The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

by Stephen R. Covey

First published in 1989, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has sold more than 25 million copies in more than 40 languages worldwide. One of the best-selling self-development management books ever published, it continues to have a powerful influence on generations. The world has changed a great deal since this book was first published. We are moving from an industrial age to one of knowledge—which is readily available through the internet and social media. Yet 7 Habits remains as relevant as ever, because it is based on timeless, universal principles. With 7 Habits, you will truly learn to live a highly effective and successful life.

Summary Notes

The Seven Habits — an overview

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” —Aristotle

“Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character; reap a destiny,” so the saying goes. Our habits make us. The good news is that we can change our habits. It takes time and effort, as our habits become strongly ingrained. With continued effort and experiencing new and powerful results, we can become truly the best we could wish to be. Steven Covey says that in order for us to make something a habit in our lives, four key components all need to be present: knowledge (what), skill (how), desire (want), and motivation (why).

On the surface, the seven habits seem simple—the key is in their depth and sustained application in order to truly make them the core of your character. The seven habits all complement each other. They all work together. The first three habits are about independence. Independence means you are your own person; you think for yourself and don’t need any external validation from anyone. This way of being means you are internally driven and independent with your actions, which come from a strong, principle-based core.

The next three habits are based on interdependence. Whereas independence is your relationship with yourself, interdependence is about your relationship with others. These habits are based on essential skills such as teamwork and cooperation to help you be highly effective as a leader, team member, or family member—essentially any relationship where there will be interaction with another person.

Your internal structure and quality of relationship with yourself is key in having the skills to deal with external structures and relationships with others. That is why the seven habits are in a particular order and that order is key to the essence of their success. Covey puts it wonderfully by saying, “The first three habits deal with self-mastery and self-control. They form the deepest part of your character. They constitute the private victory—the victory over self. Private victories must come before public victories. To lead others effectively, you first must learn to lead yourself effectively.”

Habit 7, the final habit, is then perhaps the most important of all and encompasses all of the others. Habit 7 is about the overall quality of you and your continued energy and renewal—of how sharp you are, as you are, after all, your greatest tool, and it's the quality and sharpness of you that will drive the effective execution of all the other habits.

Timeless, universal principles and a strong character ethic are the core of the seven habits. Understanding the concept of principles and character is crucial to understanding this work.

Principles and Paradigms

A principle, according to Covey, is a universal natural law. It is objective and factual, such as integrity, contribution, continued growth, treatment of others, kindness, and fairness. The seven habits are built on principles. Every one of the habits represents a principle, and again according to Covey, “A principle is the actual reality, like the law of gravity—a fundamental natural law, the way things actually are.”

A paradigm is a perspective—it’s a way of looking at something. A paradigm comes from the preconceived images you have in your mind, images that are formed and shaped over time as a result of past experiences. When we look at the world through our eyes and think we are seeing it as it is, we are in fact seeing it through the lense of all our past experiences—we are seeing the world according to our perceptions. 7 Habits is about having paradigm shifts to see things as they actually are, allowing us to live our lives in highly effective ways in line with universal principles.

Character Ethic vs. Personality Ethic

The development of the seven habits began with the study of success and how it evolved, going back almost 200 years. A key finding was that almost all the focus of early literature was on character and principles: attributes such as integrity, courage, compassion, contribution, responsibility, and justice. Then the emphasis shifted in the early 1900s away from character to personality, which focused more on techniques than on principles, or as Covey says, “On how to appear to be rather than on how to actually be.”

Techniques are also important in areas such as management and communication; however, when used instead of, rather than with, the base of a strong character, they are merely techniques, and most people can see through this. On this foundation it is difficult to build trust and meaningful relationships, as people will not be sure of our motives, who we really are, or what we stand for. Our character forms the basis of trust and building effective relationships, and it is for this reason that the seven habits are built on the character ethic.

Habit 1 — Be Proactive

Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.” Victor Frankl

To be proactive means to take responsibility and control of your own life. The word “responsibility” literally means “the ability to respond,” and proactive people will choose their response to situations and people wisely. They take responsibility for their lives and know that the effectiveness of their lives is a result of their own actions and choices.

Reactive people, on the other hand, blame other people and circumstances for their lives. They don’t take the time to choose their response and instead are driven by their daily moods and fleeting feelings. Proactive people will create an environment that serves them, whereas reactive people will blame their environment for anything that doesn’t serve them. They are at the mercy and control of external conditions, whereas proactive people are driven by their own internal conditions, which they create to serve them to live a fully effective life.

Habit 1, to be proactive, says that you are in charge of your own life: You create it, or you can live reactively and have other people and circumstances create it for you.

Building your level of self-awareness allows us to make choices about how proactive we are with our lives. The fact that we can be self-aware and “see and hear” our own thought process means that we are greater than this process itself. 

The “watcher” of the thoughts is the real you, and when you aren’t so tied up in your thoughts, you can stand back and observe whether those thoughts are the actual reality or a reaction from past conditioning and experiences. Seeing things as they actually are is the epitome of clarity and effectiveness and allows us to be proactive with the reality, rather than reactive to our perceptions.

Actions to take

Habit 1 — Be Proactive, Part II

Remember, habit 1, to be proactive, says that you are in charge of your own life: You create it, or you can live reactively and have other people and circumstances create it for you.

When a person can truly see that their life is a result of their choices, they then empower themself to make choices that serve them. As Covey says so well, “It’s not what happens to us, but our response to what happens to us that hurts us—our most difficult experiences forge our character and develop the internal powers, the freedom to handle difficult circumstances in the future as well as inspire others to do so as well.”

The main problem with reactive language is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We tend to look for evidence that already backs our beliefs, and so with reactive words, originating from reactive thoughts, people feel increasingly victimized and out of control. They blame other people and circumstances for their own situation. On the other hand, consciously choosing empowering language will lead to empowering thoughts and taking responsibility for your situations and your success and effectiveness in them.

Actions to take

Habit 1 — Be Proactive, Part III

Remember, proactive people focus their efforts in the circle of influence and work on things they can do something about. Their energy is positive and powerful, causing their circle of influence to increase.

Reactive people, on the other hand, focus their time and energy on what they can’t influence. They focus on problems and circumstances over which they have no control. The negative energy generated by that focus, along with neglecting areas they can do something about, causes their circle of influence to get smaller and smaller.

Learn to become more self-aware. When we have self-awareness of how we are spending our time and energy, we can then turn that awareness into being able to make choices that are proactive.

Actions to take

Habit 2 — Begin With the End in Mind

All things are created twice. There’s a mental or first creation, and a physical or second creation to all things.

Habit 2 is about creation—the creation of your life the way you want it to be. It’s based on having a strong vision, so that the steps and actions you take in your life are purposeful and continually guided by this vision. Ultimately, it allows and enables you to live a life of purpose, a life of your own design.

It’s all too easy in this day and age to be very busy with activity. Covey uses the analogy of being busy with climbing a ladder only to find at some point in your life that the ladder was leaning against the wrong wall. When you know what is really important to you and keep that picture in mind, you manage yourself each day to be and do what matters most. True effectiveness comes from beginning with the end in mind.

To begin with the end in mind is based on the principle that all things are created twice: a mental, or first, creation and a physical, or second, creation. For example, when you build a home, the plans come first, then the actual dream home. Without the plans, there might be regular changes during the building process, which could potentially be very expensive. And so the first creation is very important. The same could be said for planning a garden design, a trip, or a speech. If we don’t design our lives, other people and circumstances will, which is a choice between being proactive or reactive.

Habit 2 is based on your leadership of your own life, which is what is needed to form a strong vision. Management is then what is needed for the second creation of actually bringing that vision to life (covered in habit 3). Leadership comes first. Covey says “In the words of Peter Drucker and Warren Bennis “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things” and then Covey goes on to say “Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.”

The key point of “begin with the end in mind” is to begin today with the image of the end of your life as your frame of reference for everything that you do on a daily basis. Each part of your life—today, tomorrow, next week, next month—are lived according to what really matters to you. Covey talks of an internal compass that guides every action, and this exercise, when done properly, can take you to your deepest values and the very core of your internal compass and what is most important to you. By keeping that end clearly in mind, you can make certain that each day of your life contributes in a meaningful way to the vision you have of your life as a whole.

Actions to take

Habit 3 — Put First Things First

Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” —Goethe

Habit 1 says you are in charge: be proactive in your own life. Habit 2 says you are the creator of the vision of what you can become. Habit 3 is now the actual physical creation of your vision. It’s the actual doing it. Habits 1 and 2 are essential to habit 3. Developing a proactive nature and having a strong vision make up the foundation of habit 3, the practice of effective self-management.

Management is very different from leadership. Leadership is about being more creative and visionary, and about seeing longer term and the bigger picture. It’s about asking purposeful questions and then managing yourself effectively in order to create the life you have envisioned. Management is about planning and doing effectively, and the ability to make and keep commitments to yourself is key. Covey says that “effective management is about putting first things first, whereas leadership decides what those first things are.”

Management is a discipline of carrying things out. The word “discipline” comes from “disciple.” With a strong vision and a clear sense of purpose, you become a disciple of yourself. Also, having a very clear sense of purpose and direction makes it possible to say no to anything that doesn’t serve that purpose. Habit 3 is about organizing and executing around priorities.

The two factors that define an activity are urgent and important. Urgent requires immediate attention. Important, on the other hand, has to do with results. If something is important, it contributes to your vision, values, and high-priority goals. If you don’t have a strong sense of vision, values, and clarity around your high-priority goals, then you will probably find that you get pulled into activities that require your immediate attention or activities that are important to other people.

Without a strong sense of purpose (habit 2, first creation of your vision), you will not have a strong enough pull toward the important activities or even know what they are. Therefore, your life will become more reactive, and it’s often important activities (like health) that become urgent when not dealt with initially, and so the spiral of a reactive life continues. Making the time to deal with what’s important will allow you to live a truly effective life.

Actions to take

Habit 4 — Think Win/Win

You can’t change the fruit without changing the root.

Habit 4 now steps from effective independence (relationship with self based on habits 1,2, and 3) to interdependence—your relationships with others. When you step from independence (relationship with self) to interdependence (relationship with others), you are stepping into a position of influence and leadership, and the habit of highly effective leadership and influence is to think win/win. This is not a technique; it’s a complete way of being. There are other ways that you may recognise in yourself and/or in others. Covey describes these in the following way:

“Win/win is a frame of mind and heart that constantly seeks mutual benefit in all human interactions. Win/win means that agreements or solutions are mutually beneficial and mutually satisfying. With a win/win solution, all parties feel good about the decision and feel committed to the action plan.” This is about cooperation, not competition.

“Win/lose says if I win, you lose. In leadership style, it’s authoritarian—I get my way, you don’t get yours. Win/lose people are prone to use position, power, title, possessions or personality to get their way. This can be deeply scripted from birth.” From parents for example, who favour one child over another, and give love on a conditional basis when the love has to be earned. This gives the message that the person is not intrinsically valuable or lovable, but only in comparison to something external (another person or expectation). Win/lose is dysfunctional to co-operation.”

“Lose/win says ‘I lose, you win, go ahead, step on me, everyone else does.’ Lose/win has no standards, no demands, no expectations, no vision. Lose/win people have little courage to express feelings and are easily intimidated by the ego strength of others. In negotiation it’s giving up, and in leadership it’s permissive. Often these people repress feelings, which comes up later as anger, cynicism, and even rage. They often have self esteem issues which results in relationship issues with others.”

“Lose/lose is when two win/lose people get together—both determined, stubborn and ego driven, the result will be lose/lose. Both will want to get back at each other and become vindictive. Lose/lose is also the philosophy of a highly dependent person without inner direction, who is miserable and thinks everyone else should be too.”

“Win people don’t necessarily want someone else to lose. It’s irrelevant. What matters is that they get what they want. A person with a win mentality thinks in terms of securing his own ends and leaving it to others to secure theirs.”

“Win/win or no deal is an even higher expression of win/win. If we can’t find a solution that would benefit both, we agree to disagree agreeably—no deal. Our values and goals are different, and we have no expectations of each other. This is a very liberating position as you have no need to push your own agenda. You can be open. You can really try to understand the deeper issues underlying the positions.”

The principle of win/win is based on a strong character ethic. Covey talks about three essential traits that build character. The first is integrity. This is about knowing your deep values and making decisions around those values on a daily basis. The second is maturity, a combination of courage and consideration. It’s the ability to express feelings and opinions with consideration for the thoughts and feelings of others. The third is an abundance mentality, the view that the world is abundant and we can all be equally abundant in it. The opposite would be a “scarcity mentality,” the view that the world isn’t abundant, and if you have more, then I will have less, which results in unhealthy competitive behaviour. The abundance mentality comes from a deep and secure sense of self. It’s about opening up options and possibilities.

From the character of integrity, maturity, and abundance comes the ability to build strong relationships, and then from the win/win relationships come the win/win agreements. For win/win to truly work in an organization, there need to be systems and processes that support a win/win, collaborative mentality rather than one that fosters unhealthy competition.

Thinking win/win creates more energy, happiness, and ultimately, a more productive and effective relationship. This kind of thinking and being creates abundance in every way, as people will be more attracted to working and/or collaborating with you and wanting to find ways to reciprocate being with you in the same way that you are being with them. The opposite of this harbours mistrust and probably an eventual closing down of communication and collaboration. We often have ways of being that are based on past experiences. This exercise allows you to gain self-awareness of whether your past is getting in the way of your present. With self-awareness, you can make new choices and, as a result, proactively create your destiny.

Actions to take

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

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand. They listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak.

Habit 5 is the habit of empathic communication, meaning you always seek to understand first, just like the doctor diagnoses before prescribing. When you truly seek to understand another, you build a foundation of trust where the other is also prepared to understand you. True, effective interaction and influence comes from this habit.

Covey uses five levels of listening to raise our awareness of the quality (or lack of it) of our listening skills. First, we may be ignoring the other, i.e., just not listening at all. Second, we may be pretending, i.e., nodding and making some sounds, but not really engaging at all. Third is selective listening, or zooming in on what we want to hear and completely missing what else has been said, so we only ever hear what we have almost already decided to hear (often used in sales, where they have been trained in techniques to pick up on certain words and circumstances). The fourth level is attentive listening, which is better than the others, as at least now I am hearing what you said and repeating your words back to you. However, very few of us ever use the fifth level, the highest form of listening: empathic listening.

Normally, we listen with the intent to reply. Empathic listening is about listening with the intent to understand, to really understand. With empathic listening (from empathy), you see the world the way the other person sees it. You understand their paradigms, their feelings. Communication experts say that only about 10% of our communication is represented by words, another 30% by sounds, and another 60% by body language. Covey says that with empathic listening you not only listen with your ears, but also with your eyes and heart. You listen for emotions and meaning, as you are dealing with the reality inside another person’s head and heart.

One of the greatest human needs is to be understood and appreciated. When you listen with empathy, Covey says, you are giving that person “psychological air,” as you are truly understanding them deeply, and to be understood at such a deep level is a profound experience. That experience builds a very strong and powerful relationship and understanding.

Real learning comes through repetition and teaching the methods to others. When you teach this material to colleagues and family, not only do they gain new learning and growth, but you also get to embed the skills deep within yourself.

Secondly, when you practice empathic listening daily, you are getting the important repetition in order to make it a habit, and you are getting valuable feedback that will increase your self-awareness and effectiveness in listening empathically.

Lastly, your level of understanding, communication, and presence with others will deepen significantly. You will appreciate them more, they will appreciate you, and as a result, you will build powerful, very effective, and enriching relationships in all areas of your life.

Actions to take

Habit 6 — Synergize

Once people have experienced real synergy, they are never quite the same again. They know the possibility of having other such mind expanding adventures in the future.

Synergy is exciting. It’s about co-creation. There is an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.” This is about the sum being greater than its parts. The dictionary definition of synergy is “the combined power of a group of things when they are working together that is greater than the total power achieved by each working separately.”

This is about teamwork, and it’s about so much more than just working well together—it’s about genuine and mutual understanding, respecting, valuing, and celebrating of differences and realizing that’s it’s in the understanding and coming together of such differences that exciting and previously undiscovered ways of working, being, and evolving come to life. New horizons are no longer explored; they are created, and the energy is one of adventure, excitement, and possibility.

This is the coming together of all the previous habits: being proactive enough to create synergy, bringing your visionary skills and spark, making the time for this, understanding, truly understanding others, and having the mindset of win/win. The combined energy of all of these together create a synergy that can and will truly create life-changing ways and successes. In the same way, the combined energy of two or more people coming together can spark highly creative and effective ways forward—especially if you have internalized all the other habits and made them a core part of your being—as you will find that you are naturally a catalyst for creating these kinds of synergistic groups and circumstances.

To see the world through the eyes of another expands and broadens our horizons and brings a deeply enriching experience that we would not have otherwise had. To search out and experience the world through the eyes of someone who is very different from us brings an explosive, truly mind-expanding richness. It’s the coming together of minds and differences that catalyzes explosive synergy on creative ways forward that most likely would otherwise have not been discovered.

Actions to take

Habit 7 — Sharpen the Saw

The single most important investment we can make in our lives is our investment in ourselves.

Covey tells the following story: “You are walking in the woods one day and come across a lumberjack. You see that he is absolutely exhausted and ask how long he’s been working, and he tells you over five hours. At this point you tell him to take a break and also sharpen his saw, to which he responds, “I don’t have time to sharpen the saw—I’m too busy sawing!”

Habit 7 is about taking time to sharpen the saw and is without a doubt the most important habit of all, as it makes all the other habits possible. It’s about the quality of you, your canvas. You are your greatest tool, and habit 7 is about how sharp you keep that tool in order to execute all the other habits flawlessly and with ease. It’s about your physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional health. To be truly effective, you need to take time in these four areas and realize that it’s the most important investment of time that you will ever make.

Actions to take

Habit 7 — Sharpen the Saw — Part II

There is a saying that how we do something is how we do everything. When you have the discipline, will, strength, and mindset to create a body of vitality, health, and vigor, this will not only lead to increased energy to live your life fully, but it will also give you the discipline to achieve goals in other areas of your life.

Covey quotes Martin Luther King, who said, “I have so much to do today, I’ll need to spend another hour on my knees.” Prayer was his spiritual practice and not something that he had to do, but something that he wanted to do because he knew it would give him the inner strength, peace, and stillness needed to deal with the demands of his day.

We know when we are in the presence of someone who has this inner peace, strength, and stillness. They are grounded in stature and resonant in speech. They are quietly powerful and have the ability to take time with people and situations—all the hallmarks of a proactive person. Taking the time for a spiritual practice will give you harmony, which in turn will bring harmonious conditions and relationships with others.

There is a saying that how we do something is how we do everything. When you have the discipline, will, strength, and mindset to create a body of vitality, health, and vigor, this will not only lead to increased energy to live your life fully, but it will also give you the discipline to achieve goals in other areas of your life.

Actions to take

Habit 7 — Sharpen the Saw — Part III

Remember that one of the best investments of time and the greatest gift you can give yourself is to be your absolute best physically. And this includes the brain! 

The brain is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the healthier it gets. There is a great deal of research that shows that continuing to learn new skills throughout life keeps our brains healthy, active, and young. 

Exposing ourselves continually to material that expands our knowledge also allows us to broaden our horizons. This not only helps us to grow and evolve, but also allows us to examine our own paradigms and ways of seeing the world, which is essential for our effectiveness of how we operate in the world.

Actions to take

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