Review: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.

7 HabitsThe 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was perhaps the personal development book of the 1990s and is still the book many people think of when they hear the phrase "personal development book." I first picked up the book myself in high school when serving as a district officer in a large youth organization (the FFA, if you must know) - our advisor gave each officer a copy of the book to keep, but after reading it, I passed it on to others because it didn't make much of an impact on me at the time.

What do I get out of reading it now as an adult more than ten years later? I will say that my opinion of the book has improved - maturity has shown me that some things I thought to be trite and obvious in my youth were truly neither trite nor obvious, but actually powerful challenges in life. Let's step through the seven habits to see what I'm talking about.

A Stroll Through The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

The entire premise of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is that most people deal with the problems in their life in a scattershot fashion, and this scattershot fashion leads to disillusionment and disorder. Covey's answer to this is that to be a truly effective person, you need to learn to solve personal and professional problems with a integrated and principle-centered approach - in other words, the decisions you make both personally and professionally should come from the same core set of values and ideas.

The book is really about developing that core set of values to the point where it's easy to draw solutions to problems from them, making you a much more effective person in all aspects of life. The seven habits, thus, are ways to draw out the fundamental truths in your life and make them accessible to you at all times, so that when you're faced with problems, you can easily solve them in a consistent and sensible fashion.

Habit 1: Be Proactive
Principles of Personal Vision

In everyone's life, there are a multitude of events that occur every day. Out of all of these events, there's only a subset that are actually of concern to us - the rest really don't matter (think of things like the neighbor playing catch with his son and the ball bouncing into your yard that you notice out the front door - an event that really doesn't matter to you). Within that set of events that are of concern is a smaller set that you actually can do anything about, your sphere of influence, so to speak. Now, where is your focus? Is it on those events that you can do something about, or on the ones that are out of your control?

The idea is don't spend your time focusing on events that you can't control; instead, focus on what you can control. Let's say, for example, that you're waiting for a very important phone call. Some people stress out waiting for the call - that's a bad habit because you can't control when the phone call comes. On the other hand, others simply spend their time focusing on the things they can control - the phone call will eventually come, right?

How can you achieve that? Spend a day counting the number of times you spend focusing on stuff you can't alter the outcome of. Do you daydream about unachievable things? Do you worry about stuff you can't affect? Cast those efforts aside and spend your time on things that you can affect.

Habit 2: Begin With The End In Mind
Principles of Personal Leadership

This chapter starts out literally at the end: imagine your funeral and what others there are saying and thinking about you. What do you want them to say? The things that you want them to say are the real core values that you care about the most, and thus they should be the ones that you focus your life's work on, both personally and professionally.

This leads to something that I consider really worthwile: writing your personal mission statement. Can you really codify in a few sentences what your mission in life is? It seems trite, but it's truly effective if you really spend the time to work out what it really means and actually state it in words - in writing.

The chapter goes through several exercises for teasing out the meaning, but it really all comes back to that funeral scene at the beginning. What will your family say at your funeral? What will your coworkers say? What about your friends? What about people in the community? What do you want them to say about you? That's your mission.

Habit 3: Put First Things First
Principles of Personal Management

Most things that we do each day can be divided up in two different ways: they're either urgent or not urgent, and they're either important or not important. Obviously, in our lives, we wish for the things we do to be important, but we'd also like for them not to be urgent, because urgent things cause stress. So, ideally, an effective person focuses on things that are important but not urgent.

Covey goes a long way with this central idea here, pointing out that we should strive to do this in all aspects of our life, no matter which hat we're wearing at the moment: worker, parent, spouse, volunteer, and so on. Then, within each of those roles, one should define specific goals that they wish to accomplish, important short term ones. For example, in my role as a parent, I might have a goal of taking my son to the park this week for two hours.

Once you've defined a couple of goals for the upcoming week for each of your roles, literally schedule them in. Add these things to your schedule and don't let anything interfere with them. Because these items are not urgent, you have some flexibility on when to do them, but because they're important, you must schedule them and keep it on the schedule. He even gives a sample weekly planner page to make this easier. I think this is a fantastic idea and I'm using it to a degree with my 101 goals in 1001 days project.

Habit 4: Think Win/Win
Principles of Interpersonal Leadership

My wife took a course on the seven habits a while back and her reaction to it was that it was full of business buzzwords that didn't really apply to her life. I now realize that almost every example she used to illustrate that came from this chapter.

Yes, the whole "win/win" business-speak came from this chapter, but that doesn't mean the idea is bad or flawed. Instead, take it as a fundamental way to see all interpersonal relationships. Is there a way where you both can come out ahead at the end of an interaction? If there is, that's usually the best road to take, and that's the real value of the whole "win/win" thing.

I tried some of the exercises from this chapter, and the one that really stood out to me was to think about a relationship in my life that wasn't in a "win/win" state. I wrote down every notable aspect of the situation from my perspective, then tried to do the same from her perspective. Doing that brought me fairly close to seeing a win/win solution, so I went and had a talk with her, and things were quickly repaired. It really does work.

Habit 5: Seek First To Understand, Then Be Understood
Principles of Empathic Communication

This is probably the habit I'm worst at because I often fill in the blanks unnecessarily when talking with people, which is an incredible no-no. Instead, an effective communicator really tries to understand as much information as possible about the situation before providing a solution.

Covey offers a great example of this in the middle part of the chapter, when he outlines a discussion with a teenage boy that goes terribly. The problem is that they're speaking to two completely different things: the boy is having difficulty expressing his problem, while the parent is already trying to guess at the solution.

What can be learned? Don't stab at solutions until the full story is told. If someone comes to you with a situation, hear them out; often it requires the full story and some questions before the correct plan of action is revealed. This means listening and attempting to see the situation from the speaker's perspective, not just your own.

Habit 6: Synergize
Principles of Creative Cooperation

Although I expected this chapter to be similar to the buzz-speak of the fourth habit, this one actually turned out to be much more worthwhile, because it's about dealing with the people that tick you off and turning that into something beneficial.

I'm as guilty of it as anyone else: I simply fail to get along well with some people, even people that I ought to get along with for the benefit of both of us. The real key to doing it is to identify what exactly about that person makes them beneficial, and also the specific traits about them that cause you not to like them. Once those are clear, how can those traits be used all together, perhaps along with your own, to make the situation better?

My wife and I do this in parenting. I often find our son's socially anarchical toddler behavior to be humorous, so when he drops his pants or tries to ride the cat like a pony, I often am forcing myself to suppress laughter and thus can't really make it clear that it's the wrong thing to be doing (if he does something truly wrong, though, I'm just fine); on the other hand, I'm much better at reading to him than my wife is and I appear to be his primary language teacher. So we synergize: she focuses on social areas while I focus on reading and language building.

Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw
Principles of Balanced Self-Renewal

This final habit focuses on the need to do things that renew you in several different ways: physical, mental, spiritual, and social/emotional. Quite often, we get so caught up in the day-in and day-out business of life that we rarely step back and spend any time focusing on taking care of ourselves.

Covey ties this in with the third habit and encourages the reader to identify ways to really renew oneself in each of those areas, then literally schedule it in and stick to it, because it's important but not necessarily urgent. For example, if the physical nature of things is what's dragging you down (some extra weight, or a general malaise), schedule time to get some exercise two or three times a week and stick with it. If you're feeling mentally drained, schedule a period of time to relax and let your mind float onto something outside of your normal thoughts (like a book or a movie) or even just meditate. And so forth.

When I was growing up, my family used to devote Sunday afternoons to such tasks. Everyone would take two hours to do something mentally invigorating, like reading a book or doing a puzzle, then everyone would spend two hours doing something physically invigorating, like working in the garden or running or something. It wasn't as formal as that description, but every Sunday afternoon, it was part of the routine, and it's something I look back on with fondness as it really helped me recharge and shape my life.

Buy or Don't Buy?

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is more philosophical in nature than many of the other personal development books I've read and reviewed on The Simple Dollar. It's not full of action points you can immediately implement like many other books are; instead, it's intended to provide a framework of reflection on your greater life from the personal to the professional. If that appeals to you, then you'll like this book; if not, then you won't.

Because of the philosophical nature of the book and the very wide focus, 7 Habits is going to appeal in vastly different ways to different people. There isn't a universal take-home message here; it really depends on the reality of your own life and where you're at. Even re-reading it again at a different point in life is going to result in a vastly different interpretation of the materials within the covers.

To me, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is the perfect book to get through a service like PaperBackSwap (that's how I got my copy) or your local library; it's a philosophical read that you'll likely take some notes from. For me, though, those notes will be what I refer to, not the book.

I made a ton of hand annotations throughout my copy and when I was finished, I went through those and jotted down about a page full of notes out of the book; it's that page of notes that is the extraction of useful information for my life that I got from the book. Will I ever read it cover to cover again? Probably not. Will I reflect on it and look at the notes again? Almost certainly.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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