One of the most readable and most useful contributions to the field of personal development and personal mastery is still the mammoth best-seller, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey, published in 1989. Covey zeroes in on the role of habits in the quest for human effectiveness, since habits allow us to act without thinking. For example, most of us can tie our shoes with no trouble, since we have done it so many times. But actually learning to tie our shoes as little children with no shoe-tying experience can be frustrating and time consuming. Thus, it can be very difficult to form the productive habits we need to form. The paradox here, of course, is that we are all susceptible to bad habits as well as good habits, and our attempts to form good habits must often start with attempts to break bad habits. Once we have formed good habits for effective behavior and practiced them over and over, however, they become second nature so we can act on them spontaneously without thinking.

The first three habits that Covey addresses appear under his general heading of “private victory,” or independence.


Habit one: be proactive echoes Marcus Aurelius’s claim that “You have power over your mind — not outside events.” Being proactive essentially means taking initiative. Covey encourages readers to see the potential for creative action in all situations and to take full responsibility for one’s decisions.

Habit two: begin with the end in mind encourages us to think about the longest of long-term outcomes in the consequences of our behavior. Covey suggests that we start developing this habit by imagining our own funeral and what the important people in our lives would say about us after we are gone. By matching our behavior to the idealized opinions of our loved ones and associates, we can bring our actions into alignment with our life-long aspirations.

Habit three: put first things first reminds us to focus as much as possible on doing what really matters. Covey urges us to remember what is important rather than merely urgent, since urgency distracts attention and forces us to neglect everything but the object of the urgency. In other words, the time to focus on important matters is when there is plenty of time to do so, before they become urgent. For a student, this means studying for tests and working on papers well before they are due; for a business executive, it means making those project plans while there is still time to review and revise. Covey is careful to point out that important matters appear not just in areas of work and task completion, but also include time for relationships with friends and loved ones and time for recreation – or re-creation – to restore our vital energies.

The next three habits address what Covey calls “public victory” or interdependence.

Habit four: think win-win reminds us that none of us live in isolation from others. Habits of cooperation and sharing are often more productive than habits of competition and taking, especially for leaders. This is a hard habit to develop in a culture of competition like ours, which is especially competitive in many workplaces, but even there a win-win culture will almost always beat a culture of cutthroat competition. Consider the naturally competitive world of team sports, where competition for roles on the team and competition between teams during games is the norm, but where cooperation among teammates is the actual key to victory.

Habit five: seek first to understand, then to be understood serves as an antidote to our normal self-centered tendency to want other people to understand where we are coming from and what we mean. This one starts with the habit of shutting up and listening, which is often difficult for leaders who assume that others expect them to speak up and take charge in all situations. Speaking up and taking charge may be necessary at times, but usually not until after listening carefully first.

Habit six: synergize builds on the notion of win-win by encouraging us to think in terms of building capacity for cooperative and collaborative behavior. Especially in the high-tech global village we now inhabit, synergy with other groups, organizations, and communities builds creative potential every which way.

Habit seven: sharpen the saw is about continuous improvement. It encourages us to be mindful of our own individual need to learn and grow. Covey uses the metaphor of a woodsman trying to fell a tree with a dull saw. When asked why he doesn’t take time to sharpen the saw, the woodsman claims that he does not have time because he is too busy trying to fell the tree.

All in all, Covey’s approach to developing habits of effective behavior may be described as aiming to nurture a “second nature” to replace the first or original nature of instinct and bad habits that have developed carelessly with little or no conscious effort.

And Covey’s focus on effectiveness rather than efficiency reflects the long-term importance of vision. Efficiency measures the specific costs of specific behaviors in order to keep track of a profit-and-loss calculation. Effectiveness, however, reflects the importance of doing the right things in the first place. In 1905, for example, a buggy-whip manufacturer could increase efficiency by 5% and raise profits by 5% simply by cutting the cost of production by 5%. A more effective decision, however, would be to go out of the buggy-whip business completely and start manufacturing parts for the emerging automobile industry. In a sense, efficiency is like trying to climb a ladder as quickly as possible, while effectiveness is about making sure you are climbing the right ladder and that the ladder is positioned at the right place.

Covey also points out that the key to effective time management is not actually managing time, but rather managing yourself. We all have the same amount of time (168 hours per week). Using time effectively means behaving in ways that you spend as much time as possible in quadrant 2 of the “time management matrix” noted below, where events are important but not urgent. That way, you can prevent things from becoming urgent, at which point you will feel like you have to do them right away whether they are important or not. The keys to effective time management are to focus on quadrant 2 and stay away from quadrant 4 unless you have everything clearly under control.