Anna Shipman : JFDI

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

26 June 2023 / Career development / Book notes

I have recently read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It was not what I’d expected, and very good. Here are my notes.

A lot of it seems familiar

I resisted reading this for a long time because it seemed the most self-helpy of the business books on my list.

However, it’s referenced all the time. Some of the principles I already try to follow, for example ‘put first things first’ and ‘begin with the end in mind’, and some I definitely feel I could do better, for example ‘seek first to understand, then be understood’, so I thought I would go back to the source material.

It has a really intense beginning

The first few chapters of the book are really about how you are as a person. “Inside out” – the book is about how to be a decent person, genuinely, rather than how to do some things that make you effective.

This is not at all what is implied by the title; it is indeed more self-helpy than your standard business book.

The author, Stephen R. Covey, talks about the personality ethic (i.e. techniques) vs the character ethic (i.e. things like integrity, humility). His contention is that it’s only the latter that will actually make a difference. If you follow techniques but they don’t come “inside out” then people will be able to tell.

“We see the world not as it is but as we are”. He says character is a composite of habits.

How the 7 habits fit together

He then talks about maturity; initially you are dependent, then you are independent (the first three habits), then interdependent (i.e. part of a bigger ecosystem – the second three habits). The last habit is continuous improvement – renewal (“Sharpen the saw”).

He calls the first three “private victory” and the second three “public victory” and the point is that “inside out” means you have to master private victory before you can master public victory.

He says though, ironically, you will find that as you care less about what others think of you, you will care more about they think of themselves and their world, which includes their relationship with you.

P/PC balance

He then talks about maintenance. He calls this “P” and “PC” balance, where P is production, and PC is production capability. You need to look after the goose that lays the golden egg. “Always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customers”. PC is treating employees as volunteers because that’s what they are; you pay for their labour but they volunteer the best bit: their hearts and minds.

Interestingly he suggests reading the book as if you were going to teach it. Which I always do, by making notes, which I know I will share if I rate the book.

Habit 1: Be proactive

We are free to choose how we react and respond – not strictly programmed by upbringing etc. “Between stimulus and response is our greatest power – the freedom to choose”.

People wait for something to happen or someone to take care of them. But the people who end up with the good jobs are the ones who are solutions to problems, not problems themselves, who seize the initiative to do whatever is necessary, consistent with correct principles, to get the job done.

He said that whenever their kids came to him or his wife with problems, they would say “use your R and I!” (Resourcefulness and initiative).

He talks about proactive vs reactive language. For example, “I don’t have time”; it’s the transfer of responsibility to circumstances, when actually it’s your responsibility. You have chosen to prioritise other things.

Some really interesting examples of alternatives, for example instead of the reactive “I must”, you can use the proactive: “I prefer”.

And the real problem with reactive language is that you yourself hear what you say and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – you feel you are not in control of things that you actually are in control of.

Circle of concern and of influence

A circle inside another; outer circle labelled 'circle of concern', inner circle labelled 'circle of influence'

The circle of concern are the things you are concerned about: problems at work, health, children, global warming, etc. The circle of influence, (usually) smaller than that, is where you can actually have an impact.

If you find you are focusing much of your energy on the bit that is outside of the circle of influence, then that tells you that you are more reactive than proactive – you expend time and energy worrying about things that you cannot change. If instead you focus in the circle of influence, this will have a positive effect, and will actually expand your circle of influence.

This also echoes something my coach has said to me: where you focus your attention is where you will find more. So if you worry about problems, you will find more problems. If you think a lot about opportunities, you will find more opportunities.

Problems are direct, indirect or no control. Direct: work on ourselves. Indirect, eg involving other people’s behaviour: work on our influencing (the second 3 habits). No control: have “the serenity to accept the things that cannot be changed”.

An example of something we have no control over is mistakes we’ve made in the past. Our last mistakes are out there, we can’t correct them. But our response to a mistake affects the quality of the next moment.

This struck home for me

Some of this was hard to read and definitely hit a nerve. I think of myself as proactive, but I could see myself in some of the examples. It feels like a hard lesson but a worthwhile one, and definitely felt like the right time to be reading this for me.

Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind

I had thought this was like working backwards but it is bigger than that. It actually begins by imagining yourself at your funeral. What would you want people to say about you? “By keeping that end clearly in mind, you can make certain that whatever you do on any particular day does not violate the criteria you have defined as supremely important, and that each day of your life contributes in a meaningful way to the version you have of your life as a whole.”

Figure out your values then begin each day with them in mind, then you can face the challenges and make your decision based on those values, rather than react to the emotion or the situation.

He suggests writing a personal mission statement, and there is actually a tool for doing this on the FranklinCovey site. Your mission statement is for all your roles: professional, personal, in your community, etc.

He then goes on to talk about having a family mission statement! And then onto a company mission statement, which should be written by everyone, not just a few top execs. “No involvement, no commitment.” And then you have to actually use it as your frame of reference in making decisions.

He paraphrases Peter Drucker, saying management is doing things right, leadership is doing the right things. (Incidentally, this is not actually a Peter Drucker quote; The Drucker Institute calls this the “the Moby Dick of Drucker misquotations”). Creating a mission statement/thinking about the principles is where you start.

Habit 3: First things first

This is about effective management of yourself once you’ve worked out what it is you want to do. He digs a lot into the Eisenhower matrix (urgent/important) and it’s a useful discussion.

There is an exercise (in appendix) about using the matrix; you are Director of Marketing for a major pharmaceutical firm and you start the day with 10 items on your list. You then think about them with a “quadrant 2” mindset (i.e. important but not urgent – the place where you should be spending most of your time) and then he goes through each item with suggestions, and it was totally eye-opening.

I am good at prioritising and using my time and energy where it is most strategic and impactful, and good at thinking about what and how to delegate, but this discussion was really next level.

One small example: one of the items was catching up on reading medical journals. I smugly noted to myself that this is definitely a quadrant 2 activity I should make time for, but his suggestion was: set up a systematic approach among your team, have each keep up with different journals and teach the essence of what they learned at the next staff meeting, which is so much better because then everybody learns, not just you.

Another example was that you’ve heard rumours of quality control issues. If it has a chronic or persistent dimension to it “you could delegate to others the careful analysis of that chronic problem with instructions to bring to you a recommendation, or perhaps simply to implement what they come up with and inform you of the results”.

If you are in a small business or you are thinking about activities within your family you can’t delegate, but you can still expand your circle of influence to be more quadrant 2.

If you can’t focus on your priorities, have you really internalised them?

If you find you can’t focus on your priorities maybe it’s because you’ve not really internalised your principles, your mission statement. He describes this as focusing on leaves not roots.

It’s very hard to say no to something urgent if you don’t have a bigger yes burning inside. When you have, you then will have sufficient willpower to say no with a genuine smile to the unimportant.

Primary focus on relationships and results, secondary focus on time

His suggestion is to set weekly goals for each of your roles – e.g. parent, spouse, manager of person x, manager of project y, community activity – and schedule time in for each of them. “The key is not to prioritise what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”

However, you can’t think efficiency with people – effectiveness with people, efficiency with things. He gives the example of getting frustrated with not getting stuff done because you are spending time with little kids. But “frustration is a function of our expectations, and our frustrations are often a reflection of the social mirror rather than our own values and priorities”. If you have habit 2 in your heart, you can subordinate your schedule to those values with integrity.

The second set of habits: public victory/interdependence

The second set of habits are working with other people, but he says you need to work on the first three habits first. You can’t jump into building effective relationships if you haven’t done the work on yourself first.

“The most important ingredient we put into any relationship is not what we say or what we do, but what we are”. He talks about making deposits or withdrawals into an “emotional bank account”. This is about building trust.

Understand people and give them things they want, not what you would want. Pay attention to small tokens of affection. Keep commitments. Do the sometimes uncomfortable work of clarifying expectations.

Show personal integrity. One of the ways to do this is to show loyalty to people who are not present. In doing so you build the trust of those who are present. Integrity is treating everyone by the same set of principles. They may not appreciate the honest confrontation at first, but in the long run people will trust you if you are honest and kind.

Apologise quickly if you break these. People will forgive mistakes because they are of the mind, judgment. Will less easily forgive mistakes of the heart, ill intention, bad motive.

Problems are opportunities to build a relationship.

Habit 4: Think win/win

This is based on the paradigm that there is plenty for everybody, that one person’s success is not achieved at the expense of the success of others. Abundance. Looking for all to succeed and share in the spoils.

Win/win is where both sides in a negotiation feel like they have won. He goes through some alternatives to win/win: win/lose, lose/lose, win and not care about anyone else. In some cases, the other ones are useful, but in general if it’s not win/win, then it’s lose/lose over the long run. For example, if you win in a negotiation with a supplier, will they feel as happy working for you again in the future? Will they do their best work now?

Sometimes things can appear to be win/win, but on examination they actually are lose/win (he gives some examples). He suggests staying longer in the communication process, listening more, continuing in the win/win spirit until a solution is reached that both sides feel good about. And that solution would’ve been “synergistic”, i.e. greater than the sum of its parts. Spending time working together like this probably leads to something neither of you would’ve thought of on your own.

He suggests win/win, or no deal. That is, if we can’t come to a solution where both side feels like they’ve won, then we should amicably walk away. There may be another deal in future. Any deal that feels like less than win/win will have impacts on the long-term relationship.

For example, if family members can’t agree on a video that everyone will enjoy, they can instead decide to do something else – no deal – rather than have some enjoy the evening at the expense of others. “Provides tremendous emotional freedom in the family relationship.”

Thinking win/win involves the unique human endowments: self-awareness, imagination, conscience, independent will; mutual learning, mutual influence, and mutual benefits. It takes great courage as well as consideration, especially if we are interacting with those who are deeply win/lose.

Thinking win/win takes maturity

It is incredibly hard to think win/win when others are win/lose. It requires a lot from you. This accords with my experience trying to apply some of this when reading the book.

It takes a balance of courage and consideration. Courage to get golden egg, consideration of the long-term welfare of the other stakeholders. “The basic task of leadership is to increase the standard of living and the quality of life for all stakeholders”.

Diagram showing low-high consideration and low-high courage; high of both leads to win/win

When you are dealing with someone strong win/lose, the relationship is still the key. “Make deposits into the emotional bank account through genuine courtesy, respect and appreciation for that person and for the other point of view”. Listen more. “Keep hammering it out until the other person begins to realise that you genuinely want the resolution to be a real win for both of you.”

The more genuine you are, and the more committed to win/win, the more powerful your influence will be with that other person. “This is the real test of interpersonal leadership. It goes beyond transactional leadership into transformational leadership.”

He also suggests this can help you set up home responsibilities that eliminate constant nagging and enable parents to do the things only they can do.

How to do it

Win/win cannot survive in an environment of competition. The systems have to support it. The training system, the communication system, the budgeting, compensation, etc.

For getting to win/win he recommends Getting to Yes. Principled negotiation. Separate the person from the problem. Focus on interests and not positions. Invent options for mutual gain. Insist on objective criteria.

His version of that is:

  1. See the problem from their point of view.
  2. Identify the key issue and concerns (not positions).
  3. Determine what results would constitute a fully acceptable solution.
  4. Identify new possible options to achieve those results.

But the point is – the end and means are the same. You can only achieve win/win results with win/win process.

Habit 5: Seek first to understand, then be understood

He talks about empathetic listening. Not just attentive listening but really trying to understand. Focused on receiving the deep communication of another human soul. His suggestion about how to do this is both to rephrase the content and also reflect the feeling “you’re feeling frustrated about school”.

It has to come from a sincere desire to understand, not trying to manipulate. He works through some conversations with suggestions.

When you are then seeking to be understood, he suggests following Aristotle’s suggestions around rhetoric (the art of persuasion), particularly ethos, pathos, and logos in that order. i.e. your personal credibility; then the feeling, being in alignment with the emotional thrust of the other person’s communication; and then finally the logical part of the argument. Most of us lead out with the third part and attempt to convince with just that.

This really chimed with some advice from my coach when I was preparing a pitch for a piece of work; the audience will feel, then think, then react. They need to feel confident about themselves; trusted, valued, appreciated, acknowledged. How they feel about themselves will affect how they feel about what you’re suggesting, especially if you are trying to create change.

Describe the alternative they are in favour of better than they can themselves. “Let me see if I first understand what your objectives are, and what your concerns are about this presentation and my recommendation”.

Habit 5 lifts you to greater accuracy, greater integrity in your presentations. When you can present your own ideas in the context of a deep understanding of other people’s concerns you significantly increase the credibility of your own ideas, and “what you’re presenting may even be different from what you had originally thought, because in your effort to understand, you learned”.

He suggests doing this in as many contexts as possible. For example, set up stakeholder information systems to get honest, accurate feedback at every level. Make the human element as important as the financial or technical element. You save lots of time when you tap into the human resources of a business at every level. When you listen, you learn.

Habit 5 also increases your circle of influence because you really listen, so you become influenceable, and being influenceable is the key to influencing others.

“When we really, deeply understand each other, we open the door to creative solutions and third alternatives. Our differences are no longer stumbling blocks to communication and progress. Instead they become the stepping-stones to synergy”.

Habit 6: Synergize

Distressingly, while I was reading this book, I found myself using the word “synergy” in a conversation. The principle of it is good – when combined efforts produce an effect greater than the sum of its parts – but the word itself is so ickily business jargon it was embarrassing.

However, if you can get past that, the concept itself is the holy grail; definitely worth striving for.

It’s about valuing difference. The difference is where the value comes from.

It is creative. When you “communicate synergistically” you are opening yourself to new possibilities. You are being comfortable with ambiguity. It may seem the opposite of habit 2, begin with the end in mind, but it’s actually fulfilling it. You are not sure how things will work out, but you have a sense of excitement and you believe the outcome will be significantly better than it was before, and that is the end you have in mind.

Relationship building is an important investment. Attitude of “if a person of your intelligence and competence and commitment disagrees with me then there must be something to your disagreement that I don’t understand, that I need to understand”.

Respectful communication is a mature approach, but it does not open creative possibilities. Both sides give and take, it may be high trust, honest and genuine, but it is not creative.

It is about what he calls “fishing for the third alternative”. He gives a very nice example about a disagreement between a woman and her husband about how to use their holiday time. As I was reading it, I really could not think of how they could come up with a third way; their positions both seemed completely valid and mutually exclusive. But he takes you through how together they create some possible solutions that will work for both.

He talks about recognising one’s own limitations. We might think “I see the bigger picture! I am objective. Everyone else is buried in the minutiae”. But the person who is truly effective has the humility to recognise her own perceptual limitations, and to appreciate the rich resource available through interaction with the hearts and minds of other people.

Value the difference. Good! You see it differently! Tell me what you see. If two people have the same opinion, one is unnecessary.

You can also value the difference within yourself. You yourself have an analytical side and a creative side. “You can be synergistic within yourself even in the midst of a very adversarial environment. You don’t have to take insults personally. You can sidestep negative energy; you can look for the good in others and utilise that good, as different as it may be, to improve your point of view and to enlarge your perspective.” For example, don’t focus on your boss’s weaknesses, don’t complain. Everyone has weaknesses – you yourself do – so work with their strengths and complement their weaknesses.

You can use your courage to express your feelings etc in a way that will encourage other people to also be open. When someone disagrees with you, you can affirm them, and seek to understand. There is almost always a middle way. And if you work win/win, and really seek to understand, you can usually find a solution that will be better for everyone concerned.

Habit 7: Sharpen the saw

“Habit 7 is Personal PC”, i.e. it’s looking after yourself. Physically, socially, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Spend time on all of these things. He recommends his own process, “daily private victory” which is an hour a day in renewal of the physical and mental dimensions, e.g. exercise; reading literature; prayer if that’s your thing, etc.

He give an analogy with exercise and emotional muscles. When you exercise your patience beyond your past limits, the emotional fibre is broken, nature overcompensates and the next time the fibre is stronger. You can practice in day to day interactions. It’s hard to disagree on fundamental things, but you can practice and improve.

If you settle the inward battles, you feel a sense of peace, a sense of knowing what you are about. Personal mission statement. Then public victories will follow naturally. Security also comes from stepping out of your own frame of reference without giving it up. Also from meaningful projects, helping others.

Growing other people by believing in them, affirming them, encouraging them to be proactive. Reflecting to them their unseen potential. See them in fresh new ways each time we are with them. Treat them how they could be.

I recommend this book

I found this incredibly useful. While I was still reading it, I had a conversation with someone at work that I’d had a difficult relationship with and we were at opposite ends of an issue. Rather than coming in with my perspective I listened first to hers and reflected it back, and thought about her perspective; and shared info with her about how I’d come to mine, and together we did actually come up with a new proposal that was better, and it was a more pleasant conversation.

It is a big book and can be heavy going, but it is worth the effort. There is a lot to it, and re-reading parts for this write-up reminded me there is a lot more to take from it.

It’s a classic for a reason, and I recommend you read it.

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