The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People


The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was originally published in 1989 and has had multiple editions published since then. There’s a certain humility to Covey’s presentation of the material. When asked:

“How did you come up with the ideas in The 7 Habits?”

Covey replied, “I didn’t.”

In follow-up, Covey was asked, “What do you mean? You wrote the book.”

Covey responded, “Yes, I wrote the book, but the principles were known long before me.” He continued, “They are more like natural laws. All I did was put them together, to synthesize them for people.”

The previous is a slightly paraphrased story within the 25th anniversary edition of the book.

Covey focuses on perception and paradigms. How do we see the world, our place in it, and what mental models (paradigms) we use to exist. He “was also deeply immersed in an in-depth study of the success literature published in the United States since 1776.” With 200 years worth of material to study, Covey recognized a shift in paradigms.

The first 150 years worth of literature focused on what he describes as the character ethic; values, principles, practices, and tools like integrity, humility, and treating others as you would like to be treated. Shortly after World War I, the literature changed its focus from the character ethic to what Covey describes as the personality ethic; public image and relations along with positive mental attitudes and, in some cases, “clearly manipulative, even deceptive, encouraging people to use techniques to get other people to like them, or to fake interest in the hobbies of others to get out of them what they wanted, or to use the ‘power look,’ or to intimidate their way through life.”

Covey saw this as a paradigm shift within the success literature. Away from the character ethic and toward the personality ethic. Away from how do I view myself toward how others perceive me.

It’s worth noting that Covey didn’t view the paradigms of the character and personality ethics as binary with one being inherently good and the other evil, respectively. Instead, he recognized what he called primary and secondary traits and that the character ethic is primary while the personality ethic is secondary, stating:

I am not suggesting that elements of the Personality Ethic—personality growth, communication skill training, and education in the field of influence strategies and positive thinking—are not beneficial, in fact sometimes essential for success. I believe they are. But these are secondary, not primary traits. […]

If I try to use human influence strategies and tactics of how to get other people to do what I want, to work better, to be more motivated, to like me and each other—while my character is fundamentally flawed, marked by duplicity and insincerity—then, in the long run, I cannot be successful. […]

There are, of course, situations where people have character strength but they lack communication skills, and that undoubtedly affects the quality of relationships as well. But the effects are still secondary. […]

In the words of Thoreau, “For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root.” We can only achieve quantum improvements in our lives as we quit hacking at the leaves of attitude and behavior and get to work on the root, the paradigms from which our attitudes and behaviors flow. […]

The Character Ethic is based on the fundamental idea that there are principles that govern human effectiveness—natural laws in the human dimension that are just as real, just as unchanging and unarguably “there” as laws such as gravity are in the physical dimension.

It is at this point that Covey further defines principles, specifically differentiating them from practices and values:

Principles are not practices. A practice is a specific activity or action. A practice that works in one circumstance will not necessarily work in another, as parents who have tried to raise a second child exactly like they did the first can readily attest. […]

Principles are not values. A gang of thieves can share values, but they are in violation of the fundamental principles we’re talking about. Principles are the territory. Values are maps. When we value correct principles, we have truth—a knowledge of things as they are.

Covey described the work resulting in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People book as:

[A] new level of thinking is what The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is about. It’s a principle-centered, character-based, “inside-out” approach to personal and interpersonal effectiveness.

“Inside-out” means to start first with self; even more fundamentally, to start with the most inside part of self—with your paradigms, your character, and your motives.

Character, as described by Covey, is basically “a composite of our habits.” A habit is defined in the book “For our purposes, we will define a habit as the intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire.”

Covey states that the seven habits are not independent “psych-up formulas.” Instead in “harmony with the natural laws of growth, they provide an incremental, sequential, highly integrated approach to the development of personal and interpersonal effectiveness.” This nature results in a maturity continuum from dependence, to independence, to interdependence.

Dependence is the you space: You feed me. Independence is the I space: I feed me. Interdependence is the we space: We feed each other.

There are three habits between dependence and independence. Another three habits between independence and interdependence. And another habit encompassing them all.

The first three habits are used to accomplish what Covey describes as the private victory; the you-to-I space. The second three are the public victory; the I-to-we space. The final habit is the reflection, recharge, and preparation space. These seven habits culminate in becoming an effective person.

Covey describes effectiveness as follows:

Effectiveness lies in the balance—what I call the P/PC Balance. P stands for production of desired results, the golden eggs. PC stands for production capability, the ability or asset that produces the golden eggs. […]

Excessive focus on P results in ruined health, worn-out machines, depleted bank accounts, and broken relationships. Too much focus on PC is like a person who runs three or four hours a day, bragging about the extra ten years of life it creates, unaware he’s spending them running.

As Covey alludes to, each habit builds on the others; not independent formulas. Without the first habit, the second habit is almost impossible, and without the first three habits the next three are almost impossible as well. In this sense I’m reminded of the concept of holons where each part is a whole made of other holons. In a way, the habits could be laid out as concentric circles; instead of the hourglass-like model used by Covey. (Though Covey’s is probably easier to read and the boundaries between each habit might be semipermeable.

Private victory

Section titled Private victory

Habit one: be proactive

Section titled Habit one: be proactive

To be proactive is the opposite of determinism. Determinism can also be described as destiny or fate; there are forces beyond my control that determine where I will be and how I will act. This could be genetic, psychic, or environmental.

This habit is about shifting that paradigm and and seeing those external forces as being secondary, not primary traits.

It is habit of not only taking action, but also taking responsibility as described by Covey:

While the word proactivity is now fairly common in management literature, it is a word you won’t find in most dictionaries. It means more than merely taking initiative. It means that as human beings, we are responsible for our own lives. Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions. We can subordinate feelings to values. We have the initiative and the responsibility to make things happen.

Look at the word responsibility—“response-ability”—the ability to choose your response. Highly proactive people recognize that responsibility. They do not blame circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behavior. Their behavior is a product of their own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product of their conditions, based on feeling. […]

The ability to subordinate an impulse to a value is the essence of the proactive person. Reactive people are driven by feelings, by circumstances, by conditions, by their environment. Proactive people are driven by values—carefully thought about, selected and internalized values.

Proactive people are still influenced by external stimuli, whether physical, social, or psychological. But their response to the stimuli, conscious or unconscious, is a value-based choice or response.

In this way, being proactive is the opposite habit of what has been described as learned helplessness.

Covey does acknowledge that:

[T]his is very hard to accept emotionally, especially if we have had years and years of explaining our misery in the name of circumstance or someone else’s behavior. But until a person can say deeply and honestly, “I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday,” that person cannot say, “I choose otherwise.”

(When I first read The 7 Habits book I had just spent a year being homeless and was gainfully employed for what I considered the first time. I do wonder what choosing otherwise might have looked like had I been exposed to the book earlier in life. I feel like I had parts through self-exploration but not a cohesive model.)

In a way, being proactive is acknowledging that I am an actor in and upon the world outside myself; not an inanimate object being acted up by the outside world.

This comes by recognizing the difference between what Covey describes as the circle influence and the circle of concern. I can influence myself, my choices, my responses. Further, while I may be concerned about other, their choices, and response, I have little-to-no influence over them—that is their responsibility and circle of influence. It’s worth noting that Covey didn’t think these were static; instead, a person’s circle of influence can grow to encompass more and more of the outside world; or less and less.

Another thing Covey points out is that part of being proactive is making and keeping commitments. If someone asks me to do something, I have the responsibility to verify with myself before saying yes or no because I influence where I will and won’t be and what I will and will not participate in. Covey states: “The commitments we make to ourselves and to others, and our integrity to those commitments, is the essence and clearest manifestation of our proactivity.”

Habit two: begin with the end in mind

Section titled Habit two: begin with the end in mind

At the macro-level, Covey takes the reader through an exercise to discuss this habit. Specifically, the exercise asks the reader to imagine they are attending their own funeral:

Now think deeply. What would you like each of these speakers to say about you and your life? What kind of husband, wife, father, or mother would you like their words to reflect? What kind of son or daughter or cousin? What kind of friend? What kind of working associate?

What character would you like them to have seen in you? What contributions, what achievements would you want them to remember? Look carefully at the people around you. What difference would you like to have made in their lives?

Covey acknowledges that this habit applies to other levels and areas of life, however, “the most fundamental application of ‘begin with the end in mind’ is to begin today with the image, picture, or paradigm of the end of your life as your frame of reference or the criterion by which everything else is examined.”

Everything is created twice, Covey says, there is the mental creation and the physical creation. He goes on to say that habit one acknowledges you as the creator; you have a choice. Habit two is the first creation; what do you want to create, personally?

Habit two is self leadership. Leading yourself toward the mental image of the first creation.

The primary exercise for this habit (chapter) is creating a personal mission statement. The examples are interesting because it doesn’t lock you into the sentence or paragraph structure, in fact, the first example shown is a bulleted list. Another is multiple short paragraphs. The objective here is to focus “on what you want to be (character) and to do (contributions and achievements) and on the values or principles upon which being and doing are based.”

Covey also discusses the importance of being principle-centered instead of say, money-centered, spouse-centered, and so on. This is to move away from being centered around something “out there” and instead being centered around something more timeless and unchanging. Money can be taken away. The same could be said with a spouse. Principles, on the other hand, just exist.

As an extension of (or helper to) the creation of a mission statement, Covey describes identifying roles and goals. How do I fulfill this mission as a father, mother, employee, employer, son, daughter, and so on? What qualities do I want to aspire to have and what does that mean to me?

Roles and goals is seen elsewhere in the book as well.

Covey closes the habit with applying the pursuit of a mission statement with family and organizations. I’ve done similar with teams, however, that’s for another space and time.

Habit three: Put first things first

Section titled Habit three: Put first things first

This is the time management portion of the book. I mention this because I sometimes feel like people look at the entire book as being about time management, productivity, and possibly hustle porn; at least without look at the book itself. This is the only habit related to time management, in fact.

And, it’s actually about prioritization—not time management.

Covey starts with an exercise:

Question 1: What one thing could you do (something you aren’t doing now) that, if you did it on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your personal life?

Question 2: What one thing in your business or professional life would bring similar results?

Covey then summarizes the previous habits along with this one:

  1. You are the creator, you are in charge.
  2. The first, or mental, creation; what are you wanting to create?
  3. The second, or physical, creation; how will you get there?

Covey recognizes four generations of time management:

  1. Notes and checklists are the hallmark of the first generation; things I need to do whenever.
  2. Calendars and appointment books is the second generation; things I need to do at specific dates and times.
  3. The third is related to prioritization and goal setting; what are the must-haves versus the want-to-haves.
  4. The fourth focuses on relationships and results via what Covey describes as the balance of production and production capability; in other words, effectiveness.

Each generation incorporates the next. So, similar to the model of the habits being illustrated as concentric circles, the generations of time management can be illustrated in the same way.

Covey stresses the importance of becoming what he calls a quadrant two self-manager. Imagine a chart with four quadrants. The columns are labeled urgent and not-urgent. The rows are labeled important and not-important.

This is not the Eisenhower Box, which some use as a task manager. Covey was not driving toward using this quad chart as a way to manage your lists from the first generation. Things that go into each quadrant do not move around.

Quadrant one is about crisis and deadline-driven projects. We’ll skip quadrant two for now. Quadrant three are things like interruptions and some meetings. Quadrant four are busywork and watching mindless television.

Results from quadrant one include things like burnout. Quadrant three leads to feelings of helplessness and lack of control; what could be keeping you from being proactive. Quadrant four results in irresponsibility and dependency.

So, quadrant two must be a pretty big deal.

Quadrant two is the quadrant of discipline, limited crises, and vision. These are things that are important but rarely, if ever, become urgent. When your house is on fire it’s hard to think about mission statements and where you want to be next month, next quarter, next year, or beyond (unable to begin with the end in mind).

Health (quadrant two) isn’t urgent until I’ve experienced a heart attack (quadrant one).

As Covey progresses he talks about the importance of saying “no” to things. When we say “no” to one thing, it opens us to being able to say “yes” to something else, and saying “yes” to one thing requires saying “no” to a limitless number of possibilities.

So, how do we get there?

The first generation doesn’t recognize priority, it’s just a list; a backlog. Second generation does time-based prioritization using calendars and appointment books. Third generation folks use their values and goals to plan and schedule their day. The fourth generation takes a principle-centered approach.

Covey uses a weekly cadence.

Step one: identify your roles. Step two: identify your goal or goals for the week related to each role. Step three: schedule time to achieve each goal within the week. Step four: adapt the schedule daily. (Note: See Scrum and eXtreme Programming.)

As Covey says, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” (Note: See calendar blocking.)

For long-term planning we look at our mission, roles, and set goals. For weekly organizing we look at our roles and goals to create plans and schedule or delegate those plans.

If you’ve ever said, “I don’t own my schedule” that would be a quadrant one or two position and looks more like second generation. What separates the fourth generation from the second and third is starting from a principle-centered position. We can fit the emergencies and less important things in the gaps between the important things.

Covey closes by differentiating gofer delegation from stewardship delegation.

Gofer delegation is basically telling people what to do with little-to-no operational authority or thought on the part of the receiver. Stewardship delegation focuses on the results while letting the person taking on the execution of the plan figure out how to get it done.

I was introduced to a military joke recently, which may shed different light on the way many of us view orders in the military.

The general shows up and asks the lieutenant, “Son, how did you take that hill‽”

The lieutenant looks at the general and says, “I said, ‘Sergeant, take that hill.’”

The focus is on the result, not the how. The constraints and limitations are in laws, codes of conduct, and so on. The lieutenant, delegating to the sergeant, doesn’t go into great detail of an hour-by-hour methodology. Further, if there are constraints which the sergeant believes would preclude or hinder his ability to accomplish the result, a conversation should take place. Finally, the sergeant may refuse to take on the delegated or accept the order—not willy-nilly, but still.

Public victory

Section titled Public victory

“Before moving into the area of public victory, we should remember that effective interdependence can only be built on a foundation of true independence. Private Victory precedes Public Victory.”

This is when we start working with others. Here, Covey describes something refers to as the emotional bank account.

When in relationship with another person you have an account and the other person has an account. Our interactions, or lack thereof, makes deposits and withdrawals to and from that account. (Note: See The Five Love Languages.)

Covey describes six major deposits:

  1. Understanding the other person
  2. Little kindnesses and courtesies
  3. Keeping commitments
  4. Clarifying expectations
  5. Showing personal integrity
  6. Apologizing sincerely when you make a withdrawal from the emotional bank account of the other person

Habit four: Think win-win

Section titled Habit four: Think win-win

For this habit Covey identifies six paradigms of human interaction:

  1. Win-win: Seeking mutual benefit. This is not compromise where one (or both) sides lose something they want in order to make progress. It’s seeking an alternative. Not your way or my way, but a better, higher way.
  2. Win-lose: If I win, you lose.
  3. Lose-win: If I lose, you win. This is giving in.
  4. Lose-lose: When two win-lose players collide.
  5. Win: With this, the other person isn’t even considered. As long as I get my way and what I want, what happens to other (win or lose) is irrelevant.
  6. Win-win or no deal: Described as a higher order version of win-win. If a mutual benefit, synergistic alternative way could not be found, both parties would agree to separate with no hard feelings.

Which is the most effective? To which Covey says, “it depends.”

When in a competitive sports contest, like football, if I win, the other teams loses; I’m thinking win-lose. If I value the relationship more than an issue at hand I may “let” you win; I’m thinking lose-win. “The best choice, then, depends on reality. The challenge is to read that reality accurately and not to translate Win/Lose or other scripting into every situation.”

Most situations involving others fall into the win-win paradigm, according to Covey. He says that, over the long run, both win-lose and lose-win paradigms result in lose-lose results. I need to give in to someone else’s needs enough times, eventually my emotional bank account reaches a point we both lose the relationship and connection. So, in most circumstances any variation of win-win is preferred; in some circumstances win is fine as well because the other people are in your circle of concern and not a direct part of the interaction or affected by the achievement of the result.

Covey closes by describe five aspects of achieving the habit.

Character is the foundation and there are three essential traits:

  1. Integrity: The value we place on ourselves.
  2. Maturity: The balance between courage and consideration.
  3. Abundance mentality: If I believe there’s plenty to go around, I don’t need to worry about taking from or losing what I have. It’s the opposite of the scarcity mentality which says, “There’s only one pie and the bigger the slice someone else gets, the less there is left for me.”

Relationships are next aspect. Back to the emotional bank account. I need to have a high balance with you. You need to have a high balance with me. This increases trust and credibility. When the account balances are high and we’re both thinking win-win, it becomes a springboard for the sixth habit.

Agreements are the next aspect; sometimes referred to as performance agreements or partnership agreements. These are horizontal in nature, not vertical; teammate and partner, not hovering supervisor. There are five elements made explicit in the agreement:

  1. Desired results: This is not the how. It is the what and why.
  2. Guidelines: These are constraints that inform and filter the infinite number of ways (the how) the desired results may be achieved.
  3. Resources: What do we have available to us? Financial, human, technical. To allude to The Princess Bride: If only we had a holocaust cloak and a wheelbarrow.
  4. Accountability: Standards of performance and time of evaluation.
  5. Consequences: The good and bad, natural and logical.

I was an art major. In the beginning each assignment came with a description of the piece, in general, I was to create. I sculpture made of wood and metal with a minimum and maximum height, width, and depth; this covers the first and second aspect of an agreement. I hand the money in my pocket, myself and possibly friends I call in for help, and the ability to use various tools and materials in the studio; resources. The sculpture needed to be done on a certain date and appear to be finished; accountability. If I didn’t meet the deadline I would get a poor grade and, if it seemed finished and was a nice piece, I’d get a high mark; consequences.

Systems are the next aspect. The grading system in the previous story is such a system. My grade was independent of the grades of others; no competition. This system often fosters students working together and helping one another.

Processes are the final aspect and speak to how we go about achieving win-win mindsets. Covey describes a four step process as an example:

  1. See the problem from the other point of view.
  2. Identify key issues and concerns (not positions).
  3. Determine what results constitute a fully acceptable solution.
  4. Identify new options to achieve those results.

This helps in negotiating not only the first agreement but adjusted agreements as well. For the previous story I told my professor what I planned to build. As I started progressing I realized I wasn’t going to meet my accountabilities; seeing things from her point of view, this means should would give me a bad grade and that’s not what she wants to do. The key issue was a portion of the sculpture was far more complex than I thought it would be to create. I went to her with an option, which she determined constituted a fully acceptable solution.

On critique day, I was the only person in the class who was finished. I was also the only one who went to her to modify the sculpture I said I would deliver.

Habit 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood

Section titled Habit 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood

Here we are introduced to the concept of empathetic listening. In short: Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. “Earlier we defined maturity as the balance between courage and consideration. Seeking to understand requires consideration; seeking to be understood takes courage.”

This might seem like I’m glossing over this habit, however, this chapter is quite short. And, for the most part, it’s about listening fully and completely.

Habit 6: Synergize

Section titled Habit 6: Synergize

Synergy is the essence of principle-centered leadership. It is the essence of principle-centered parenting. It catalyzes, unifies, and unleashes the greatest powers within people. All the habits we have covered prepare us to create the miracle of synergy.

What is synergy? Simply defined, it means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It means that the relationship which the parts have to each other is a part in and of itself. It is not only a part, but the most catalytic, the most empowering, the most unifying, and the most exciting part.

This requires communication. One model Covey uses rates trust and cooperation on a low-to-high scale. When both are high, it’s win-win communication. In the middle is respectful compromise. When both are low, we are in win-lose and lose-win territory.

And the combination of those ingredients—the high Emotional Bank Account, thinking Win/Win, and seeking first to understand—creates the ideal environment for synergy.

Buddhism calls this “the middle way.” Middle in this sense does not mean compromise; it means higher, like the apex of the triangle. […]

They synergize. They communicate back and forth until they come up with a solution they both feel good about. It’s better than the solutions either of them originally proposed. It’s better than compromise. It’s a synergistic solution that builds P and PC.

Instead of a transaction, it’s a transformation. They get what they both really want and build their relationship in the process.

He discusses the importance of humility in how you see the world:

If I think I see the world as it is, why would I want to value the differences? Why would I even want to bother with someone who’s “off track”? My paradigm is that I am objective; I see the world as it is. Everyone else is buried by the minutiae, but I see the larger picture. That’s why they call me a supervisor—I have super vision.

If that’s my paradigm, then I will never be effectively interdependent, or even effectively independent, for that matter. I will be limited by the paradigms of my own conditioning.

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. When we’re left to our own experiences, we constantly suffer from a shortage of data.

Covey discusses this habit in various contexts like business, school, and family. Covey closes the habit with the example of the seven habits themself:

Ecology is a word which basically describes the synergism in nature—everything is related to everything else. It’s in the relationship that creative powers are maximized, just as the real power in these Seven Habits is in their relationship to each other, not just in the individual habits themselves.

The relationship of the parts is also the power in creating a synergistic culture inside a family or an organization.

Habit 7: Sharpen the saw

Section titled Habit 7: Sharpen the saw

The introduction is the summary:

Suppose you were to come upon someone in the woods working feverishly to saw down a tree.

“What are you doing?” you ask.

“Can’t you see?” comes the impatient reply. “I’m sawing down this tree.” “You look exhausted!” you exclaim. “How long have you been at it?”

“Over five hours,” he returns, “and I’m beat! This is hard work.”

“Well, why don’t you take a break for a few minutes and sharpen that saw?” you inquire. “I’m sure it would go a lot faster.”

“I don’t have time to sharpen the saw,” the man says emphatically. “I’m too busy sawing!”

There are four dimensions to renewal and sharpening the saw:

  1. Physical: exercise, nutrition, and so on.
  2. Social/Emotional: service, empathy…
  3. Spiritual: value clarification and commitment, meditation…
  4. Mental: reading, visualizing…

Balanced renewal is optimally synergetic. The things you do to sharpen the saw in any one dimension have positive impact in other dimensions because they are so highly interrelated. Your physical health affects your mental health; your spiritual strength affects your social/emotional strength. As you improve in one dimension, you increase your ability in other dimensions as well.

Covey brings in another model called the upward spiral: learn, commit, do, learn, commit, do, repeat. He closes the chapter by saying, “We deceive ourselves if we think that any one of these is sufficient. To keep progressing, we must learn, commit, and do—learn, commit, and do—and learn, commit, and do again.”


Section titled Closing

Covey then closes the book by retelling the story of a year-long sabbatical he took with his family. In summary he says that he has tried the outside-in approach; working on the external world to positively impact the internal. However, it was only after shifting to an inside-out approach that things outside actually improved.

He also revisits the idea of changing our scripts and paradigms:

Among other things, I believe that giving “wings” to our children and to others means empowering them with the freedom to rise above negative scripting that had been passed down to us. I believe it means becoming what my friend and associate, Dr. Terry Warner, calls a “transition” person. Instead of transferring those scripts to the next generation, we can change them. And we can do it in a way that will build relationships in the process.

He then reiterates humility when he says:

I personally struggle with much of what I have shared in this book. But the struggle is worthwhile and fulfilling. It gives meaning to my life and enables me to love, to serve, and to try again.

It’s not about perfectly executing in every waking moment but in striving to improve and be more effective.

Read my personal reflections on The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People