The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People | Stephen R. Covey

Main Theme: Personal Growth & Change

For People Who: Need lessons on becoming an effective person and leader.

For over twenty-five years, CEOs, presidents, parents, teachers and leaders of all kinds have been challenged by The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Stephen Covey recognizes that to be an effective person, it all begins from the inside out. We can spend so much time and energy focusing on improving our attitudes and behaviors that we waste away hacking at the leaves rather than the root. The root is who we really are inside. It’s the principles and values that we hold most dear and until those roots are dealt with, first and foremost, we will never get past the first habit. I loved how Covey built up these habits – like building a house. He begins with a foundation of principle-centered thinking. Covey then builds the framework with the first three habits which deal with who we are privately when no one is around. He then builds the exterior of the house with the second three habits which deal with who we are publicly. Finally, he expresses the importance of maintenance – the seventh and final habit – which deals with maintaining the health of a well-balanced life, without which the first six habits will fall into disrepair. This is a classic work that will impact generations to come.

The inside-out approach says that private victories precede public victories, that making and keeping promises to ourselves precedes making and keeping promises to others. It says it is futile to put personality ahead of character, to try to improve relationships with others before improving ourselves…I have never seen lasting solutions to problems, lasting happiness and success, that came from the outside in. –7 Habits, pg. 51

Brief Summary

Part One: Paradigms and Principles


Covey begins this classic work by pointing back to the classics themselves. In researching over 200 years of literature on the topic of “Success”, he found that for the first 150 years Character Ethic served as the foundation for effectiveness in all aspects of life. Things like integrity, humility, temperance, courage, justice, patience, modesty and the Golden Rule. But soon after World War II there arose a shift in success-thinking that pointed at a Personality Ethic. Success became more a function of personality, of public image, of attitudes and behaviors, skills and techniques, that lubricate the processes of human interaction.” (pg. 27) Character was left to a bygone era and influence techniques arose to fake people into thinking you were interested in their hobbies, passions and concerns merely to get them to do what you wanted them to do.

If I try to use human influence strategies and tactics of how to get other people to do what I want, to work better, to be more motivated, to like me and each other – while my character is fundamentally flawed, marked by duplicity and insincerity – then, in the long run, I cannot be successful. -7 Habits, pg. 29

Covey begins to differentiate between what he calls “Primary Greatness” and “Secondary Greatness.” Many who are considered to be effective and successful have Secondary Greatness (name recognition, etc), but lack Primary Greatness (character). The truth is that people want leaders who are worth following. If you try to play tennis, it doesn’t take long for people to realize how terrible you are at the game. Likewise, you can pretend to have Primary Greatness for only so long before people start to realize who you really are inside – it’s then that you will realize that your effectiveness has been built on the wrong foundation. “What we are communicates far more eloquently than anything we say or do. We all know it. There are people we trust absolutely because we know their character. Whether they’re eloquent or not…we trust them, and we work successfully with them.” (pg. 30)

The question becomes: Are we willing to change our paradigm, our worldview, in order to see things differently in our lives? Will we except a shift from a Personality Ethic to a Character Ethic as leaders, employees, parents, spouses, and friends? You may have good intentions when trying to “fix your attitude.” But the reality is that trying to fix your attitude is like trying to fix the leaves of a tree. You have to deal with the root of the problem – who you are on the inside: your character.


Habit 1: Be Proactive

Private victory always precedes public victory for highly effective people, and private victory begins with how we view ourselves and the responsibility we take with our lives. Too often we allow the opinions and ideas of others to shape our own paradigms – so when we look at ourselves it is like looking in a crazy mirror at the carnival. We look distorted and strange. We can choose to blame our ancestors (“That’s just who I am/my genetics.”), or psyche (“It’s how I was raised”) or the environment we find ourselves in (“It’s my boss’s fault” / “It’s my bratty teenager’s fault”). Ultimately a proactive person takes responsibility for their own lives. “Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions. We can subordinate feelings to values. We have the initiative and the responsibility to make things happen.” (pg. 78) We have the ability to respond.

Reactive people are driven by feelings, by circumstances, by conditions, by their environment. Proactive people are driven by values – carefully thought about, selected and internalized values. –7 Habits, pg. 79

Covey says a way for us to judge our level of proactivity is to measure our Circle of Concern and our Circle of Influence. Our Circle of Concern consists of things that we have no real control over, whereas our Circle of Influence consists of those things that we can change or influence. The question becomes: Which circle do you spend more of your time in? A proactive person focuses on the Circle of Influence; they put their time and energy into those things they can do something about. A reactive person does the opposite – they fixate on what they can’t change and thus become susceptible to blaming others for the situations they find themselves in. The amazing thing to remember is that, “In choosing our response to a circumstance, we powerfully affect our circumstance…Anytime we think the problem is “out there,” that thought is the problem. We empower what’s out there to control us.” (pg. 93/96)

For thirty days work only in your Circle of Influence. Make small commitments and keep them. Be a light, not a judge. Be a model, not a critic. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem. –7 Habits, pg. 100

Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind

Remember, Habit 2 is a habit that is cultivated in privacy. Covey begins the chapter with a poignant exercise: Imagine you’re at a funeral home, you walk down to the front of a packed room to look into the casket, and see a much older version of yourself staring back at you. What would you want your spouse/child/friend to say about you? Why are all those people at your funeral? The best way to begin with the end in mind is to picture in your mind the end of your life and work from that point backwards to today. “People often find themselves achieving victories that are empty, successes that have come at the expense of things they suddenly realize were far more valuable to them. People from every walk of life…struggle to achieve a higher income, more recognition…only to find that their drive to achieve their goal blinded them to the things that really mattered most and now are gone.” (pg. 105)

Covey says the most effective way he knows how to begin with the end in mind is to write a personal mission statement – a philosophy or creed by which you live your life. It focuses on who you want to be, what you want to do, and the values that are most important to you. Your personal mission statement flows out of the center of your Circle of Influence which is your source of four key factors:

  1. Security represents your sense of worth, identity, emotional anchorage, self-esteem, etc
  2. Guidance means your source of direction in life
  3. Wisdom is your perspective on life, sense of balance, and understanding of how the various parts of your life relate to each other
  4. Power is the capacity to act, the strength and potency to accomplish something (listed on pgs. 116-117)

All of us have a “center” that we draw our security, guidance, wisdom, and power from. Covey lists many different centers and the problems with each, such as: Spouse Centeredness, Family Centeredness, Money Centeredness, Work, Possession, Pleasure, Friend/Enemy, Church, and even Self Centeredness. The optimal centeredness, Covey says, is to be Principle Centered. Your security, guidance, wisdom, and power flow naturally out of a foundation of correct principles. So when difficult circumstances crop up in your life (my boss wants me to work late but my wife and I have a date planned), it is your principles that direct your decision-making, not your boss, your job and the potential of losing it and money, your spouse and the potential of making them upset. “As a principle-centered person, you try to stand apart from the emotion of the situation and from other factors that would act on you, and evaluate the options. Looking at the balanced whole…you’ll try to come up with the best solution, taking all factors into consideration.” (pg. 135) When you are principle-centered, you are able to act rather than be acted upon. Covey says, if Habit 1 says that YOU are the computer programmer, then Habit 2 says YOU write the program YOU are going to run.

Habit 3: Put First Things First

I am personally persuaded that the essence of the best thinking in the area of time management can be captured in a single phrase: Organize and execute around priorities. –7 Habits, pg. 158

Time Management Matrix
Time Management Matrix

In this chapter, Covey tackles time management, or rather, life management. Anything in our life can fall under the classifications of Urgent, Not Urgent, Important, an Not Important. The best way to illustrate how these work together is by the illustration of the Time Management Matrix. We react to urgent matters and act upon important matters. Often, we spend a great deal of time in Quadrant I because we lack preparation and planning. We feel the pressure of results in Quadrant I and when we’ve spent too much time there, we naturally want to fall into Quadrant IV because we think we deserve to waste time. But as Covey states, “Effective people stay out of Quadrants III and IV because, urgent or not, they aren’t important. They shrink Quadrant I down to size by spending more time in Quadrant II. Quadrant II is the heart of effective personal management.” (pg. 162) It deals with matters that are not urgent, but they are important: vision, planning, discipline, prevention, wholesome recreation/exercise, etc.

An effective Quadrant II person, says Covey, keeps six important criteria in mind:

  1. Coherence: Harmony between your values, plans, and actions
  2. Balance: Keep your various roles in life healthy (spouse, parent, spiritual life, employment, leadership)
  3. Quadrant II Focus: Get a tool that helps you focus on planning and prevention rather than on reacting to crisis. (Personally, I use a phenomenal app called Pocket Informant. You can tryy a 14-day free trial before purchase.)
  4. A ‘People’ Dimension: You need a tool that deals with people, not just schedules
  5. Flexibility: Your planning tool, whatever it is, doesn’t own you, you own your planning tool.
  6. Portability: Your tool should be able to go with you wherever you go.

One final takeaway from this chapter: “Again, you simply can’t think efficiency with people. You think effectiveness with people and efficiency with things.” (pg. 178) In the middle of a conversation with someone, you can’t stop them mid sentence and say, “Sorry, our time is up! I must be efficient and move on to my next task!” This is where flexibility comes into play. In your planning with people, be sure to put in ‘buffer’ time, because it will always run longer than expected.


Habit 4: Thinking Win/Win

Now that your character has grown and you have private victories, you can carry those habits into the public. Covey suggests that in our interactions with people, particularly when decisions must be made, it is crucial to shoot for a Win/Win outcome. A Win/Win result is a solution that benefits both parties involved – if you can’t reach a Win/Win solution, then no deal should be made. Covey goes on to say that Win/Win solutions are accomplished (now that you have the first 3 habits in place) with mature people who have “the ability to express one’s own feelings and convictions balanced with consideration for the thoughts of others.” (pg. 228)

When Covey speaks of “Public” victories, he’s not speaking of victories over other people and their ideas. But rather an effective interaction between everyone that is mutually beneficial. And one of the best ways to get to a Win/Win solution, is the implementation of Habit 5.

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

When faced with a conflict of interest, our natural reaction is to seek to be understand first. We want the other party (spouse, child, friend, colleague, etc) to understand our position first, probably in the hopes that it’ll change their minds. So seeking to first understand, Covey says, will take a huge shift in our thinking. Usually, when someone else is speaking, we’re listening on one of four levels:

  1. Ignoring: We’re really not listening at all
  2. Pretending: “Oh okay. Sure. Yeah.”
  3. Selective Listening: We hear only certain parts – usually the parts that interest us.
  4. Attentive Listening: Paying attention to everything that is being said.

Covey puts forth the idea of a fifth way of listening: Empathetic Listening: Listening with the intent to understand. When we engage in empathetic listening we really (I mean really) try to put ourselves in the other persons’ shoes. What is it they are feeling? How are they looking at this situation? What are their concerns? This is not some technique to gain influence with someone, though that will undoubtedly be a side effect. It comes out of the first 4 habits – you genuinely want to reach a Win/Win solution and you genuinely care what the other person thinks and feels. By engaging in empathetic listening you avoid being a doctor that prescribes medicine for a patient without first diagnosing the problem. Any doctor in their right mind knows, you diagnose first, then prescribe. If only we took the same principle and applied it to our communication we could reach far more Win/Win situations.

Habit 6: Synergize

Covey wraps up the public victory habits with synergy. He says, “Synergy is the essence of principle-centered leadership…It catalyzes, unifies, and unleashes the greatest powers within people. All the habits we have covered prepare us to create the miracle of synergy.” (pg. 274) Synergy is when all the habits work together to produce effective results in your life. This entire chapter, Covey walks you through circumstances, showing you how all the habits work together.


Part 7: Sharpen the Saw

The chapter begins with a story. You’re walking through the woods and you see a woodsman who is tirelessly trying to chop down a tree. He’s been at it for hours. You ask him, “Why don’t you take a break and sharpen your saw?” He then states, “I don’t have time to sharpen my ax! Can’t you see I’m busy sawing!?”

This 7th habit of renewal, encircles all the other habits. Covey points out four areas of renewal that are essential to keeping our saw sharp:

  1. Physical Dimension: Exercise, Nutrition, Stress Management
  2. Social / Emotional Dimension: Service, Empathy, Synergy, Intrinsic Security
  3. Mental Dimension: Reading, Visualizing, Planning, Writing
  4. Spiritual Dimension: Value Clarification & Commitment, Study & Meditation

What are those activities you can engage in that help renew each of these key areas of your life? As we become interdependent people who are continuously sharp and renewed, our influence on the lives of others will become that much more impactful. Covey so eloquently puts it this way:

We have so much we can invest in the Emotional Bank Accounts of other people. The more we can see people in terms of their unseen potential, the more we can use our imagination rather than our memory, with our spouse, our children, our coworkers or employees. We can refuse to label them – we can ‘see’ them in new fresh ways each time we’re with them. We can help them become independent, fulfilled people capable of deeply satisfying, enriching, and productive relationships with others. -7 Habits, pg. 313


This will be a book you may want to read slowly. Covey gives a great deal for you to digest, reflect, and meditate upon. Becoming a highly effective person starts with YOU. It starts with who you really are inside. Because while talent and personality are exciting for a time, it’s character that makes you a leader worth following. Character, value, principles, virtue – these are what propel us to be proactive, begin with the end in mind, put first things first, think Win/Win, seek first to understand, then to be understood, synergize, and sharpen the saw.

General Information:

Personal Ratings (1-10) 

  • Applicability: 10
  • Readability: 7 – There are portions that get a little repetitive.
  • Originality: 9
  • Recommendation: I certainly recommend you read this book if you haven’t yet. My advice is that you walk through it slowly. Take it piece by piece. Don’t get overwhelmed by it’s size. Minus the appendix, it’s only 329 pages. Get it. Digest it. Apply it.

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