When I first read this book I must confess I didn’t “get it”.

And yet, today I consider it one of the most important books I’ve ever read.

When I came back and read it a second time I was completely engaged by what Covey was writing. I wrote myself a 25-page summary of the key points as I saw them and I go back to it on a regular basis for inspiration. And although it was first published in 1989 I believe its ideas are as relevant today as they were then.

Covey presents 7 habits that he sees are principle centred, character based, requiring a high degree of self-awareness and consideration of our own paradigms, character and motives. The fundamental and enduring principles that Covey bases his habits on are fairness, integrity and honesty, human dignity, service, quality or excellence, potential and patience, nurturance and encouragement.

This may sound a bit overwhelming but stick with it – it is worth it! Covey devotes the first two chapters to elaborating on paradigms, principles and habits. He defines the latter as the intersection of knowledge, skill and desire and notes that each of the three must be present for habit to form.
Covey divides the habits into three categories:

  1. To Achieve Independence
  • Habit 1 Be Proactive
  • Habit 2 Begin with the End in Mind
  • Habit 3 Put First Things First
  1. To Achieve Interdependence
  • Habit 4 Think Win/Win
  • Habit 5 Seek First to Understand. Then to be Understood
  • Habit 6 Synergise
  1. Supporting the Other Habits
  • Habit 7 Sharpen the Saw

I’ll give you a taste of each of these, but seriously, you should read this book to get the detail.

Habit 1 Be Proactive

At the centre of this habit is self awareness and the acknowledgement that we have control how we respond to situations we are in. A proactive person will not only take initiative but will choose a response. He gives some examples of reactive language versus proactive language – for example,  “there is nothing I can do” versus “let’s look at our alternatives”, or “I can’t” versus “I choose”.

Covey also introduces the concept of circle of concern and circle of influence and notes that it is really only the latter that we can do anything about. So in essence he is saying work on things we have control over. He also suggests a 30 day focus on proactivity including when we should:

  • Work only on our centre of influence
  • Make small commitments and keep them
  • Don’t get into blaming or accusing mode

…amongst other things.

Habit 2 Begin With the End in Mind

Covey asks us to imagine what would be said about us at our own funeral. And he commends to us the development of a personal mission statement, philosophy or creed It focuses on what you want to be (character) and to do (contributions and achievements) and on the values or principles upon which doing and being are based. He suggests four areas of activity being family, friends, work and community.

As well as personal mission statements, Covey is a believer in family and organisational mission statements. For organisations he believes everyone should participate in a meaningful way – not just the senior staff. The process and involvement is as the written statement and is the key to its use.

When Covey works with companies who already have a mission statement he asks the following questions:

How many people know you have a mission statement?
How many know what it contains?
How many were involved in creating it?
How many really buy into it and actually use it a framework of reference for making decisions?

His key message which he emphasises greatly is: NO INVOVLEMENT = NO COMMITMENT

Refer to a recent article I wrote about vision and my reference to this second habit.

Habit 3 Put First Things First

In this habit Covey introduces the concept of assessing tasks we could complete against measures of importance and urgency. He describes urgency as relating to results and importance as relating to results. He provides a matrix which many of us have seen in some form perhaps on many occasions without knowing where it came from. I’ve not reproduced it here but it is worth looking at.

This chapter is a must read for all professionals. It has some practical tips for time and priority management that are truly timeless.

Habit 4 Think Win / Win

Covey describes this as not a technique but a total philosophy of human interaction. It is a mindset that seeks mutual benefit in all human interactions. This can sound a little “saintly” but he builds a sound narrative around this with reference to relationships, agreements, systems and processes.

Habit 5 Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood

Covey believes this is the single most importance principle he has learned in the field of interpersonal relations. We have a tendency to rush in, to fix things up with good advice, without taking the time to diagnose and to really deeply understand the problem first.

This is consistent with the philosophy of David Maister for dealing with clients – we want to appear to be an expert and often don’t really fully understand what the client’s real issues are. (I will review some of David Maister’s books in the coming months.)

Covey observes that most people do not listen with the intent to understand – they listen with the intent to reply. He provides some ideas on how we can become better listeners and recommends role plays which are recorded and replayed to show us what terrible listeners most of us are!

Habit 6 Synergise (Principle of Creative Cooperation)

This habit is in a sense an extension of the win/win habit. It is about valuing the differences in views that we might be exposed to and using them to add to our knowledge, build our understanding and find alternate commonly agreed views or outcomes.

A practical example provided is next time you have a disagreement or confrontation with someone, attempt to understand the concerns underlying that persons’ position. Address those concerns in a creative and mutually beneficial way.

Habit 7 Sharpen the Saw

This is about the classic “I don’t have time to sharpen my saw as I am too busy sawing trees” He exhorts us to be constantly finding ways to develop ourselves across four dimensions – physical, social/emotional, spiritual and mental. This is the habit that makes the other habit possible.


Stephen Covey sadly passed away in 2012 but this book (and some subsequent books) have left a fine legacy for anyone interested in self-development. It really makes you think but also provides practical exercises and templates that support real world application.

Should you read this book? Yes, yes and yes.



7 Habits of Highly Effective People

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