The only way to improve your life is by developing better habits that will result in lasting personal change. Human beings are creatures of habit, as is often stated; thus, we are primarily defined by our habits. With that said, what habits can we develop to enhance our effectiveness? The chapters of the book outline these habits, focusing on the following;
- Having the end goal in mind
- Putting first things first
- A win-win mentality
- Understanding others before seeking to be understood
- Sharpen the saw
A change in character over a change in behavior
Stephen Covey’s 200-year literature review journey led him to the conclusion that there are two main ways to achieve improvement in life;
- One way is to improve the skills necessary for the behavior you desire, for example, improving communication or body language if you have relationship issues. This method can be referred to as a personality ethic. It has been popular since the 1920s but has the shortcoming of avoiding change in fundamental character traits, focusing on an easily learnable technique that will solve all your problems. This only works in the short run.
- A far more effective technique is working on your habits and belief systems that form your world view. The method is referred to as a character ethic that focuses on traits like character, integrity, and the golden rule. Real change requires work from the inside out. To truly change, one needs first to become personally positive and not just use a few tricks to make others like you more.
Just as a map is useful for navigation, so it is a paradigm to one’s life. A paradigm is a subjective way each of us perceives and understands the world. No one can call themselves objective as our understanding of the world is affected by our paradigm. Therefore, a paradigm is essential to our character. A positive shift in the former will result in lasting changes in our subjective reality and, consequently, in our personalities and behavior. The ideal paradigm shift will entail moving towards one aligned with the broader universal principles, such as fairness, honesty, and integrity, that are considered natural laws. The author, for example, experienced this on a subway ride in New York. It was a quiet Sunday morning, and the subway car was peaceful until a man and his children boarded, and the scene changed. The children were rowdy and boisterous, and the man just sat down and let them rant and rave. The author, visibly irritated by the man’s action, approached him and asked him to control his children. The man softly responded that he should, but they had just received news that their mother had died less than an hour earlier, and the children were in shock. The author’s paradigm shifted from irritation to profound compassion and empathy. Paradigm shifts may not happen as instantaneous as this but can no doubt be quite as powerful. The seven habits are aimed at attaining a paradigm shift that reflects these natural principles.
HABIT 1: PROACTIVITY
The distinction between human beings and other animals is that we are rational. We do not act instinctively on external stimuli. Instead, we think first and orient ourselves to respond to it in a more desirable and specific manner. We can influence the world proactively. Despite this added advantage, most of us still choose to react impulsively and let external stimuli dictate their actions. Proactive people do not let this happen. They take responsibility and make conscious choices about their behavior.
A perfect illustration of these two attitudes is to imagine to concentric circles. The outer circle is the Circle of Concern, and the other is the Circle of Influence. The former represents tall that you are concerned about; bills, external threats, relationships, etc. and the latter represents what you can do about it. Proactive people focus on the Circle of Influence and work on things that they can control while reactive people focus on the Circle of Concern, fretting over that which they cannot change. An example of Viktor Frankl, who, though imprisoned in multiple German Concentration camps, chose to think not of his current situation but his ultimate freedom. He even inspired some of his students and some of the guards. For him, his freedom existed in the small gap between his situation and his response to his condition, which could not be taken from him, for that he could control.
We, too, can change, and to achieve proactivity, take up a 30-day challenge in which you choose to find solutions instead of blaming someone else or other external factors for the situation you are in.
HABIT 2: HAVING THE END GOAL IN MIND
Any action we carry out has already been taken in our minds first. Take the example of constructing a house. We first visualize it on how it is going to look like and what plans need to go into it before actually embarking on construction. This helps the construction process run smoothly as opposed to haphazardly carrying it out. This shows the need to have the desired end to any task in mind. A realistic image of the action will lead to better execution and, ultimately, better results.
Visualization works for all possible, including life goals. One way would be to write a personal statement and integrate it into your daily life. To find out what is useful, imagine what people will think of you after you have left the world. Being effective over being efficient means that you know what your destination in life is and pursuing what is important to you. A personal mission statement is your compass to help you get a sense of which direction to take in life. Some thoughts that may be included in a mission statement include balancing work and family or voicing political concerns because you value your society. A personal statement requires deep introspection and may require several amendments before getting it right, and even then, it may need to be reviewed severally.
HABIT 3: FIRST THINGS FIRST
To achieve your mission, you need to live your mantra consistently. This requires time management techniques to improve effectiveness. It is always important to remember the simple maxim “first things first.” To do so, one needs to prioritize everything you do so that the essential things are taken care of first and the rest either delegated or put off till later. An excellent place to start is by categorizing all tasks into two parts; urgency and importance. This gives you a two by two matrix with four quadrants. The first quadrant put in tasks that are important and urgent. In the second one, put tasks that are important but not urgent. In the third quadrant, put things that are urgent but not important. The last quadrant is for things that are neither important nor urgent. Of the four, the most important is quadrant 2, for the actions here have a positive impact on your life. The author worked with a group of shopping center managers and found out that the managers were aware that building a relationship with the store owners was the most positively impacting thing they could do but still spent very little time doing it. Instead, they focused on dealing with reports and calls that primarily fall in quadrant one. The author suggested that they start spending a third of their time with the store owners, and the turnaround was impressive; increased revenue and overall satisfaction.
HABIT 4: A “WIN-WIN” ATTITUDE
The nature of the world had perpetuated a “win-lose” attitude, in that we see life as a competition with others and that there is a need to fight others for a bigger slice of the pie. The disadvantage of this that both parties eventually lose, and this impacts the relationship between them. For example, if a company sells services to a customer and it argues for a higher price with a strong “win-lose” attitude, it may succeed in increasing the value of the deal, but the customer might decide to take his business elsewhere in case of a reoccurrence.
A “win-win” attitude will let allow you to build positive relationships. Take the example above into consideration; if the company sought out a more mutually satisfactory deal, then the customer would most likely have brought back his business to the company. It is crucial to continue negotiation and communication until a solution is found that is favorable to all parties. This will require patience and sensitivity and might take quite the while to establish. You will need to put yourself in the position of the other and communicate your wishes to the other party.
A relationship with another person is akin to an emotional bank account involving depositing of time, effort, and goodwill that will reflect in the levels of trust between the parties. To grow the balance of this account, one will need to keep promises, be clear in what they want from the other person, practice courtesy, sensitivity, and maintaining personal integrity. Trying to understand others is also a significant deposit that allows you to make decisions based on what is important to them. If you act contrary to these, it is important to apologize and make amends sincerely.
An example is given of the author’s friend and his son, the latter, who was an avid baseball fan. Though not quite the fan himself, the friend decided to take on a road trip one summer to see every major league team play. It was a six-week trip and was quite costly. Even though he didn’t like baseball himself, the friend understood that the trip was necessary to strengthen his relationship with his son, whom he loved.
HABIT 5: UNDERSTANDING OTHERS BEFORE SEEKING TO BE UNDERSTOOD
Imagine having a doctor write you a prescription without listening to your or an optician giving you glasses without checking your eyesight. These examples may sound extreme, but this is how we behave in our day to day lives when we talk to others. We rarely listen to what others have to say and instead project out situations on them and offer quick solutions that may not necessarily help them. To be a good listener and advice giver, one needs to develop the art of empathic listening, which involves listening to understand the other person instead of listening to offer an answer. Empathic listening consists of trying to get into the other person’s frame of reference to understand them from an intellectual and emotional level. In our communication, experts reveal that words account for at least ten percent, sounds for thirty, and body language for sixty percent. This way, it is essential to consider other aspects of communication aside from the words being said. Empathic listening is a skill that requires time and expertise to master but is wholly worth it. It will lead to people being open to you and reciprocate by considering your advice.
HABIT 6: SYNERGIZE
Synergy is a situation where contributions of many may add up to a total that exceeds the combined contributions of the individuals. As we all see the world differently, we all have different strengths. For one plus one to equal three or more, we need to be open with others and value the differences we possess. Synergy involves putting yourself in the shoes on another and using their contributions as a platform to launch greater things. Since you are on the same team, there is no need to fight one another. Take the example of David Lilienthal and the Atomic Energy Commission. David was tasked with heading the commission of highly talented individuals with different viewpoints. He realized the situation and started scheduling sessions for “team-building”. He was criticized for this, but the human interaction enabled the team to get an open, trusting, and synergistic mindset. If any disagreements were to arise between the members of the commission, they were handled with a genuine attempt to understand where the other was coming from. This resulted in a respectful, creative, and productive culture.
HABIT 7: SHARPEN THE SAW
A dull axe cannot fell a tree. Similarly, if you do not pause to take care of yourself, any gains you have made shall fall by the wayside. This is why you need to sharpen your saw for lasting effectiveness. Adopt an exercise routine, eat healthily, and manage stress. You may also need to take care of your spiritual health by meditating, praying, and reflecting on your values. Social and emotional health should also be considered by reviewing your relationships with others and getting involved in activities that improve your relationship with others. Consciously make time to recharge. To keep track of habit number seven, take note of the activities you need to contribute to your well-being. Pick one activity in each as a goal for the week and then evaluate your performance. This helps you strive for balanced renewal in all areas.
In summary, the message of the book is to adopt the seven habits for a productive lifestyle. Be proactive instead of reactive; work with an end goal in mind; prioritize your work by focusing on what is important to you; adopt a win-win attitude when negotiating with others in order to find mutually beneficial solutions; practice empathic listening and understand others; synergize to make the most of individual contributions and “sharpen the saw” because everyone needs a break once in a time to recharge and get pumped to stay effective longer.