Powerful lessons in personal change

By Stephen R. Covey

There’s a reason this best-seller has been around for over 25 years and is still going strong – the teachings within must work.

Renowned author Dr Stephen R. Covey held a Bachelor of Science, an MBA from Harvard, and a PhD in religious education, putting him in the driver’s seat to offer a wealth of multi-faceted knowledge.

He was able to formulate a strategy that taught people how to reach peak-level effectiveness through developing a set of seven fundamental habits.

In full use today, these habits not only help to improve your business or career outcomes; they also aid in the success of all areas of life.

Covey begins with a quote from Aristotle, providing the backbone of his strategy:

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

The Overview

Habits are repeated unconscious patterns ingrained into the very core of who we are. They are responsible for how effectively, or ineffectively, we live our lives.

Any thought or action that is constantly rehashed over a considerable length of time, becomes second nature. We think or do these things often without even realising. And because they have been with us for so long, they become set in stone.

Although Covey insists that it’s possible to break this stone apart, he acknowledges that it will take some time. A learned behaviour can be unlearned but will require a process of chipping away.

For the purpose of the book, he defines a habit as:

The intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire.

Knowledge: What to do and why
Skill: How to do
Desire: Want (motivation) to do

For something to become a habit, it needs to incorporate all three of these dimensions.

Similarly, creating a counter-habit requires work in all three.

Covey assures us that we can replace old patterns of self-defeating behaviour with new patterns, new habits of effectiveness, happiness and trust-based relationships.

Habit 1: Be Proactive

Self-awareness is the ability to take a step back and see ourselves from an objective viewpoint. In doing so, we can examine our own attitudes and behaviours, and how we perceive those in other people.

But we are susceptible to the projections, concerns and character weaknesses of others and allow them to dictate who we supposedly are. This social mirror reflects back to us an image of who we’re judged to be. We, therefore, become conditioned to behave in expected ways.

Through conditioning, we tend to give certain stimuli an automatic response. But Covey agrees with one fundamental principle:

Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.

Self-awareness, imagination, and independent will, give us the ability to create a different response. And through this awareness, we can create change.

Proactivity means more than just taking initiative. It means being responsible for our own lives. Our behaviour is a function of our decisions, not our conditions. So, if we proactively make better choices to respond alternatively, we can improve our behavioural flaws.

Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind

As confronting as it might sound, the premise here is to imagine what those people who knew you best would say about you after you’re gone.

What statements would you hope they’d use? Do they seem accurate in terms of where you are today? Or could you make some changes in your life to ensure that, in the end, your praises are sung? For what characteristics, contributions, and achievements would you like to be remembered?

Covey wants you 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.

Habit 3: Put First Things First

This lesson is about prioritising what is truly important in your life. It is the practical fulfilment of Habits 1 and 2.

Habit 1 says: You’re the creator. You are in charge.

Habit 2 says: You have the ability to envision what you can become.

Habit 3 says: Incorporating the above, you can practice effective self-management.

Having already touched on self-awareness and imagination, it is independent will that makes self-management possible. Empowerment comes from learning how to use our will in the decisions we make every day.

We measure our independent will by our level of personal integrity. Our integrity is our ability to make and keep commitments to ourselves. It is the discipline of ‘walking our talk’ – to act according to our true values.

Habit 4: Think Win/Win

This habit leads to the creation of effective interpersonal leadership. Depending on the paradigms you present to others, your desired results will either be forthcoming or completely elude you.
Each scenario can either benefit or hinder one or both parties involved.

There are six paradigms of human interaction:
1. Win / Win – Agreements or solutions are mutually beneficial and satisfying.
2. Win / Lose – The authoritarian approach: “I get my way; you don’t get yours.”
3. Lose / Win – Has no standards, expectations or vision: “I lose, you win.”
4. Lose / Lose – Both parties lose because neither will compromise.
5. Win – The losing party is irrelevant. Only the win matters.
6. Win / Win or No Deal – If no mutually beneficial solution can be found – the deal is off. Both parties agree to disagree.

Any of these situations may feel right given a particular circumstance.

When it comes to leadership, however, the ultimate outcome is Win / Win. Based on the paradigm that there is plenty for everybody – one’s success will not be achieved at the expense of another’s. All parties feel good about the decision and are committed to the plan.

Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

People commonly offer advice or solutions without much thought for the recipient’s perspective or the issue at hand. Miscommunication results and the situation is often made worse.

Communication is the most important skill in life. Without it, relationships fail, and mistakes get made.

The four basic types of communication are reading, writing, speaking and listening. The ability to do them all well is critical to your effectiveness.

If you want to interact effectively with people, you first need to understand them. And to gain this understanding, they need to feel a certain level of trust in order to open up to you. Trust forms when you listen. Listening is a skill, yet not something that gets taught via traditional educational methods.

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand. They listen with the intent to reply. Most of us are so ready to respond with thoughts based on our own experiences; we forget to let the other person relate theirs.

The aim is to develop and master empathetic listening – using not just your ears, but also your eyes and your heart. You hear their words, you watch their body language, and you try to feel what they’re feeling. Only then can you offer any sort of counsel.

Diagnose before you prescribe.

Habit 6: Synergise

According to Covey, exercising all the above habits prepares us for the practice of synergy.

Synergy means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s about the relationship each piece has with another; and all parts working together.

It can be found everywhere in nature. For example, two trees planted together will intertwine their root system, improving the quality of the soil so that both may grow bigger and healthier, and flourish more than if they were separated.

Synergy is particularly powerful in dealing with negative forces that work against growth and change. There will always be driving forces and restraining forces for change. By using the motive of habit 4 (Win / Win), the skill of habit 5 (empathetic communication) with the view for the greater good, goals are shared and events can move forward.

This brings us to the seventh and final habit:

Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw

Habit 7 is taking time to sharpen the saw – to reassess and renew – you.

There are four dimensions of your nature which should undergo periodic renewal: physical, spiritual, mental, and social/emotional.

Sharpen the saw means exercising all four dimensions of our nature, regularly and consistently in wise and balanced ways.

Here is what each incorporates:
Physical: Exercise, nutrition and stress management

Caring effectively for your physical body – Eating the right kinds of food, getting sufficient rest, and exercising regularly.

Spiritual: Value clarification and commitment, study and meditation.
Committing to your value system, drawing upon the sources that inspire and uplift you.

Mental: Reading, visualising, planning, writing
Continually honing and expanding the mind to be able to think outside the box and grow.

Social/emotional: service, empathy, synergy, intrinsic security
Our emotional dimension is primarily manifested in our relationships with others. How can we better serve, understand and work with others – to strengthen our intrinsic security?

We must invest time and energy in ourselves first before we can take on others.

Thereafter, Covey goes on to tell his personal story of the day he stumbled upon the essence of the 7 Habits.

Found randomly in an old book, it was the simple idea that there is a gap between stimulus and response. This momentary encounter hit him with a powerful force. He describes it as an ‘inward revolution’. It was a force that deepened his relationship with his family, narrated in detail over the following pages.

There are some tough lessons to master in this guide, so it is some comfort, perhaps, to know that the author has struggled with much of what he has shared in this book. But, in closing, he adds:

The struggle is worthwhile and fulfilling. It gives meaning to my life and enables me to love, to serve, and to try again.