The 7 habits of highly effective people summary
It was in 2013 that I first read Stephen Covey’s book: “The 7 habits of highly effective people”.
Honestly speaking, I was skeptical whether it would really change my life or not.
Long story short, almost a decade later, I can ultimately say that it is indeed a life-changing book. It is one of the best self-help masterpieces ever written in decades. The book has been translated into more than forty languages and sold for over 30 million copies.
The 7 habits of highly effective people inspired millions around the world and can also help you change your life.
Let’s discover together why it is such a reference in personal development, productivity and effective communication.
Laying the foundation
The book offers a progressive methodology to succeed in life: private victory in the first part and public victory in the second part.
Dr Covey makes it clear; his solution is a long but a real process of change. It doesn’t offer a get-rich-quick scheme or any other instant gratification method.
Long-lasting transformation requires practices. After all, who hasn’t dreamt about real change?
For us to change, we need to understand our drives: values, paradigms and frames of reference.
The book explains that the 7 habits are universal and timeless. We can apply them to all areas of our lives. The 7 habits deal mainly with our character and not our personality.
The 7 habits of highly effective people explained
The first part introduces different notions such as paradigms, principles and personal effectiveness.
The second part “Private victory” lays the foundation for character development and present important concepts like proactivity, priorities and independence.
The third part, composed of habit 4, 5 and 6 develops the keys for public victory: how to deal effectively with others?
The last part is about the necessary permanent renewal or “sharpen the saw”.
For the last 50 years, most of the literature on success promoted what we call the “personality ethics”. These methods focused on manipulation, influence and personal image. The practices mostly focused on quick fixes.
Even if these Band-Aid techniques are effective, they play a secondary role in achieving success.
Stephen Covey proposes another approach, “the character ethics”.
He observed that around 65% of the literature from 1776 to 1926 focused on character development: integrity, modesty, patience, courage and humility etc.
If superficial techniques bring only short-lived solutions, the author highlights that real change takes time and we must follow a natural process of growth.
If you read both Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and Think and grow rich by Napoleon Hill’s, you will see that the two books have two different approaches to success: the first focuses more on character and habits while Hill’s focus was on techniques (but it’s still an incredible book and a must-read).
The power of paradigms:
“The map is not the territory”.
Social conditioning has shaped our perceptions and instilled paradigms that guide our daily lives.
If our perception of reality is tainted, it will negatively impact our thoughts, emotions and actions.
Imagine that you were given the wrong map but you have to travel around China. Not only will you get lost but you will never reach your destination.
It works the same way in life. To reach our destination, it’s better to adjust our map with reality. For us to change, we can choose to shift our paradigms and alter our perceptions.
Dr. Covey suggests that we align our paradigms with universal principles. While perceptions are subjective, principles are universal and inviolable.
The power of habits
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle
“Sow a thought, reap an action; then sow an action, reap a habit; and sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny,”
We often dismiss the power of habits. When compounded overtime, habits help us or destroy us.
To change our lives, we should create positive habits and break free from negative ones. In the end, our habits create our character.
Habit 1: Be proactive
What separates us from animals and plants? It’s self-awareness.
Self-awareness gives humans enormous power over nature.
This power can help you break a negative habit.
A dog looking at itself in the mirror would think that his reflection is another dog. Humans can make the difference: what he sees in the mirror is his own reflection, not another entity. This is what we call self-awareness.
Self-awareness allows us to observe and distance ourselves. With self-awareness, we evaluate if our paradigms are congruent with fundamental principles of efficiency.
Stephen Covey then mentions Viktor Frankl, an imprisoned Jewish psychiatrist in the death camps of Nazi Germany.
Undergoing physical degradations and other repugnant experiences, Frankl discovers the most important habit: proactivity. He said: “Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose”.
Proactivity implies that we are responsible for our lives. Stated in the negative, people who are responsible are not reactive people. The latter neglect “response-ability”; they don’t know that they can choose their responses to events.
Proactive people take their lives in hand. They believe that conscious decisions shape their lives.
Here lie the big differences:
Unsuccessful people are reactive and passive. What characterizes them is mainly blame: blaming the government, blaming their parents, blaming the external conditions. They wait for an imaginary “savior” as if someone will miraculously take care of them. They believe that external circumstances govern their lives.
Fact of the matter is that successful people are proactive; they take initiatives and they anticipate. They are still influenced by the environment but they consciously choose their reactions. The philosophy here is: “It’s not what happens to us that matters but how we react to it.” Life is 10% of what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.
Listening to our words:
Listening to our language helps evaluate our level of proactivity. Are you proactive or passive? Some people complain all the time.
These are the reactive ones and their mindset depends on external factors. They blame the government and complain about how expensive life is. For them, they have no control neither over their situations nor their life in general. These people feel like victims.
A person with a victim-mentality is likely to say: “I am who I am”, “If only my parents loved me more” or also “I can’t help it”.
Circle of influence and circle of concern
Another way to define our level of proactivity is to look where we spend our energy.
We have many preoccupations in our daily lives: work, health, money, politics etc. And in these concerns, there are things we can control and others we don’t.
For example, we are the direct responsible for our health (nutrition, gym etc.) but we have no control over tomorrow’s weather.
Here, Stephen Covey distinguishes two circles: the circle of influence and the circle of concern
The circle of influence includes things we have direct or indirect control such as our actions, our job and our attitudes.
The circle of concern refers to things over which have little or no control at all. These can be the weather, other people’s behaviors and other people’s feelings.
Passive people spend a lot of their energy complaining, grumbling and focusing on the negative; as if they can’t do anything about the situation.
Proactive people however take more initiative. They rarely waste their time complaining and prefer immediately taking actions. Proactive people know that they can control their reactions.
Our conscience and self-awareness are the most important endowments we can use to develop proactivity which is the habit N°1. We must constantly seek feedback and look for improvement.
Dr. Covey underlines 3 major actions: how to make promises, how to set goals and how to keep our integrity.
In the book “7 habits of highly effective people”, here are a set of actions you could directly take to develop habit N°1:
- For a full day, listen to your language and to the language of the people around you. How often do you use and hear reactive phrases such as “If only,” “I can’t,” or “I have to”?
- Identify an experience you might encounter in the near future where, based on past experience, you would probably behave reactively. Review the situation in the context of your Circle of Influence. How could you respond proactively? Take several moments and create the experience vividly in your mind, picturing yourself responding in a proactive manner. Remind yourself of the gap between stimulus and response. Make a commitment to yourself to exercise your freedom to choose.
- Select a problem from your work or personal life that is frustrating to you. Determine whether it is a direct, indirect, or no control problem. Identify the first step you can take in your Circle of Influence to solve it and then take that step.
- Try the thirty-day test of proactivity. Be aware of the change in your Circle of Influence.
Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind
Imagine yourself on your deathbed, having only one day left to live. Were you satisfied with the way you lived your life? Or are you going to have one of the 5 regrets of the dying?
Habit 2 invites you to have a clear representation of that death bed scene.
By doing this, you will evaluate what is most important to you.
When you know what is valuable, it is easier to make a decision and live your life on your own terms.
Habit 1 asserts that we are responsible for our lives.
Habit 2 recommends you to create your own life.
Regardless of what happened in the past, you can set a new program and live the life you’ve always wanted.
It starts with a vision and you must work on that vision.
Vision is like a lighthouse because it will direct your daily actions. Our vision prevents us from getting lost in our daily routines.
Our lives should be set according to our real values, not others’.
Without a vision based on our values, we are likely to conform and just follow what the majority are doing. If we don’t have a vision, we will never dare to live courageously. We will just want to fit in and be accepted by others.
The most effective way to begin that journey is to write a “personal mission statement”.
It is similar to finding your life purpose.
The personal mission encapsulates your philosophy and it sets what kind of person you want to be (character) and what types of experience you want to have. In your personal mission statement you must be clear on the values by which you want to live.
When challenges arise, you will naturally come back to your personal statement to keep going. When we hit walls, we need to understand why we started in the first place. This can help us persevere along the way.
Having a personal mission statement can help you sacrifice things in the short term to get what you truly want in the long term.
Habit 1 tells us that we are the programmer and habit 2 makes sure that we are the ones who write that program.
Writing the statement doesn’t happen overnight. You will surely bring modifications to it. As we mature, it can evolve over the years.
Having a vision and knowing our mission is important. Top performers and great athletes use visualization and affirmations to achieve high performance. We can do the same to achieve the life we want.
“Begin with the end in mind” is based on the principle that all things are created twice. There’s a mental or first creation, and a physical or second creation, to all things.”
In the book “7 habits of highly effective people”, Dr. Covey listed a set of concrete actions you could take to develop habit 2.
APPLICATION SUGGESTIONS from The 7 habits of highly effective people
- Take the time to record the impressions you had in the funeral visualization at the beginning of this chapter. You may want to use the chart below to organize your thoughts.
- Take a few moments and write down your roles as you now see them. Are you satisfied with that mirror image of your life?
- Set up time to completely separate yourself from daily activities and to begin work on your personal mission statement.
- Go through the chart in Appendix A showing different centers and circle all those you can identify with. Do they form a pattern for the behavior in your life? Are you comfortable with the implications of your analysis?
- Start a collection of notes, quotes, and ideas you may want to use as resource material in writing your personal mission statement.
- Identify a project you will be facing in the near future and apply the principle of mental creation. Write down the results you desire and what steps will lead to those results.
- Share the principles of Habit 2 with your family or work group and suggest that together you begin the process of developing a family or group mission statement.
Habit 3: Put first things first
“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” Goethe
Habit 2 sets the vision and Habit 3 proceeds to the execution.
The first step of creation was mental but now, the second step is to create that vision in the physical world.
We tend to deviate from our goals because we get lost in urgent but minor tasks. Jim Rohn would say: “We major in minor things”. For example, we spend hours checking and answering unimportant emails. In the middle of a task, we can even get interrupted and never really finish anything.
Time is our most valuable resource and we have a finite life; when it will end, we don’t know.
This is why we should define the most important tasks and work on the ones that will bring us closer to our goals.
Here, we must be clear on the goals we pursue: these goals are not imposed but chosen by us. For instance, at work, we have goals but these are often unrelated to what we really want.
Stephen Covey stresses the importance of working on seemingly not urgent but important things. To quote him “It deals with things like building relationships, writing a personal mission statement, long-range planning, exercising, preventive maintenance, preparation—all those things we know we need to do, but somehow seldom get around to doing, because they aren’t urgent.”
- Identify a Quadrant II activity you know has been neglected in your life —one that, if done well, would have a significant impact in your life, either personally or professionally. Write it down and commit to implement it.
Part II: Public victory
It’s a prerequisite to master ourselves before we deal with others. “Private victory precedes public victory”; independence is the foundation of real interdependence
Developing the first 3 habits helps us master ourselves and gain this real independence. When we deal with other people, self-control, self-regulation and self-awareness are essential.
The Emotional bank account
The emotional bank account is a great analogy to help us understand our relationship with others. Every person has an emotional bank account based on trust and services. When we serve others, they trust us more and our account is credited. When we ask for a favor, we make a withdrawal and our account is debited.
Having the emotional bank account in mind helps us measure whether we built trust or should work more on it. Just like a bank account, we can’t eternally stay in a debit balance.
On one hand, we credit our account with honesty, respect, and integrity. It happens when we keep our promises. Subsequently people trust us more.
On the other hand, you make withdrawals with dishonesty, mischievousness and duplicity. Think about someone who manipulated you for example, you no longer trust them.
There is another expression: “major deposit”
Major deposits are mainly actions you can take to “fatten” your emotional bank account. It consists of:
– Understanding the individual
– Attending to little things
– Keeping commitments
– Clarifying expectations
– Showing personal integrity
– Apologizing sincerely when you make a withdrawal
If you are interested in how to deal with others, I’d recommend other books such as “How to win and influence friends” by Dale Carnegie and “Crucial conversations”
When a problem arises between two people, we can use it to build more trust. Behind any problem lies an opportunity. Instead of viewing a conflict as a problem, shift your paradigm and tell yourself: “Here is an opportunity for me to really help that person”. You will understand each other more. You might also work on rebalancing each other’s emotional bank account.
Note that we need to practice the first 3 habits here because a certain emotional intelligence is required. Concretely, be aware of your emotions and how they impact other people.
Habit 4: Think win-win
We need to adopt an abundance mindset, not a scarcity mindset. There is enough for everyone and resources are abundant.
Highly effective people are guided by this abundance mindset. They are givers, not takers. They are also animated with a win-win spirit as they continually seek mutual benefit.
Unsuccessful people on the other hand always seek the “what’s in it for them” and they see life as a competition where one has to win and the other must lose.
Thinking win-win means cooperating; your success doesn’t come at the expense of another’s. We always seek a common ground, life is not a battleground. When looking for a solution, we search for a third, nobler outcome, not only mine or only yours.
There are 6 paradigms of human interaction:
- Win/Win or No Deal
Is there any best paradigm among the 6? The answer is: “It depends”. The win-win principle is essential for the success of our interactions.
From the book, here are the suggestions proposed to practice habit 4:
- Think about an upcoming interaction wherein you will be attempting to reach an agreement or negotiate a solution. Commit to maintain a balance between courage and consideration.
- Make a list of obstacles that keep you from applying the Win/Win paradigm more frequently. Determine what could be done within your Circle of Influence to eliminate some of those obstacles.
- Select a specific relationship where you would like to develop a Win/Win agreement. Try to put yourself in the other person’s place, and write down explicitly how you think that person sees the solution. Then list, from your own perspective, what results would constitute a Win for you. Approach the other person and ask if he or she would be willing to communicate until you reach a point of agreement and mutually beneficial solution.
- Identify three key relationships in your life. Give some indication of what you feel the balance is in each of the Emotional Bank Accounts. Write down some specific ways you could make deposits in each account.
- Deeply consider your own scripting. Is it Win/Lose? How does that scripting affect your interactions with other people? Can you identify the main source of that script? Determine whether or not those scripts serve well in your current reality. 6. Try to identify a model of Win/Win thinking who, even in hard situations, really seeks mutual benefit. Determine now to more closely watch and learn from this person’s example
Habit 5: seek first to understand, then to be understood
Emotional intelligence plays a key role in human relationships. Parts of emotional intelligence are self-awareness, auto-regulation and empathy.
If we want to influence others, let’s develop our character first. We should try to understand them, really put ourselves in their shoes and see things from their frame of references.
In this sense, creating a relationship of heart is crucial. Tolerance, sincerity and empathy are virtues we can develop.
Most of the time, we don’t even listen to what the person tries to communicate. We immediately jump to conclusions and we listen to prepare to answer; it is a common mistake. Empathic listening consists of identifying ourselves with our counterpart: we listen and really aim to understand them.
Here in the 7 habits of highly effective people, we have to make the difference between “empathy” and “sympathy”. We can put ourselves in the person’s shoes without necessarily agreeing or approving of their actions. It consists of summoning our efforts to understand the other person on different levels (emotionally, psychologically and intellectually).
“We really get inside another person’s frame of reference”. On the other hand, feeling understood is a basic need we all have. We want to feel important and this is why habit 5 remains so effective.
APPLICATION SUGGESTIONS from The 7 habits of highly effective people:
- Select a relationship in which you sense the Emotional Bank Account is in the red. Try to understand and write down the situation from the other person’s point of view. In your next interaction, listen for understanding, comparing what you are hearing with what you wrote down. How valid were your assumptions? Did you really understand that individual’s perspective?
- Share the concept of empathy with someone close to you. Tell him or her you want to work on really listening to others and ask for feedback in a week. How did you do? How did it make that person feel?
- The next time you have an opportunity to watch people communicate, cover your ears for a few minutes and just watch. What emotions are being communicated that may not come across in words alone?
- Next time you catch yourself inappropriately using one of the autobiographical responses—probing, evaluating, advising, or interpreting—try to turn the situation into a deposit by acknowledgment and apology. (“I’m sorry, I just realized I’m not really trying to understand. Could we start again?”)
- Base your next presentation on empathy. Describe the other point of view as well as or better than its proponents; then seek to have your point understood from their frame of reference.
Habit 6: Synergize
All of the habits we’ve been discussing in The 7 habits of highly effective people so far lead to synergy. The relationship between two parties may result in a third more powerful entity (1+1 = 3).
Practicing synergy means that we work together to find a solution that is more effective than the sum of everyone’s solution.
As people act together and in harmony, they produce greater results than they could have achieved if they acted separately.
A strength-based approach in leadership identifies each member’s strengths and weaknesses. A leader mixes the members -who are endowed with different skills- to form a stronger and more effective team.
Synergy in a classroom and cooperation in business
Stephen Covey shares an experience with his students. At the beginning, the teacher and the students are experiencing a sort of chaos, not knowing the end-goal. But as they start to communicate, when they cooperate and brainstorm, the atmosphere changes and everyone gets involved.
In the process, each student feels more enthusiastic and contributes as best as they can. In the end, a new idea, a new direction benefits each part involved. It is as if an idea -not yet formed- suddenly becomes palpable and tangible. Over time, each member of the group thinks more of the whole than of themselves individually. The group even breaks old habits because they all are eager to create something stronger: we now give more importance to the whole than the individual.
Stephen Covey in The 7 habits of highly effective people invites us to keep in mind that an alternative solution exists. If we communicate synergistically, we open our mind and our heart to new possibilities and options. On the contrary, if everyone is self-centered and defensive, no communication will be possible. It’s worse when people stonewall (deliberately avoid contact with each other).
Valuing the differences
Reality is subjective and we don’t see the blue color in the same way.
As humans, what characterizes us the most is our uniqueness but also our differences: the mental, the emotional and the psychological differences. It requires humility to acknowledge that we all see the world differently.
As we work in a team, nobody should feel superior or condescending towards others. Every member of the team is important. Only by understanding this can we become interdependent.
All nature is synergistic
Synergy characterizes every part of nature. Two plants or two races of animal can produce another one. A child is conceived by a woman and a man. Here, one plus one no longer equals two but three or more as if it defies the arithmetic laws.
From the book, here are exercises to help you implement habit 6:
- Think about a person who typically sees things differently than you do. Consider ways in which those differences might be used as stepping stones to third alternative solutions. Perhaps you could seek out his or her views on a current project or problem, valuing the different views you are likely to hear.
- Make a list of people who irritate you. Do they represent different views that could lead to synergy if you had greater intrinsic security and valued the difference?
- Identify a situation in which you desire greater teamwork and synergy. What conditions would need to exist to support synergy? What can you do to create those conditions?
- The next time you have a disagreement or confrontation with someone; attempt to understand the concerns underlying that person’s position. Address those concerns in a creative and mutually beneficial way
Habit 7: Sharpen the saw
Realize that you are your best asset and it’s in your own best interest to preserve yourself. Habit 7 strengthens your personal abilities.
There are 4 aspects of renewal:
– Physical (exercise, nutrition, stress management)
– Social/emotional (service, empathy, synergy and intrinsic security)
– Spiritual (value clarification & commitment, study and meditation)
– Mental (reading, visualizing, planning, writing)
Sharpening the saw does not seem urgent but they are at the core of our circle of influence, the things we have control over. It’s essential to take the initiative and develop them.
The little activities such as taking care of our body and spirit compound overtime and help us maintain our well-being.
The physical dimension
Health is wealth and without health, nothing else matters. Preserving our health involves practicing physical activities, adopting a balanced diet and getting enough sleep. Among the exercises proposed, Dr. Covey cites endurance, flexibility and strength.
The spiritual dimension
We have our own set of beliefs and you can find your spiritual renewal in different practices. They can be prayer, meditation or retreat in nature.
The mental dimension
We sometimes overlook the importance of reading great authors and quality books. We prefer watching TV to writing and slacking off to organizing our ideas.
The social/emotional aspect
Both secondary aspects are linked. We can develop this aspect by interacting more with others. We can also render assistance or give our time. For example, when we provide help, what motivates us primarily is not fame but more impact or contribution.
On the contrary, selfishness never leads to lasting happiness. We shall seek to give and bring value to other people’s lives. Only by serving others can we lead happy, healthy and long lives.
- Make a list of activities that would help you keep in good physical shape, that would fit your life-style and that you could enjoy over time.
- Select one of the activities and list it as a goal in your personal role area for the coming week. At the end of the week evaluate your performance. If you didn’t make your goal, was it because you subordinated it to a genuinely higher value? Or did you fail to act with integrity to your values?
- Make a similar list of renewing activities in your spiritual and mental dimensions. In your social-emotional area, list relationships you would like to improve or specific circumstances in which Public Victory would bring greater effectiveness. Select one item in each area to list as a goal for the week. Implement and evaluate.
- Commit to write down specific “sharpen the saw” activities in all four dimensions every week, to do them, and to evaluate your performance and results.
“The 7 habits of highly effective people” by Stephen R. Covey remains one of the most successful self-improvement masterpieces ever written. The whole book revolves around one idea: our perceptions determine our reality and our world. For us to change our situation, the first thing we must do is to change our perceptions. Once we change our perceptions, we will change our beliefs, our actions and ourselves.
Personally, I loved the analogy: “we are the programmer of our lives and we can re-write the program”. It is not always obvious at first but we should take full responsibility for our lives. If I tended to blame my parents, the society I lived in, I came to realize that I adopted a victim mentality.
Reading the 7 habits of highly effective people and reading it again and again always gives me chills; as if I discover new things every time. Stephen Covey adopted a comprehensive and logical sequence as we first have to master ourselves before mastering our relationship with others. Finally, the author admits the slow long-term progress ahead, contrary to the “instant gratification” most books offer.