A DoneDeal survey claimed that only 8% of Irish people manage to keep their New Year’s resolutions. Given they’re fundamentally ineffective, is gradual change through the cultivation of habits a viable alternative?

To that end, a new year is as as any to take another look at an old(ish) book — Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Awarded ‘the most influential business book of 20th century’ by The Wall Street Journal, it is by some distance Covey’s best-known work, a man whom The Economist called one of the most successful management gurus ever.


So what are the seven habits of highly effective people?

  1. Be proactive — choosing to act rather than be acted upon.
  2. Begin with the end in mind — choosing to act on the right long-term things.
  3. Put first things first—prioritising the short-term correctly, based on the long-term ‘end we have in mind’.
  4. Think win/win—approaching interactions with a focus on a positive outcome for all parties.
  5. Seek first to understand… then to be understood — listening properly.
  6. Synergise—building win/win contexts.
  7. Sharpen the saw — regular physical, mental, emotion/social and spiritual renewal.

We’ll return to these, but it’s worth mentioning a couple of concepts that also recur through the book:

  • P/PC balance — the need to keep an equilibrium of ‘production’ and ‘production capability’; developing ourselves as well as delivering output.
  • Character Ethic v Personality Ethic — seeking to change character/thinking, rather than how we present ourselves via the gloss of technique or quick fixes.


I don’t have time to read the book — what’s the most important bit?

It’s not that simple; The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People rewards the investment of some personal reflection (and isn’t written in short, accessible, bite-size chunks). But if you’re short on time:

  • Focus the majority of your time on habits 1–4, which contain the bulk of Covey’s influential ideas,
  • Skip the hefty introduction, but make sure you grasp the Character Ethic/Personality Ethic distinction,
  • Quickly flick through habit five, assuming you can actually listen properly,
  • Skip habit six, which is essentially a re-run of habit four, and
  • Quickly flick through habit seven, where Covey illustrates the importance and breadth of renewal. However, given renewal is so specific to each individual, he’s unlikely to be the best source of material for your personal fitness/spiritual/educational/relational needs.


So tell me again, what are the seven habits of highly effective people?

1.Be proactive

This habit is about choosing to act on the basis of our own values rather than be scripted by the stimuli of our genes, upbringing or environment.

This manifests itself in our language, where ‘that’s just the way I am’, becomes ‘I choose’, in our relationships, where choosing to sacrifice and serve is not dictated by temporary emotion, and our commitments, where we learn to make and keep them to ourselves and others.

How we then proactively invest our time and energy is in question — we cannot influence not all the things that concern us.

Covey famously represents this concept as two concentric circles, the inner ‘circle of influence’ and the outer ‘circle of concern’. The theory is that proactive people:

  • Focus on the things they can control directly by growing their own character,
  • Focus on the things they can control indirectly by building win/win working relationships with others (see below), and
  • Learning to accept those things that they cannot control, in order to prevent those problems controlling them.


2. Begin with the end in mind

This habit is personal leadership, and focuses on establishing what we are really are aiming for.

Covey proposes doing this — somewhat morbidly — by visualising your own funeral; what would you want to be said about your character and achievements? From this a ‘personal mission statement’ of values and objectives is formed, a long term ‘end in mind’.


3. Put first things first

Principally concerned with personal management, this is about getting the ‘important, not urgent’ tasks done. While ‘urgent and important’ tasks consume us and grow to fill the space we give them, and ‘non-urgent and non-important’ give pleasure as an escape, cultivating focus on the ‘non urgent and important’ is critical to ‘walking the talk’ of a personal vision.

‘Putting first things first’ is about organising weekly tasks around a personal vision’s objectives, and saying no to lesser priorities (by showing people your prioritised task list and ask which one needs to be dropped to fit theirs in).

However, in order to retain your focus on the important but not urgent, some workload needs to be delegated. Covey recommends achieving this by eschewing ‘Gofer delegation’ for ‘Stewardship delegation’. Instead of a focus on the delivery of a prescribed method and crushing any personal initiative or sense of ownership in the person receiving the delegation, ‘Stewardship delegation’ consists of:

  • Visualising the desired result together,
  • Identifying resources available to them,
  • Agreeing the accountability mechanisms to check progress,
  • Establishing broad parameters under which to operate,
  • Setting out the consequences of positive and negative performance, and
  • Offering limited support based on what they think they most need and when.

In this framework of shared expectations, team members manage themselves, with managers serving as a ‘pace car’ to get things going, then get out of the way and remove obstacles to the success of their people.


4. Think win/win

While the previous three habits focused on achieving ‘true independence’, habits 4 to 6 are focused on ‘true interdependence’—being effective with other people.

This interdependence requires an ‘Abundance mentality’ — the belief that there is ‘plenty for everybody’ if the right arrangements are put in place, and the desire to look for ‘Third alternatives’ — collective successes that couldn’t happen independently, rather than success at the expense of others.

Here Covey introduces what he calls ‘the Emotional Bank Account’, to describe the building up of trusting relationships before attempting to create ‘win/win’ solutions with them. This kind of relationship doesn’t make our differences any less real or important, but refocuses energy away from them, onto positive co-operation toward ‘win/win’ outcomes.

Instead of ‘win/lose’(winning at the expense of others), or ‘lose/win’ (capitulation and inevitable resentment), a ‘win/win’ approach is taken. Here the person is separated from the problem, focus is on the parties’ interests and not on their positions, options for mutual gain are invented, and—where possible — objective criteria /external standards are adhered to. Alongside ‘win/win’, ‘no deal’ is considered a valid option where parties disagree agreeably, having not found solution that would benefit both, due to their differing goals or values.


5. Seek first to understand… then to be understood

This is listening to understand on an emotional level, rather than to reply. Not merely demonstrating you are paying attention by repeating words back, but reflecting feeling back.

Then, any solutions presented are in response to understood priorities and concerns, rather than reading our own biography into others’ lives. This also requires having the integrity to say when the solution we have to offer doesn’t meet those needs.


6. Synergise

Here the aim is to building contexts for win/win, that:

  • Have high levels of trust and listening, allowing issues not personalities to be debated,
  • Have high levels of humility, recognising the limits of the individual frames of reference involved,
  • Which value the differences between parties, allowing opportunities to create combined value to be identified, and
  • Ultimately create ‘third alternatives’, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.


7. Sharpen the saw

The final habit is regular renewal, of what Covey considers the four dimensions of human nature:

  • Physical,
  • Mental/intellectual,
  • Emotional/social (i.e. service to others), and
  • Spiritual.

These are important, but rarely urgent, daily investments in ourselves which build personal Production Capacity (PC), and improve our practice of the other six habits.


Should I invest time in reading Seven Habits?

It depends—it will be an investment.

To get the most out of Covey’s book you’ll need to spend time contemplating your values, writing a personal mission statement, changing your use of reactive language, and so on. It’s not an afternoon read.

Ultimately though, there’s a reason this was awarded ‘the most influential business book of 20th century’. 25 million readers (and counting) probably aren’t wrong.


The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989) is published by Free Press