The Patriots (and nearly every world-class athlete I’ve ever spent time with) attribute their success to a focus on habits. Barack Obama uses habits to minimize the cognitive load of everyday behaviors allowing him to better focus on important decisions.
Habits, habits, habits. With the success of recent books like The Power of Habit, this word seems to have come back to the forefront of the optimal performance conversation.
Maybe it’s time to think about our habits?
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. ~ Will Durant on Aristotle
One of my favorite books on the subject is The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen Covey.
Not coincidentally, one of the habits I’m trying to build is writing down my notes and thoughts on the books I read. So here we are …
What are the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People?
- Be Proactive
- Begin with the End in Mind
- Put First Things First
- Think Win-Win
- Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
- Sharpen the Saw
Now, without reading Covey’s magnum opus, you might look at this list as just another entry in a sea of endless self-help slough. That’s certainly how I felt before jumping in … nothing special.
But the 7 Habits have stood the test of time. Since publication in 1989, more than 25 million copies have sold worldwide.
And let me be clear, it’s been about a year since I finished Covey’s book and I unequivocally consider it one of the most important books I’ve ever read.
I’m not alone, here’s some praise for The 7 Habits:
“Every so often a book comes along that not only alters the lives of readers but leaves an imprint on the culture itself. The 7 Habits is one of those books.” –Daniel Pink, author of Drive (review of Drive coming soon)
“The 7 Habits encompass timeless principles that can help guide any company toward success.” –Tony Hsieh, New York Times bestselling author of Delivering Happiness and CEO of Zappos.com, Inc.
In my opinion, the three most important lessons to take away from this book are:
Lesson 1: Start with your purpose.
This is your why. Your raison d’etre. The foundation of your motivations.
For example, I’ve been thinking about this for a while and currently define my purpose as follows:
We are the universe trying to understand itself. I focus my quest for understanding in three areas: combat sports, entrepreneurship, coding/writing.
Note two characteristics of a powerful purpose: it’s bigger than yourself and it’s lifelong. That’s not to mean a purpose can’t evolve as you grow and change. But you never complete a purpose.
A purpose is not a destination, it’s the path you choose.
Once you’ve defined your purpose, writing your mission statement and setting long- and short-term goals becomes exponentially easier. A strong purpose statement will help you make difficult choices and prioritize your time.
Which brings us to the next lesson.
Lesson 2: Value effectiveness over efficiency.
Efficient people get tons of things done. They write multi-page to-do lists and relentlessly cross out every accomplishment.
Effective people put first things first. If you are effective, you set hard goals derived from your true purpose. You ruthlessly eliminate tasks that are not purpose/goal driven and you challenge yourself with difficult, deep tasks that push you closer to your goals.
Lesson 3: Interdependence is more effective than independence.
The first three habits are all about building independence. Becoming your own person. First, you must become proactive vs. reactive. Second, you most (pro-actively) define your purpose and finally, do the things that bring you closer to your purpose-driven goals.
However, true effectiveness, Covey argues, begins when we can work together towards a common purpose. Think of it like a two-step process. First, you become free; second, you build relationships that are greater than the sum of their parts.
The Habits in more detail
Hopefully, you’re starting to see just how powerful are the principles in this book. And that’s kind of the point. The true reason I love this book is because it’s principle driven.
Let me use wrestling as an example. When I teach wrestling, I also strive to be principle focused. There are thousands of moves I can show a beginner wrestler. But that’s not very helpful. What’s helpful is to show a few moves and focus on how they relate to basic, positional principles, specifically:
- Elbows in
- Head up
- Shoulders over your hips
- Feet under you
As you transition from move to move, it’s absolutely vital to keep these principles in mind.
And let’s say I’m not sure what to do in a certain situation? Well, I use my lens of positional principles. Continuing with sports as the example, here’s the question to ask yourself:
If I move in a certain direction from this situation, will I be moving closer to my optimal, athletic position or further away from it?
As you keep going, read through each individual habit and think about using a principle lens. Do they support your purpose?
1. Be Proactive
One can look at ‘Be Proactive’ as habit zero – the baseline. If you’re not proactive, if you won’t take life by the reigns and choose your own path, the rest of the book is pretty inconsequential.
In other words: can’t get anything done, if you’re not willing to do anything.
My favorite quotes:
It is in the ordinary events of every day that we develop the proactive capacity to handle the extraordinary pressures of life
Be a light, not a judge. Be a model, not a critic. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
The opposite of proactive, is reactive, so you should always:
Remind yourself of the gap between stimulus and response.
2. Begin With The End In Mind
Once you make the choice to be proactive, it’s time to give your actions direction. Don’t be busy for the sake of being busy.
It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in an activity trap, in the busyness of life, to work harder and harder at climbing the ladder of success only to discover it’s leaning against the wrong wall.
As individuals, groups, and businesses, we’re often so busy cutting through the undergrowth we don’t even realize we’re in the wrong jungle.
It’s not easy, but we must take the time to truly understand our values first. What gives your life purpose?
Each part of your life – today’s behavior, tomorrow’s behavior, next week’s behavior, next month’s behavior – can be examined in the context of the whole, of what really matters most to you.
Put pen to paper and write out your mission statement. I actually ended up using Covey’s Mission Statement Builder to write mine; it was a lot easier than starting with a blank sheet of paper (login, for some silly reason, required).
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 vision you have of your life.
Your mission statement makes it much easier for you to identify if the tasks, milestones and goals you set in front of yourself are the right ones.
We are more in need of a vision or destination and a compass (a set of principles or directions) and less in need of a road map.
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
3. Put First Things First
Once you recognize your life’s purpose (which, of course, can evolve as you mature, as the people around you change, as life takes you where it may), it becomes much easier to focus on the activities that really matter. This is what we mean by putting effectiveness over efficiency.
In other words:
Organize and execute around priorities.
On effectiveness vs. efficiency:
The efficiency focus creates expectations that clash with the opportunities to develop rich relationships, to meet human needs, and to enjoy spontaneous moments on a daily basis.
effective people are not problem-minded; they’re opportunity-minded. They feed opportunities and starve problems.
manage our lives effectively – from a center of sound principles, from a knowledge of our personal mission, with a focus on the important as well as the urgent, and within the framework of maintaining a balance between increasing our production and increasing our production capability.
Additionally and very importantly, we have to recognize that managing our life is split into multiple roles. Each of those roles focuses on different areas like family, self, work, etc. Or as Covey says:
don’t neglect important areas such as your health, your family, professional preparation, or personal development.
One final takeaway:
The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.
These previous sections dealt with personal habits. Habits that make us better, independent of other people. But, truly effective people are interdependent. You can get much more accomplished as part of a strong a team, than you can as a single person. So, for the next three habits, Covey focuses on interdependent effectiveness.
4. Think Win-Win
The first step to being effective with others is to realize the following truth: when people are working together, the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts.
An effective team transcends the powers and capabilities of the individuals. Just as a bunch of molecules and chemicals come together to make a living, thinking human being; so too can a group of people come together to make something truly extraordinary.
And so, it stands to reason, we should always be able to find a situation where both people in a relationship can stand to gain. A win-win solution.
How to find this solution? A few things help:
Just listen and seek to understand. Let him feel your concern for him, your acceptance of him as a person.
be loyal to those who are not present.
Win/Win is not a personality technique. It’s a total paradigm of human interaction. It comes from a character of integrity, maturity, and the Abundance Mentality. It grows out of high-trust relationships. It is embodied in agreements that effectively clarify and manage expectations as well as accomplishment. It thrives in supportive systems.
5. Seek First to Understand, Then To Be Understood
It’s not enough to THINK win-win, however. You also have to ACT in a way that let’s other people feel your positive intentions. You have to LISTEN (and remember, listening is acting, i.e. the opposite of passive).
We have such a tendency to rush in, to fix things up with good advice. But we often fail to take the time to diagnose, to really, deeply understand the problem first.
In empathic listening, you listen with your ears, but you also, and more importantly, listen with your eyes and with your heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behavior. You use your right brain as well as your left. You sense, you intuit, you feel.
You can’t achieve maximum interdependent production from an inaccurate understanding of where other people are coming from
OK, so you understand their perspective, but there is still work to be done. You must also be clearly understood.
Always keep working on how you convey your perspectives to others. Not everyone has taken the time to be as strong of a listener as you, so you must be clear in your communications.
When you can present your own ideas clearly, specifically, visually, and most important, contextually – in the context of a deep understanding of other people’s paradigms and concerns – you significantly increase the credibility of your ideas.
Once you understand the people you are trying to build something great with, it’s time to execute. I look at this next section as a certain mindset: more than a willingness to accept differences, but an encouragement of them. Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, no two people are alike, yet the combination of them will bring out a beautiful picture.
“Good! You see it differently! Help me see what you see.”
If you are building something creative, or taking a team to new levels, re-read this chapter over and over.
Most all creative endeavors are somewhat unpredictable. They often seem ambiguous, hit-or-miss, trial and error. And unless people have a high tolerance for ambiguity and get their security from integrity to principles and inner values they find it unnerving and unpleasant to be involved in highly creative enterprises. Their need for structure, certainty, and predictability is too high.
Sameness is not oneness; uniformity is not unity. Unity, or oneness, is complementariness, not sameness. Sameness is uncreative … and boring. The essence of synergy is to value the differences.
Humility is key for effective interdependence.
The person who is truly effective has the humility and reverence to recognize his own perceptual limitations and to appreciate the rich resources available through interaction with the hearts and minds of other human beings.
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 utilize that good, as different as it may be, to improve your point of view and to enlarge your perspective.
7. Sharpen The Saw
The last piece of the puzzle, and often the most overlooked one, is recharging. That’s what Stephen calls sharpening the saw. If you have five hours to cut down a tree, you should spend the first four hours sharpening the saw.
Your body and your mind are the tools and rest and recharge is how you sharpen them.
preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have – you. It’s renewing the four dimensions of your nature – physical, spiritual, mental, and social/emotional
being a good animal (physical), a good craftsman (mental), a good friend (social), and a saint (spiritual).
On living a good life …
a long, healthy, and happy life is the result of making contributions, of having meaningful projects that are personally exciting and contribute to and bless the lives of others.
Just as the education of nerve and sinew is vital to the excellent athlete and education of the mind is vital to the scholar, education of the conscience is vital to the truly proactive, highly effective person.
By centering our lives on correct principles and creating a balanced focus between doing and increasing our ability to do, we become empowered in the task of creating effective, useful, and peaceful lives… for ourselves, and for our posterity.
And don’t despair.
Any airplane is off track much of the time but just keeps coming back to the flight plan. Eventually, it arrives at its destination.
One last quote to bring everything together:
The real power in these Seven Habits is in their relationship to each other, not just in the individual habits themselves.
Highly recommend you pick up a your own copy of The 7 Habits and hope you leave your thoughts in the comments.
In the meantime, check out my review of Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is The Way.