What better way to start off the new year than with a self-improvement book. Despite being published over 30 years ago, Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People provides a very important and timeless message: In order to change a given situation, we must change ourselves, and in order to change ourselves, we must first be able to change our perceptions.
“We see the world, not as it is, but as we are──or, as we are conditioned to see it.”– Stephen Covey
I initially read this book with the intention of developing habits that would help me be more productive with the things I do. However, as much as I was hoping, this book didn’t provide me with some magic formula of how to automatically become more productive. Rather, it taught me something a lot more valuable: how to change my own paradigms and my view of the world in order to become more effective. What separates us as humans from all other animals is our innate ability to examine our own character, to decide how to view ourselves and our situations, and to essentially choose how to live our lives. Instead of focusing on changing the external manifestations of my behaviour and attitudes, this book was all about how I could adapt my inner core, character and motives.
Although Covey’s writing style was a bit condescending at times and with too much of a religious feel, I felt that he gave very practical and useful tools to use and work with to change.
- Be proactive: Being proactive involves focusing our efforts on our ‘Circle of Influence’, i.e. on the things we can change, instead of the areas of our life which we have no control. While external factors have the ability to cause us pain, our inner character doesn’t need to be damaged. What matters the most is how we respond to the experiences we are faced with. Unlike reactivity, which is passive and driven by feelings, proactivity is driven by one’s values.
- Begin with the end in mind: Just like it is important to have a vision before you begin any project, we should similarly have a vision set out for our life as a whole, i.e. a personal mission. By knowing what we want to be (character), what we want to do (contributions), and the values upon which both of these things are based, we can live our life in service of what matters most to us. This will not only keep us on track with achieving our goals, but also ensure that we are not living our lives based on the standards or preferences of others.
- Put first things first: In order to truly be effective, we need to practice self-management through independent will. This means having the willpower and discipline to prioritize our day-to-day actions based on what is most important, not what is most urgent. The key to this is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but rather, to schedule your priorities. When we frequently spend most of our time attending to seemingly urgent crises and problems (which are most typically based on the priorities and expectations of others), it can eventually consume us, leading to stress and burnout. Instead, we should ensure majority of our time is being spent on things that are important to us but seldom get around to actually doing because they don’t feel urgent (e.g. relationship building, exercising, long-term planning, etc.).
- Think win/win: When making decisions and interacting with others, it is important to embrace a frame of mind that seeks out a mutual benefit for all concerned. This means that we should look out for the other person’s interests and our interests equally. With Win/Lose, or Lose/Win, one person may get what they want for the moment, but the results will negatively impact the relationship between those two people going forward. In order to adopt a more cooperative type of mindset (Win/Win), we must act with integrity, maturity, and an “abundance mentality” (i.e. there is plenty out there for everyone, someone else’s success doesn’t threaten our own success”).
- Seek to understand first, before making yourself understood: To truly understand others, we must empathetically listen to them. Majority of the time (myself included), we find ourselves listening to others with the intent to reply, not to understand. This is not empathetic listening because we are listening with our own perspective as our frame of reference. This can lead us to respond without actually gaining an accurate understanding of the other person’s needs and concerns. We need to stop filtering everything we listen through our own life experiences. Only when we clearly understand a problem from the other person’s point of view can we effectively communicate our ideas in accordance with their paradigms and concerns.
- Learn to synergize: When we understand the mental, emotional, and psychological differences in another person’s perspective, we have the opportunity to create synergy. The key to understanding differences is to realize that all people see the world based on who they are, rather than for what it is. As we value these different perspectives that others bring, it can lead to new possibilities and creative solutions.
- Sharpen the saw: We can’t saw trees to the best of our ability if we don’t take some time out to sharpen our saw. In order words, we need to continuously enhance ourselves to truly develop our character. As Warren Buffet once said, “investment in ourselves is the single most powerful investment we can ever make in life.” In Covey’s book, he describes this as the four dimensions of self-renewal:
|Physical||Exercise, nutrition, and stress management. This allows you to care for your physical body and health.|
|Social/emotional||Service, empathy, synergy, and intrinsic security. This provides you with a feeling of security and meaning.|
|Spiritual||Value clarification & commitment, study & meditation. This allows you to get closer to your center and your inner value system.|
|Mental||Reading, visualizing, planning, and writing. This allows you to continually educate yourself by expanding your mind.|