Book Summary of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

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                             The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

   Stephen R Covey

Simon & Schuster

432 pages; Average reading time 6 hours 07 min

This bookbhook book summary will take not more than 9 minutes


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This bookbhook book summary is handcrafted by Gayathri Manikandan. Gayathri describes herself as an ex-software engineer, book lover, craft enthusiast and a proud citizen of ‘Imagi’nation.

This handcrafted book summary will help you learn

  • What is Character Ethic?
  • What is a paradigm shift?
  • What are the seven habits to bring about a personal change?
  • Why do you need to keep ‘sharpening the saw’?

Character Ethic vs Personality Ethic

When Stephen Covey started researching on writing about success, it took him 200 years back. Stephen realised two things:

  1. Almost all the writing about success in the first 150 years was about integrity,humility,courage and other such elements of the Character Ethic
  2. However, in the last 50 years, a certain level of superficiality has crept into success literature where public relations technique and positive mental attitude started defining success as a Personality Ethic.

It is not that Personality Ethic elements like communication skills and positive thinking are not important for being successful, but just that these are not primary traits. The real foundation needs to be built with Character Ethic.

Building principle-centred habits

It is possible for us to be very busy in life. It is easy to get caught in the busy-ness of life, work efficiently and achieve success. It is also possible to achieve success that are empty- empty victories that are achieved at the expense of other things. To be truly effective, we need to cultivate habits that are principle centred. Habits have a powerful impact on our lives.

Albert Einstein observed, ‘The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them’. We need a new level, a deeper level of thinking. We need a paradigm-shift. Character Ethic & Personality Ethic are paradigms-how we see, perceive, understand and interpret the world. Moving from character to personality ethic or the reverse is an example of paradigm shift. Whether positive or negative, paradigm shifts helps see the world differently and create change.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny’- we are what our habits make us.

Paradigm shifts help us see situations in a very different perspective. This new level of thinking is what The Seven Habits of Effective People is all about. The first three habits – Be Proactive, Begin with the end in the mind and Put first things first are habits of private victory. They help you know yourself in a deeper and more meaningful way. They help increase your self-confidence. The next three habits – Think win-win, Seek first to understand then to be understood and Synergize are habits of public victory. They help you improve and deepen solid relationships. The seventh habit – Sharpen your saw renews the other six habits and helps you charge your batteries.

 1.  Be Proactive

Can you identify the mood you are in now? Can you describe your current mental state and what you are feeling? This ability to think about one’s own thoughts distinguishes human from animals. Between a stimulus (that triggers you to act) and response (your act), human have the ability to think and freedom to choose.

Few people are reactive and few proactive. Reactive people feel good if the weather is good, they feel well if people treat them well. Proactive people are affected by weather and how others treat them as well, but they choose to respond differently.

‘That’s just the way I am’, ‘He makes me mad’, ‘I can’t do it, I don’t have the time’, ‘I have to do it’ are typically the language used by reactive people. Proactive people, on the other hand, use ‘I choose’, ‘I prefer’, I will’. Once a student asked if I can excuse him from my class as he had to go on a tennis trip. However after introspection, it turned out that he chose to go to the tennis trip. If he didn’t go, the tennis team might drop him which he didn’t wish to happen. However if he missed my classes, he will miss the learning. He chose to go for the trip and it was his choice not someone else’s responsibility for deciding to have the tennis trip on the same day.

To become aware of how proactive you are, make a list of all your concerns – health, children, and problems at work, and so on. Now, within this circle of concern, push those that you have control over towards the centre. This is the circle of influence. Determine in which circle you are spending most of your time and energy. In the outer circle of concern or the inner circle of influence? Proactive people focus on the circle of Influence, they work on things that they can control.

The problems we face can be categorized broadly as those under direct control, those under indirect control i.e. those that involve other people’s behaviour and those that we have no control over. Being proactive helps us to tackle direct control problems by changing our behaviour and the indirect control problems by changing our methods of influence. Proactive approach also teaches us to accept the problems that we have no control over as they are.

2.  Begin with the end in mind

All things are created twice. A blueprint and a house, a plan and a trip, a script and a speech, a design and a dress. The first creation is in your mind, the second is physical. One has to take responsibility for the first creations. You need to rescript your life, not live the script handed to you by your family, associates, conditioning or circumstances. Re-scripting requires personal leadership. Leadership is deciding if your ladder is on the right wall. Climbing comes next.

You first begin with the end in the mind. If you begin with the end in the mind, you know clearly where you are going. You do not end up being so busy climbing up the ladder, only to find the ladder is on the wrong wall when you are up there. You can ‘Begin with the end in mind’ at different stages and levels of your life. But the fundamental application is to visualise this habit as ‘Begin with the end of your life’- Suppose you are at your own funeral, what would you want to hear from your family, friends, colleagues and others? This is what is supremely important in your life and visualizing this helps you contribute to it each day.

The most effective way to begin with the end in your mind is to have a personal mission statement. A solid mission statement is created by pivoting your lives on the right principles. Suppose tonight you have booked tickets for a concert with your wife and your boss says he needs your help with an important meeting. You could call off the concert or politely refuse your boss’ request depending on whether you are family-centred, work-centred, money-centred or self-centred. But being ‘XYZ-centred’ is a perception problem. What sounds right to you might not be perceived so by your boss or wife.

On the other hand, being a principle-centred person will help you to stand away from the emotion and help you evaluate the options. You feel comfortable about your decision as you know it is the most effective because you have based it on principles with predictable long-term results.

3.  Put first things first

While leadership decides what the ‘first things’ are, management, essentially, is the discipline of actually executing the first things first actions. The first generation of time management philosophy was all about making lists and to-dos. The second generation is about scheduling tasks. The third generation of time management adds the idea of prioritizing. The emerging fourth generation recognizes that the challenge is not time management but managing ourselves.

The popular time management matrix divides tasks into four quadrants – Important & Urgent (I), Important & Not Urgent (II), Not Important & Urgent (III), Not Important & Not Urgent (IV). Quadrant II is the heart of effective personal management. The key is to say ‘Yes’ to Quadrant II tasks. This means you would have to say ‘No’ to other activities, which may include ‘apparently urgent’ things.

 As you spend more time doing Quadrant II activities, you will notice that Quadrant I shrinks. The fourth generation time management tools let you recognize that the first person to consider to be effective rather than efficient is you yourself. It encourages you to spend time in Quadrant II activities rising above the limitations of daily planning and organizing.

The key to effective management is delegation.You can pick up the room better than a child but the key is to empower the child to do it. You have to get involved in the training and development and it takes time but it is worth it in the long run.

4.  Think Win-Win

I once worked with a company whose president was very concerned about the lack of cooperation among his people. He had implemented a ‘Race to Bermuda’ strategy for encouraging people to achieve results. There was a picture of the racetrack, with his managers’ face superimposed on the racehorses. At the end of the race was the reward, a beautiful poster of Bermuda, enticing the participants for a trip to Bermuda. The president wanted his people to work together but was setting them up for a competition, where most will lose and some will win.

The most effective interpersonal leadership is to think win-win. Win-win is not a technique but a philosophy of human interaction. It’s not your way, it’s not my way; it’s a better way, a higher way. In reality, there may be situations where one has to choose win/lose or lose/win. But in most interdependent situations, win-win is the only viable long term solution. There is an even higher expression of win-win. It is called ‘No Deal’. If family members can’t agree on a video that everyone will enjoy, they can simply decide to do something else – No Deal. When you have No Deal as an option in your mind, you feel liberated, you don’t have to manipulate people to accept your agenda. Win-win can only thrive when the systems support it. Competition has its place in marketplace or even against another individual when there is no interdependence. But cooperation in the workplace is equally important and it can only be achieved by thinking win-win.

5.  Seek first to understand, then to be understood

How would you like if you were to go to a physician for some trouble in your eyes and she offered you her glasses that she has been using for more than 10 years? The glasses might have helped her, but for you it would help to diagnose before she prescribes. Imagine your kid is troubled by something. You encourage and coax them into sharing the problem with you. And let’s say your kid just starts off by saying, ‘Well, I don’t like school anymore’. Chances are you will rush in to fix her with your advice, quoting all the sacrifices you have made to educate her. You have just made sure that you will be the last person your kid will discuss it with you in future.  A better approach for effective interpersonal communication is definitely about seeking first to understand, then to be understood.

Most people do not listen with an intent to understand. They listen with an intent to reply. We are usually listening at one of the four levels: ignoring, pretending, selective listening, and attentive listening. There is a fifth level, the highest form of listening – empathetic listening. In empathetic listening you listen not only with your ears but also with your eyes and heart. Empathetic listening is powerful because it gives you accurate data to work with. As you start listening deeply, you appreciate the differences in perception. Our perceptions can be vastly different and yet we are trying to work together. Once we understand the differences, we open the door to creative solutions and to third alternatives. We don’t see the differences as stumbling blocks anymore but as stepping stones to synergy.

6.  Synergize

Synergy, by definition, means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Imagine this to be a vacation time and the husband has been planning all the year to go on a fishing vacation. His wife, however, wants to visit her ailing mother. In this situation, the husband may give in to the wife, grudgingly. Or the wife may give in to the husband, but wouldn’t forgive herself or her husband if her mother’s health deteriorates and she becomes seriously ill. Or they can split up and spend their respective vacations feeling guilty and unhappy. But there is a middle way, middle doesn’t mean compromise. It means somewhere higher like the apex of a triangle. When the husband and wife deeply understand their desires and communicate, they pool these desires. They are not on the opposite sides of the problem. They are together on one side of the problem looking at the problem.

May be the couple could arrange some time within this month for the wife to visit her mother. Or they could find a fishing site closer to her mother’s place. They could even plan some activities with aunts, cousins and uncles. They synergize. They communicate back and forth until they arrive at a solution they both feel good about. It’s better than a compromise. Instead of a transaction, they have a transformation. They get what they both really want and in the process build their relationship.

7.  Sharpen the saw

Suppose you come across someone working hard for hours together to saw down a tree. You notice that the saw needs sharpening and will bring the tree down much faster if taken care of. Will it be wise for the person sawing the tree to say he is too busy to sharpen his saw? Sharpening the saw is preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have – you. You need to renew four dimensions of your nature- Physical, Mental, Social/Emotional and Spiritual. Taking the time to sharpen the saw is a Quadrant II activity. It must be acted upon.

The Physical dimension involves taking care of your body – eating right, resting sufficiently and exercising regularly. This Quadrant II activity will apparently bring phenomenal long term effects. Neglecting health will later push you into Quadrant I with health issues and crisis. The Spiritual dimension involves renewing yourself and your purpose through meditation or prayers or connecting to nature, whichever is best suited to you.

The Mental dimension involves continually honing and expanding your mind. It could be in a disciplined classroom environment or any other unconventional method that a proactive person can easily figure out. Reading is one of the most effective way to inform and expand your mind. Writing is another powerful tool to sharpen the saw. It affects our ability to think clearly and deeply. Sharpening your Physical, Spiritual and Mental dimensions is ‘Daily Private Victory’. Spending one hour a day will greatly affect the quality and effectiveness of your life.

The Social/Emotional dimension involves interpersonal leadership, empathetic communication and creative cooperation. It does not take time in the same sense as other dimensions but can be practised in everyday life when interacting with people.

Editor’s note

While The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a simple to read book, it is extremely difficult to summarise. The book has visual frameworks and interesting exercises, almost becoming a workbook. While we have made our best effort to summarise this book, and include relevant videos, we would really urge you to pick up your own copy of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and read the entire book.


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