In this article, I will provide a summary of the 7 habits of highly effective people. I’ll cover each of the 7 habits, so you can apply these to your life, without reading the complete book first!
The 7 habits of highly effective people by Stephen Covey has sold over 15 million copies. I bought this book over 25 years ago and the ideas in this book are still highly relevant in today’s fast-paced digital world.
My summary of the 7 habits of highly effective people will reveal the key principles and success habits that are the backbone of this book. However, to master these 7 habits, I highly recommend that you grab your copy of the 7 habits of highly effective people after reading this summary.
In this book, Stephen Covey groups the habits into 3 parts. These are:
- Private Victory (Habits 1 to 3). Improving You.
- Public Victory (Habits 4 to 6). Dealing better with other people.
- Renewal (Habit 7). Learning, improving and becoming more efficient.
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Habit 1: Be Proactive
Let’s kick off my summary of the 7 habits of highly effective people with the first habit which is to be proactive.
An important part of this habit is choosing how you respond to the events that happen in your life.
Stimulus and Response
Thousands of times a day, we are bombarded with stimuli. This could be events, situations and other people. We respond to these stimuli unconsciously, automatically and predictably. You might respond with a certain thought, feeling or action. It’s very habitual, and the response is often based on memories or experiences of similar situations or events that happened in the past.
However, Stephen Covey explains that there is a gap between the stimulus and your response. This is crucial to understand! When you change what you do in this gap, you change your response. Do this repeatedly and you develop new subconscious and automatic responses.
To change how you respond involves:
- Self-awareness. You need self-awareness to notice the gap and pause before you react.
- Imagination and Creativity. This will help you choose different and better responses.
- Conscience. You want to know that the new response is ethical and good for you and others. It’s knowing the difference between right and wrong and acting accordingly.
- Independent Will. This is choosing your response. It’s coming from you, rather than being influenced by other people such as family, friends or colleagues.
The word “responsibility” is a combination of the words “response” and “ability”. So it means the ability to change your response.
Another important component of this first habit is knowing what you can and can’t control. This consists of two parts. These are circle of influence and circle of concern.
Circle of Influence
This is what you can control or influence. It includes your direct actions. You have complete control over those. It also includes indirect actions. This is influencing others to take action; through something you say or do. This is a skill that gets better with time. When you work on improving your communication skills and abilities, you will get better at influencing others.
Circle of Concern
This is what is outside of your control or influence. It includes your past. You can’t change your past, only how you view it and the meaning you give to it. This also includes political decisions, recessions and world events. We have no direct control over these.
It’s also the actions of most other people. We can’t directly control other people. We can only influence them.
When you focus or worry about the things you can’t control, this is a waste of your time and energy. This is so important! If you remember one thing from my 7 habits of highly effective people summary, this would be it!
So know what you can control, what you can influence and don’t waste time or energy on the things that you can’t control.
Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind
This habit is about defining your What and Why. It’s about designing the life you want to live.
When you don’t have a plan for your life, you drift and become part of someone else’s life plan. If you are not clear on your values and what drives you, then you end up in a career that doesn’t excite or fulfill you. Stephen calls this “climbing up the wrong ladder”
Many people climb the corporate ladder. They work and study hard to obtain good money, status, and corporate success.
Once they get there, they realize that their life feels meaningless and lacks passion. They have been climbing the wrong ladder.
Think about where you want to be in 5, 10 or 15 years’ time? Are you climbing the right ladder or is it time to change to a different one?
Stephen Covey also talks about visualizing the end point. Visualize where you want to be in 5, 10 or 15 years’ time in precise detail. Does this excite you? Is it really what you want? Are you climbing the right ladder?
Knowing your purpose will help you climb the right ladder. To help you identify what your purpose is, think about how you would like to be remembered?
At the end of your life, how do you want people to remember you? Are the things you’re doing consistent and in alignment with how you want to be remembered?
This habit is also about knowing your values. Your values determine who you are right now and who you want to be in the future. They drive the decisions you make and also the actions you take.
Stephen Covey introduces the personal mission statement. This need not be elaborate or require weeks of thought! Will Smith had a very simple mission statement, which is “I want the world to be better because I was here”.
This habit is also about setting goals. I cover goal-setting in the related article below.
Habit 3: Put First Things First
You know what you what and why from habit 2. So habit 3 is about the how. It’s how to make this awesome life happen for you.
Productivity is a huge part of this habit of putting first things first. Stephen Covey has a wonderful quote which is “the challenge is not to manage time, but to manage ourselves”.
Time Management Matrix
Stephen Covey introduces the time management matrix. This is not a new idea. Eisenhower, who was the 34th US president, originally created the time management matrix. However, it was Steven Covey that made this popular.
The fundamental concept behind the time management matrix is classifying tasks by importance and urgency. This is done by using 4 quadrants.
Quadrant 1: Important and Urgent
Tasks in quadrant 1 are important and urgent. These are your top priority. Often these tasks are outside your direct control. They include dealing with a crisis, a pressing problem, or an unexpected task or setback. It can include important deadline driven projects if you leave them to the last minute. More on this in a moment!
Too much time in quadrant 1 is stressful! You’re fire-fighting and playing catch-up. This can lead to anxiety and burnout. It also impacts your longer-term goals and your daily productivity, because you’re constantly reacting.
If you are organized and manage your time effectively, then most of the tasks in quadrant 1 will be from other people. You have already completed important tasks within your control before they became urgent.
Quadrant 2: Important but Not Urgent
Tasks in quadrant 2 are important, but not urgent. These are your important projects and assignments. Your major pieces of work that have deadlines in the future. These are often tasks that require planned blocks of time over several days or weeks. You drive these tasks.
Quadrant 2 tasks include your performance objectives at work. Managers often base your performance and potential pay rise on these objectives. So that’s important to you!
This also includes activities towards your longer-term personal goals. Or activities that align with your mission and values. The ones mentioned in habit 2 earlier.
Here are some examples of quadrant 2 activities.
- Important longer-term projects (with deadlines in the future)
- Building relationships
- Long-term planning
- Things good for your mental and physical health.
You want to work on quadrant 2 tasks immediately after completing quadrant 1 tasks. You drive and control the activities in quadrant 2. This is where you want to spend most of your time.
Tasks in quadrant 2 include all the things we “should” be doing, but rarely do because they never feel urgent. Exercise, meditation, healthy-eating or looking after your physical and mental health are good examples.
Keeping Tasks out of Quadrant 1
Here is a key takeaway from my summary of the 7 habits of highly effective people. This is to prevent any tasks within your control from getting into quadrant 1.
Spending the majority of your time working on activities in quadrant 2 will prevent these tasks from becoming urgent and moving to quadrant 1.
If you are organized and effective in managing your time, you will complete these activities before they become urgent.
If you are disorganized, procrastinate and leave things to the last minute, then these tasks will become urgent and move to quadrant 1. You then need to deal with these tasks, and any unexpected urgent tasks, and this becomes stressful.
To prevent important projects from becoming urgent, you may need to learn to say “no” to some urgent activities or delegate these to others. This is not always easy, but is necessary to ensure that your most important projects get done before they become urgent and move to quadrant 1.
Quadrant 3: Urgent but Not Important
Tasks in quadrant 3 are urgent, but are not important. Other people drive these tasks. They are urgent and important to them, but not to you.
Quadrant 3 tasks don’t contribute towards your goals, objectives or things your performance might be measured on. They are not in alignment with your mission or values. However, they do keep you busy!
Here are some examples of quadrant 3 activities.
- Some meetings
- Some reports
- Checking emails (too often)
Quadrant 3 tasks have short-term benefits, but contribute very little in the longer-term. When you spend too much time in quadrant 3, you can feel out of control. Work has little meaning.
Many people complete all their urgent tasks first (the tasks in quadrants 1 and 3) before embarking on their more important longer-term projects.
The time management matrix helps you allocate time to the important longer-term projects in quadrant 2 before tackling urgent activities that are less important or valuable.
Quadrant 4: Not Urgent and Not Important
Tasks in quadrant 4 are not urgent and not important. They are your lowest priority tasks. If you have tasks in quadrant 4, question whether they need to be done at all. If they do, see if you can delegate them to someone else.
Here are some examples of quadrant 4 activities.
- Busy work
- Some emails and phone calls
- Other time-wasting activities
You or other people can drive tasks in quadrant 4. If I have a request from another person and I feel it’s not important or urgent, I’ll often wait until they follow-up before doing it. Interestingly, in most cases they don’t!
When you spend too much time doing quadrant 4 tasks, you are adding little value to the organization. You’ll eventually get noticed and could get fired! Also, because you haven’t done the important tasks required to gain the key skills, you’ll be more reliant on other people to get things done.
Habit 4: Think Win Win
This is seeking agreements, solutions, products, and services that are beneficial and satisfying to both parties.
To think win win requires several essential character traits. These are:
- Being ethical
- Being trustworthy
- keeping promises and commitments.
- Abundance mindset
It also requires having a balance between courage or toughness, and consideration or respect for other people.
It’s about being a leader and making the right decisions, even if they are tough decisions to make. And it’s about bringing people with you, because they see the benefit in your decisions. They feel that you made them with their best interests in mind.
Another character trait for win-win is having an abundance mindset. This is believing that there is enough for everyone. That another person’s gain is not someone else’s loss.
Another key takeaway in my 7 habits of highly effective people summary is that if you can’t get a win win, then there is no deal. No deal is far better than a deal where one person wins and someone else loses.
Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then Be Understood.
This habit is about listening first and then speaking. Most people don’t listen properly. Instead, they rush in and try to give good advice, often interrupting the person. Perhaps you’ve done this yourself? I know I have!
Stephen Covey explains that most people are not really listening. Instead, they are either speaking or preparing to speak.
When we speak, we typically respond with our autobiography. This is our view or map of the world. What you want to do instead is understand their autobiography. It’s grasping and appreciating their view of the world.
For me, it’s far more fascinating to understand another person’s autobiography as I know mine already! So I encourage you to listen intently and truly understand other people’s values, opinions and their reality.
To help you become a better listener, Stephen Covey introduces the skill of empathic listening. This is listening with the intent to understand. There are four parts to this.
- Mimic their words. Repeating or feeding their words back. To do this, you have to really listen to the other person.
- Rephrase their words. Repeating what they said, but in your own words. To do this, you must think about what they’ve said, as opposed to just repeating it back.
- Reflecting their feelings. Focusing more on how the other person feels rather than what they’re saying. This helps you empathize with them.
- Rephrase their words and reflect their feelings. Using your own words to rephrase what they said and the feelings and emotions behind it.
Habit 6: Synergize
This habit is about working together with other people. It’s based on the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A team that works together effectively can achieve far more than each team member could achieve on their own.
It’s about understanding and valuing differences and looking for the good in others. It’s viewing things from another person’s perspective and putting yourself in their shoes. Seeing things from their eyes, from their belief system, and with their values. It’s also understanding and valuing other people’s opinions.
Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw
The last habit in my summary of the 7 habits of highly effective people is about continuous self-growth, improvement and learning. It’s about investing time to get better and quicker at what you do.
In this book, Stephen Covey talks about this man that has been trying to saw down a tree for 5 hours. He’s exhausted! Someone comes up to him and suggests he takes a break to sharpen his saw. He says, “You’ll get the job done much faster with a sharper saw”. The man says, “I haven’t got time to sharpen the saw, I’m too busy sawing!”
So the analogy behind sharpening the saw is taking time out to learn, become better, more effective and do things quicker.
This habit of continuous self-improvement makes the other 6 habits possible.
Steven Covey talks about the four dimensions of self-growth. These are:
- Physical. Staying healthy by eating well, getting plenty of rest and exercising regularly,
- Spiritual. Achieving inner peace and calm, through meditation, prayer or reading. It’s connecting with something larger than yourself, whatever that is for you.
- Mental. This is education, learning and personal development. When this book was written in 1989, most learning was by reading books. Now you have a wealth of other options including videos, podcasts, blogs and online courses.
- Social and emotional. This includes spending time with family and friends and living habits 4 to 6 in everyday life.
So this is my summary of the 7 habits of highly effective people by Stephen Covey. To check out this book or grab your own copy, click the link below.
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