The late, best-selling author Steven Covey wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People back in 1989, but he believed the depth and breadth of societal changes and challenges that had taken place between when the book first came out and and our current lives made the habits he described even more relevant today.
People are afraid for the futures, feel vulnerable in the workplace, have a tendency to want things now, and blame others for their frustrations and failures, said Covey. Thus they develop cynicism and hopelessness.
We live in a “me-first” culture. We’re hungry to be understood. We are frustrated with conflict in our relationships, at work, in our communities, and in the world at large.
“For all our efforts to manage our time…and do more with the wonders of technology, why is it we increasingly find ourselves in the ‘thick of thin things’— subordinating health, family, integrity and many of the things that matter most to our work?” he asked.
The answer? Develop a clear sense of your priorities and live with focus and integrity toward them, Covey contended.
Covey coined a term, “abundance mentality,” which means living, working, communicating and negotiating from the perspective of believing there are enough resources and successes to share. That idea, coupled with seven very specific core habits he argued are essential to developing a truly successful, multi-dimensional life, was his guidebook for improvement.
“Habits are powerful factors in our lives,” wrote Covey. “Because they are consistent, often unconscious patterns, they express our effectiveness – or ineffectiveness daily.”
He noted that habits have the pull of gravity. “Breaking deeply imbedded habitual tendencies such as procrastination, impatience, criticalness or selfishness that violate basic principles of human effectiveness involves more than a little willpower and a few changes in our lives.”
Yet, like any natural force, the force of habit can also work in our favor, if we learn to purposefully develop an effective habit.
Covey defined a habit as the intersection of knowledge, skill and desire. Knowledge is what to do, and why it should be done. Skill is how to do it. And desire is the motivation to do it.
For example, he wrote that the habit that was hardest for him to follow was listening. “Knowing I need to listen and knowing how to listen is not enough. Unless I want to listen, unless I have the desire, it won’t be a habit in my life. Creating a habit requires work in all three dimensions.”
To explain what he meant by effectiveness, Covey retold Aesop’s fable of the goose who laid the golden egg. A poor farmer discovered his goose is laying an egg made of solid gold every day, something which starts to make him very rich. He gradually becomes greedy and impatient, and decides to kill the goose to get all the eggs at once. But when he opens the goose, there are no golden eggs. And because he killed the goose, there will, of course, be no more golden eggs.
For Covey, this story helped define effectiveness. “True effectiveness is a function of…what is produced (the golden eggs) and the producing asset or capacity to produce (the goose). “If you adopt a pattern of life that focuses on golden eggs and neglects the goose, you will soon be without the asset that produces golden eggs. (But), if you only take care of the goose with no aim toward the golden eggs, you soon won’t have the wherewithal to feed yourself or the goose.” Effectiveness lies in the balance of production and production capability, he wrote.
Covey advised trying to be as objective about your thinking and your behavior – and your current habits — as you can.
The habits, in brief:
Be proactive. Take responsibility for your life. Focus on what you can control.
Begin with the end in mind. Begin with the end in mind. Who are you and what do you want in life?
Put first things first. This is where habits one and two come together.
Think win-win. Have an abundance mentality. Requires integrity and maturity.
Seek first to understand and then be understood.
Synergize. Come from the point of view that two heads are better than one. Create cooperation.
Sharpen the saw. Preserve, enhance and renew yourself.
Covey was optimistic about our ability to develop constructive new habits. “Whatever your present situation, I assure you that you are not your habits. You can replace old self-defeating behavior with new patterns, new habits of effectiveness, happiness and trust-based relationships.”
Learn more: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey, Free Press, 2004.