think positively to improve your perspective and reality. Alternatively, in Awaken the Giant Within, Tony Robbins asserts that changing your perspective requires reprogramming your neuro-associations—good or bad feelings linked to people and situations based on your past experiences.)
Covey distills his advice into habits in order to:
The seven habits aim to make you effective, which means that you target your efforts to get the most important things done, thus raising the quality of your accomplishments. (Shortform note: Covey’s emphasis on effectiveness was likely inspired by Peter F. Drucker, who argued in 1966 that success as a business leader requires effectiveness.)
According to Covey, a cornerstone of effective living is interdependence, which means that you can take care of your needs but you recognize that you can achieve more through collaboration. (Shortform note: While Covey focuses on developing interdependence as an individual, John C. Maxwell describes similar traits among successful leaders. In The 5 Levels of Leadership, Maxwell writes that the most effective leaders—those at Level 4 and Level 5—combine their leadership skills with their team members’ talents for collaborative greatness.)
Now, let’s dive into the habits. Habits 1-3 focus on personal effectiveness, while 4-6 stress effectiveness through collaboration. For clarity, we present each habit in the same format:
Take initiative (Covey labels this habit “be proactive”). In other words, change the problems that you can change and accept the ones you can’t.
According to Covey, Habit 1 lays the foundation for the subsequent habits because taking initiative is key to adopting new behaviors. Rather than being reactive (externally influenced) and allowing your environment or circumstances dictate how you feel and act, being proactive (initiative-taking) empowers you to choose your thoughts and actions.
(Shortform note: Taking initiative entails taking control of your actions and your responses to circumstances—and positive psychology researcher Shawn Achor asserts that feeling in control makes you happier, more motivated, less stressed, physically healthier, and better at communicating and problem-solving.)
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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People distills common knowledge and oft-repeated wisdom—from classic philosophy to religious teachings—into seven lifelong practices for building a successful, fulfilling life. Rather than small, daily actions like brushing your teeth, these habits are patterns of thinking and acting that represent a broader approach to life. Collectively, the seven habits help you to identify and accomplish the things that are most important to you.
In this classic, Stephen R. Covey is credited with creating the “business self-help” genre with advice that draws on his business management expertise as well as his Mormon faith. The seven habits are applicable for both personal and professional growth—and that has played a large part in the book’s enduring success.
The seven habits are:
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People distills timeless wisdom into seven lifelong practices for building a successful, fulfilling life. Collectively, the seven habits help you to identify and accomplish the things that are most important to you.
Before we dive into the habits, let’s examine Covey’s approach and goal for readers who adopt the seven habits.
Covey writes that in order to improve your behaviors, yourself, and your life, you must first examine and shift your paradigms, which are the lenses through which you see the world. Your paradigms, or perspectives, shape how you interpret your situations and surroundings, and your interpretations dictate your behavior; thus, changing your perspective changes your behavior. Taking this a step further, your behaviors determine your outcomes, which collectively shape your life.
Consider this example of how perspectives, interpretations, behaviors, and results are intertwined:
Perspective #1: A supervisor believes that people act primarily for their own gain.
Interpretation #1: She notices that her subordinates seldom take the initiative to start tasks, and she assumes (per her perspective) that this...
Each person has a unique set of perspectives that determine how they see the world and how they react to people, events, and situations. Use this exercise to better understand your perspectives.
Describe a recent situation in which you and another person interpreted an event or situation differently. Whether this was an interaction between the two of you or a story in the news, you both had access to the same facts but each had a different takeaway.
In this chapter, we’ll discuss how and why Covey presents his self-help advice through seven sequential habits. Whether you adopt the seven habits casually or practice them religiously, you can optimize your results by understanding the rationale behind them.
Covey has established that changing your perspective is the first step to self-improvement—but he doesn’t say exactly how to do that. On one hand, altering your perspective is a first step in adopting the seven habits we’ll explore—and, on the other hand, a perspective shift is also the result of practicing the seven habits.
In this way, habits have a dual role.
Because habits have this cyclical relationship with character, they are an ideal tool for Covey’s internal approach: The seven habits are designed to build from the foundation up, establishing a mindset, skills, and routines that help you identify and achieve the things that are most important to you.
Additionally, **calling them “habits” underscores...
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(Shortform note: While Covey elaborates on the importance of accepting the unchangeable, Robbins’s major emphasis throughout Awaken the Giant Within is on taking control through your decisions and your mindset.)
Habit 1 lays the foundation for the subsequent habits because taking initiative is key to adopting new behaviors and improving your life. This is the first of three habits that focus on your internal life and independence through your mindset, vision, and priorities (the other two are Envision the Life You Want and Prioritize Important Over Urgent). Covey has dubbed these habits “private victories”; we’ll call them habits for personal improvement.
He writes that every situation presents a choice between being reactive (externally influenced) or proactive (initiative-taking).
You need an initiative-taking mindset to grow and make positive changes in your life. Use this exercise to examine your mindset so you can become more proactive.
Describe a recent conflict or situation in which a person or circumstance was troubling you, and how you handled it.
Covey argues that you have to imagine the life you want before you can achieve it. Creating this vivid picture helps to keep you focused amid daily demands and distractions. In other words, you need a clear sense of your destination and direction to avoid being derailed by detours.
(Shortform note: While Covey’s point is fairly common sense—you can’t reach a destination you haven’t identified—Tony Robbins argues in Awaken the Giant Within that focusing on your goals is more complex: It actually works both on a subconscious and a conscious level. First, Robbins writes that such focus triggers a sort of radar in a part of your brain called the Reticular Activating System, which directs your attention to resources and opportunities that can help you achieve those goals. Second, inspiring and exciting goals create motivation on a...
Your personal manifesto keeps you on track with your values and big-picture goals. Use this exercise to start drafting yours.
Which core(s) listed in the chapter (such as spouse center, family center, work center, money center, self center, pleasure center) primarily drives your goals and actions in life?
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(Shortform note: While Covey’s advice is helpful for assessing and prioritizing tasks, it may help to complement his strategy with the more detailed, systematic approach described in Getting Things Done, by management consultant David Allen, which we’ll discuss below.)
Covey explains that all tasks can be categorized based on their urgency and importance: An activity can be one (either urgent or important), both, or neither.
To get a greater understanding, let’s examine each of Covey’s categories of tasks, which he refers to as quadrants. (Spoiler alert: Habit 3 teaches you to spend most of your time on Category-2 tasks.)
Reflect on the time you spend in each of the time management categories; this is an important first step to shifting how you spend your time.
Name one Category-1 (urgent and important) task you did today and explain why it belongs in that category.
Now that you’ve developed your independence in Habits 1-3, Habits 4-6 build on that foundation by focusing on interdependent (or collaborative) success through strong relationships and effective interactions.
Interpersonal success starts with approaching every interaction as an opportunity to find a mutually beneficial outcome. Covey calls this a Win/Win mindset. This is admittedly difficult:
But he argues that the effort is worth it:
To better understand the mutually beneficial mindset, see how it compares to other approaches to negotiation.
Reaching a mutually beneficial solution can be difficult, depending on your emotional involvement in the issue, your relationship with the other person, and their willingness to strive for a win/win outcome. Follow this exercise to improve your current approach.
Describe a current or recent disagreement you’ve had with someone.
We discussed in Habit 4 that an essential step in reaching a mutually beneficial solution is to try to understand the other person’s perspective and concerns. The key to understanding people is to listen with the intent to grasp their perspectives; this is empathic listening. Empathic listening involves not only hearing people’s words but also paying attention to their nonverbal cues, like their posture, gestures, and cadence.
(Shortform note: Empathic listening is a cornerstone of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a communication framework that is rooted in compassion and understanding and outlined in the book, Nonviolent Communication. Author Marshall B. Rosenberg developed and used NVC in his work with civil rights activists and school desegregationists in the 1960s.)
As your empathic listening improves, you’ll progress through the...
We all have misunderstandings from time to time—and sometimes the consequences are more severe than others. Use this exercise to see how you can practice careful, empathic listening to avoid misunderstandings in the future.
Describe a recent situation in which you misinterpreted or misunderstood someone.
According to Covey, collaboration creates an outcome that’s greater than the sum of its parts, as in 1+1 = 3 or more (for example, the harmony of two people singing together is entirely different than any sound either could produce alone). This is possible because the relationship itself adds value by creating the opportunity for collaboration.
Covey says you can’t create this kind of collaborative magic without the interdependent habits we’ve already discussed:
These habits foster trust and goodwill, which enables both parties to communicate openly, and that makes collaboration possible. The table below shows the important relationship between trust, communication, and outcomes.
You must keep yourself mentally and physically healthy in order to avoid burnout and continue being productive. Covey returns here to the concept of balancing output and capacity from Part 1. In this case, your good habits and positive behavior are the output, and your physical, mental, and emotional health is the capacity.
Covey says self-renewal not only enables you to continue practicing the other six habits—it actually improves your efficiency and effectiveness, creating an upward spiral of growth and self-improvement. Self-renewal nurtures your conscience, the small voice that pushes you toward what’s right and aligned with your principles. As you feed and strengthen your conscience, it helps you stay disciplined and focused on a principle-centered path that fosters growth through the seven habits.
Self-Care Buffers Against Stress
While Covey focuses on how self-renewal enhances your positive habits, he overlooks the fact that one of the pivotal ways it does this is by [weakening the negative impacts of...