REALISING YOUR FULL POTENTIAL – Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

We are the creative force of our life, and through our own decisions rather than our conditions, if we carefully learn to do certain things, we can accomplish those goals – Stephen Covey-

Dr Stephen Covey (1932-2012) was a highly influential management guru and author of the now classically regarded The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. First published in 1989, the book has become an international blueprint for personal and professional self-development, leadership, time management, effectiveness, success and even love and family.

The principles as outlined in the book may be used for life in general – they are not limited to workplaces, management or leadership. Covey’s concepts actually can help people to grow, change, and become more effective in really any other aspect of human responsibility that you might imagine.

Although critics have argued that Covey’s work is nothing more than good common sense, the book has remained in the bestseller charts for many years.

I am giving you here an overview of the seven habits philosophy and practical suggestions for how those habits can be used as part of a self-development strategy.

Finally, I have also presented the main criticisms of Covey’s work.

An Overview Of The ‘The Seven Habits’

The book offers a philosophy for life based on seven fundamental principles. These can be applied in a professional context and also to family/personal relationships. Central to the book is the idea of making a ‘paradigm shift’ in the way we think and act. By adopting each of the seven principles or habits, as they are known, Covey encourages us to change our internal mindset and become more effective in all aspects of our lives.

The ‘Habits’ seem very simple, and in many ways they are, yet to varying degrees, they may entail quite serious changes to thinking and acting.

What Is A habit?

At the beginning of the book, Covey defines a habit as a combination of:

  1. Knowledge (the ‘what to do’ and the ‘why’)
  2. Skill (the ‘how’ to do)
  3. Desire (the ‘want to do’)

In order to make something a habit in our lives, we must demonstrate all three areas.

Habits 1, 2 and 3 are about moving from a state of dependence on others to complete independence (or self-mastery, as Covey calls it).

Habits 4, 5 and 6 are about improving our interdependence, that is, our ability to work well with others.

The seventh and final habit is about looking after our physical and emotional well-being.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People are as follows:

Habit 1: Be Proactive

This is about taking personal responsibility for our own lives and how they develop. This is the ability to control one’s environment, rather than having it control you, as is so often the case.

If we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to keep getting what we’re getting  – Stephen Covey –

Rather than simply reacting to things that are beyond our control, Covey explains that we should focus our energy and time on the things over which we do have control. As he explains:

Your life doesn’t just happen. Whether you know it or not, it is carefully designed by you. The choices, after all, are yours. You choose happiness. You choose sadness. You choose success. You choose failure. Just remember that every moment, every situation, provides a new choice.

By making a conscious choice to be a proactive person, rather than someone who is passive and reactive in life, Covey suggests that we can start to create opportunities to do things differently, and so produce better outcomes for ourselves. The decisions that we make in life are the primary factor which determines how effective we will be, so it makes sense to take personal responsibility over our choices.

Habit 1: Putting It Into Practice

One of the most powerful ways we can develop a more positive mindset is to consider our overall outlook and the language we use to describe situations. For example, when faced with a difficult challenge or conflict at work, a reactive person might say, ‘There is nothing I can do’, and so takes no action to try to improve the situation. However, a proactive person strives to adopt a positive ‘can do’ outlook, so might instead say, ‘Let’s look at our options here’, and then decides to take action to move towards a positive solution. When a colleague or friend causes upset, a reactive person might say, ‘S/he makes me so angry and annoyed’ whereas a proactive person would think ‘I can control my own feelings and responses.’

If you want small changes in your life, work on your attitude. But if you want big and primary changes, work on your paradigm – Stephen Covey –

What to do:

  • Think about the way in which you describe difficult or challenging situations you find yourself in.
  • What does your choice of language say about your approach?
  • Do you tend to let situations wash over you, or are you someone who tries to make the best of things?
  • Why not ask a trusted colleague or mentor to give you some feedback about your general outlook and the type of person you are perceived as?
  • Try to make a conscious effort to use more positive, proactive language and to gradually become more proactive in your overall approach to problems and challenges.
  • Another way to become more proactive is to consider our Circles of Concern and Circles of Influence. We are all concerned about different things in life, such as our families, our health, problems at work, as well as much bigger issues like global warming or the debt crisis. Proactive people channel their efforts within their Circle of Influence. They work on the things they can do something about, i.e. improving their health, nurturing their children, and working to improve issues or problems at work. By contrast, reactive people focus their efforts in the wider Circle of Concern – areas over which they have little or no control.

What about trying these?

  • Take a moment to consider your own personal Circles of Concern and Influence.
  • What do you worry most about?
  • Are you focusing your energies on areas where you really can make an impact or on things which are outside your control?
  • Actively focus on expanding your own personal Circle of Influence. The opportunities you have are a result of the people you know or are connected to.
  • In order to develop greater opportunities and expand your horizons, it is a good idea to try to strategically increase your connections to the right people, and bring them within your Circle of Influence.
  • You can do this by making the most of opportunities to build trusting relationships with the people you need to influence.

Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall – Stephen Covey –

Habit 2: Begin With The End In Mind

Covey calls this the habit of personal leadership – leading oneself, that is, towards what you consider your aims. By developing the habit of concentrating on relevant activities you will build a platform to avoid distractions and become more productive and successful.

Habit 2 is about creating a personal vision about how we want our lives to be. Central to this habit is the idea of centredness. This describes the things we choose to make the focus of our lives. For example, many people place greatest importance upon areas like their family, status or position at work, money and wealth, material possessions or following a religion.

Covey argues that by thinking deeply about our most important values and life goals, we can then make a conscious effort towards making them a reality. He says we must first conceptualise and visualise what it is we want to achieve in life, and then create a plan to make our goals a reality. This can be done on a personal (individual) level, as well as at a wider organisational or team level.

Habit 2: Putting It Into Practice

One of the best ways to incorporate Habit 2 into our lives is to develop a Personal Mission Statement. This should focus on what we want to be and do with our lives. Covey says that developing a mission statement cannot be done overnight, but takes time and thought to develop. He advises breaking the mission statement (or personal constitution, as it is often known) down into the specific areas of our lives and considering the specific goals we wish to accomplish within each.

A mission statement is not something you write overnight… But fundamentally, your mission statement becomes your constitution, the solid expression of your vision and values. It becomes the criterion by which you measure everything else in your life – Stephen Covey – 

What to do:

Consider the different roles you have in life.

  • What is your professional role?
  • What is the role of your team?
  • What role do you play within your personal relationships, social circle or local community?

Think about the things that are most important to you in each of these areas. What goals do you want to work towards in each area? Identify the ideal characteristics for each of these roles, and use them to guide how you will think and act.

Habit 3: Put First Things First

Covey’s third habit is about developing the skills needed to achieve the vision and life goals set out in Habit 2. This is the habit of personal management. It is about organising and implementing activities in line with the aims established in Habit 2. Covey says that Habit 2 is the first, or mental creation; Habit 3 is the second, or physical creation.

To help us do this effectively, Covey asks us to consider two key questions:

  1. What one thing (that you aren’t doing now) that if you did on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your personal life?
  2. What one thing in your business or professional life would bring similar results?

Habit 3 is about helping us to make the answers to the above questions a priority, instead of putting them off because we are distracted by crises or much less important tasks.

Habit 3: Putting It Into Practice

To help put Habit 3 into practice, Covey suggests using a tool he has developed known as the Time Management Quadrant. This can be used to help plan, prioritise and implement tasks and activities based on their overall importance (e.g. how closely they are aligned to our key goals and values) rather than their urgency.

Covey uses a simple four box matrix to convey this. Using the matrix, tasks are prioritised as:

  • urgent/important,
  • not urgent/important,
  • urgent/not important and
  • not urgent/not important.

Covey believes that the key to success is concentrating on highly important but non-urgent issues, across all the identified activities. These, he argues, are the most important in terms of self-development, but are also the ones that are most commonly ignored.

The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.  -Stephen Covey –

What to do:

You can use Covey’s quadrant to improve the way you manage your own (as well as your team’s) time, in order to free up more resources to concentrate on achieving wider goals. First, consider all the tasks and projects you have on at present according to their importance and urgency. You should aim to concentrate the majority of your (or your team’s) time, resources and personal effort on the highly important but non-urgent issues, as these are the areas most likely to be neglected.

Habit 4: Think ‘Win-Win’

Habit 4 is about developing a personal leadership philosophy which is based on ‘win-win’ thinking. Covey calls this the habit of interpersonal leadership, necessary because achievements are largely dependent on co-operative efforts with others. He says that win-win is based on the assumption that there is plenty for everyone, and that success follows a co-operative approach more naturally than the confrontation of win-or-lose.

Covey explains that when we interact and collaborate with other people (be it within family relationships, at work or socially) there are six ways in which we can approach situations and challenges:

  1. Win-win. This means that all agreements or solutions are mutually beneficial and satisfying for all parties.
  2. Win-lose. This is a highly authoritarian approach, in which one party gets their way, and other party loses out completely.
  3. Lose-win. This is seen as capitulation, or giving in to another person’s preferred approach.
  4. Lose-lose. This is a philosophy of adversarial conflict, where people are desperate for the other party to lose out, even if it means losing themselves.
  5. People with this mentality simply think about securing their own success, but they don’t necessarily want the other party to lose – they are focused on securing their own position and leaving it up to others to secure theirs.
  6. No dea This means that where parties cannot find a solution that is mutually beneficial, they agree to disagree on the issue.

Adopting a win-win mindset means that whenever we face conflict or a divergence of opinion or approach in any walk of life, we genuinely strive for a solution which is mutually beneficial for everyone involved. Covey says:

One person’s success is not achieved at the expense or exclusion of others. All parties feel good about the decision and feel committed to the plan.

Win-win is about thinking beyond doing things ‘your way’ or having to submit to doing something someone else’s way, but rather looking for a solution which works for all parties.

Habit 4: Putting It Into Practice

When it comes to implementing a successful win-win agreement, whether in our professional or personal lives, the following guidelines can be helpful:

  1. Desired results. It is important for both parties to spend time considering the end result or goal that they wish to achieve as a result of the collaboration, agreement or negotiation.
  2. It is also important to consider whether the agreement is governed by any rules, procedures or operational guidelines.
  3. As an integral part of any agreement or negotiation, both parties should consider the resources that are available to help make the agreement or decision a reality (e.g. people, money, expertise, technology, etc).
  4. How will the parties determine how well the agreement is progressing?
  5. What are the rewards of achieving the desired outcome? It is also important to consider the consequences of not achieving the goal you have in mind.

When one side benefits more than the other, that’s a win-lose situation. To the winner it might look like success for a while, but in the long run, it breeds resentment and distrust – Stephen Covey –

Habit 5: Seek First To Understand, Then To Be Understood

Habit 5 is perhaps one of the great maxims of the modern age. It is Covey’s most commonsense pieces of advice.

Quite simply, it is about taking time to listen and understand the views of others. In the competitive rush to have our voice heard, we perhaps don’t always take time to fully appreciate what other people are saying. Covey argues that positive relationships are built on mutual trust and a sense of mutual understanding, which only comes from a true appreciation of the other person’s perspective.

By being a good listener first and foremost, Covey says that we put ourselves in a better position to be able to effectively communicate our views, plans and goals to others.

When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems – Stephen Covey –

Habit 5: Putting It Into Practice

Active listening is a technique you can use to deepen your understanding of what another person is saying, ensuring that their key messages are fully received and understood.

Follow these tips to improve your active listening skills:

  • Maintain your attention. Focus on what the other person is saying at all times, and try not to let your attention wander. Let the other person speak without interruption.
  • Use positive body language. Make frequent eye contact and adopt an open posture to demonstrate your interest in what the other person is saying.
  • Use reflective listening techniques. Ask open questions to draw more information from the speaker, and try to develop a sense of empathy to understand how the other person is feeling.
  • Build on what has been said. Active listening is not just about passively listening to the other person’s point of view, but adding to their ideas with comments of your own, while taking care not to hijack the conversation.
  • Summarise their key points. A good way to test your understanding is to summarise the main messages. This clarifies and reinforces the message for both parties.

When you really listen to another person from their point of view, and reflect back to them that understanding, it’s like giving them emotional oxygen – Stephen Covey –

Habit 6: Synergise

Habit 6 is based on the principle that when it comes to working effectively with others, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

To synergise with others means that we develop an approach based on creative co-operation with others, rather than relying on our own ways of making decisions or solving problems.

Within a team or professional environment, a synergistic culture is created when everyone, regardless of their status, position or rank, is encouraged to contribute their views and experiences in a collaborative way.

This allows creativity and innovation to flourish, by opening our minds to new perspectives and possibilities that we couldn’t have conceived alone.

Synergy is what happens when one plus one equals ten or a hundred or even a thousand! It’s the profound result when two or more respectful human beings determine to go beyond their preconceived ideas to meet a great challenge – Stephen Covey –

Habit 6: Putting It Into Practice

If you are a senior leader, or a manager of a team, becoming more synergistic is really about creating the right conditions within which people feel empowered and encouraged to actively participate. For example, consider how decisions are made in your team at present – do you actively seek out the views of your team members and take their opinions into account? How often do your team members approach you with new ideas and suggestions for improving how they work? As a starting point for developing team synergy, Covey suggests getting a team together (perhaps outside the formal day-to-day working environment) to work on creating their own mission statement. Your role should be to set out some broad parameters at the beginning and to facilitate an active, open discussion.

Habit 7: Sharpen The Saw

This is the habit of self-renewal, says Covey, and it necessarily surrounds all the other habits, enabling and encouraging them to happen and grow. Covey interprets the self into four parts: the spiritual, mental, physical and the social/emotional, which all need feeding and developing.

Habit 7 is about making time to look after our physical and emotional well-being. We are often so busy trying to develop the other six habits that we can sometimes forget about looking after ourselves. Put simply, the seventh habit involves investing time and energy in our best asset – ourselves!

Habit 7: Putting It Into Practice

To maintain our physical and emotional well-being, Covey advocates taking action in four areas:

  1. Healthy eating, exercise and adequate rest.
  2. Making social and meaningful connections with others.
  3. Investing in our own learning, e.g. by reading, writing and teaching.
  4. Spending time developing our interests in nature, culture, music or art.

Criticisms Of The Seven Habits

It is important to bear in mind that Covey’s work is not without its critics. The major criticisms are summarised as follows:

  1. The habits are just common sense. Since Covey’s book was first published, many commentators have argued that the seven habits can simply be boiled down to good management and leadership practice. This may be true, and indeed Covey himself has said that he didn’t invent the seven habits – he just pulled together existing wisdom into a binding philosophy for others to follow. He also pointed out that common sense does not always equal common practice.
  2. The book is overly complex. The second common criticism is that the language used in the book to describe the seven habits is often cumbersome and long-winded. Critics argue that Covey’s approach makes personal development far more complicated than is necessary. The habits themselves have been criticised as too abstract and that they don’t connect well with each other. This may be true to some extent; however, the real value of the book lies in the reader’s ability to understand the essence of each habit and apply it to their own personal circumstances. To Covey’s credit, the book contains many practical case studies and examples of how the habits have been used in practice, by Covey himself and also within the organisations and teams he has worked with.


By applying his seven habits to our lives, Covey argues that we can develop a framework for improving our effectiveness both in a professional and personal context. By first developing a sense of personal independence, we move from being dependent on others for our successes to taking personal responsibility for making success happen ourselves. The habits also teach us the importance of working collaboratively and harmoniously with others in order to develop more effective relationships. The final habit relates to the need to continually invest in ourselves as we maintain and develop our personal philosophy.

As of old, Be EMPOWERED and EXCEL!

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