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Revisiting Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

As I optimistically begin planning for 2021, I am re-reading time management and organization systems that I have used in the past. It’s helping me to remember where certain ideas came from. I’m also reliving the origins of some of my bad habits as well.┬áToday I’m revisiting Stephen R. Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

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If this book were a person, it would be in love with the sound of its own voice. How can I put this in a way that’s polite, yet honest? This is good advice in a bad book. There are solid principles here, but for the most part they’re poorly explained. It’s filled with self-important corporate jargon. Rather than just list the 7 habits, they’re displayed on a diagram that’s difficult to remember and hard to draw on your own. Said diagram breaks the habits into 3 categories, which is awkward and weird. It’s supposed to help you to prioritize them, or show how they interact with one another, or something. It’s confusing.

My suspicion is that Covey came up with the ideas, but that the book was written by committee. When I was in the corporate world I worked in the training department for a while, and that’s how manuals were written. Someone with seniority put an outline together, we’d workshop it to be sure it covered everything, then everyone got a section to write. One person would edit it to be sure it sort of flowed, but you could definitely tell it was Frankensteined together.

Here are Covey’s 7 Habits, along with my thoughts.

1. Be Proactive

There are three different ideas crammed together here. Not waiting around for things to happen, i.e. the definition of being proactive, is but one of them. Covey proceeds to shoehorn two semi-related concepts in. While they might work better if broken out on their own, I’m thankful that this didn’t turn into 34 Habits of Highly Effective People. Imagine the diagrams that would spawn.

Another habit wedged in here is understanding your spheres of influence. Know who you’re talking to, so you can choose your words and actions carefully. Don’t talk to your boss the same way you’d talk to your underlings. Grasp what’s appropriate, and where, and when. I think this should maybe be part of Habit 5, but what do I know. I’m not the one who sold millions of copies’ worth of this stuff.

The other habit snuck in here is to use positive language. Offer solutions instead of complaining about problems. Look for the silver lining. Focus on what you’ve learned, and finding opportunities, when you fail. This isn’t bad advice at all, but it’s not really about being proactive. In the corporate world, I experienced too many people interpreting this as “candy coat everything”. Screaming that the building on fire isn’t being negative. Sometimes you need to face harsh realities, and not worry so much about the positive word choices.

2. Begin with the End in Mind

Have you ever heard me use the road map analogy? If my objective is to vacation in Paris, I don’t hop on the first bus I see and hope for the best. I do some research and make plans. When I’m publishing a book, I know what the final product is going to be. Then I work out all of the steps to get me from here to there. That’s what this habit is about.

Covey leans into a lot of old saws, like “think before you act” and “measure twice, cut once”. I think the phrase “work smarter, not harder” came around after this book was published, otherwise it would probably be in here.

My current personal interpretation of this is “understand the problem you’re solving for”. You need to envision the whole process. It’s a bit like the Underpants Gnomes problem. You can begin with the end in mind, but you need to know how and why you’re going from here to there.

3. First Things First

Part of me always wants to react to this with “Well, no sh!t”. You can’t publish a book before you’ve written it. I can’t cook dinner unless I’ve gone grocery shopping to buy the ingredients. There aren’t words to describe how much I hate this phrase.

I’d rename this to “Set Priorities”. That’s what this section is about. It dives into the Eisenhower Matrix, a tool that I use and have written about. The tl;dr is that you weigh what’s urgent, what’s important, what’s both, and what’s neither. Then you figure out what to do with it.

For me, this doesn’t belong on a list of high-level philosophical principles. It’s a workflow issue. I guess having a process that works is a habit? Both Getting Things Done and the Bullet Journal Method pare this down to a simple routine. I already wrote about it.

4. Think Win-Win

Did you know that more people will be willing to work with you if they get something out of it too? Are you aware that customers are more likely to spend money on your products and services if you’re solving a problem or providing good value? This one irks me, because I think it reveals the general lack of empathy and humanity inherent to corporate culture.

Why do we need to put “have basic empathy for other people” on a list? Why is this smack in the middle of Covey’s 7 Habits? I was raised to treat people fairly. I was raised to be kind. My values and ethics assert that it’s wrong to take advantage of people. That’s all this habit is saying: play nice. Covey specifically says that this isn’t about being nice, though. He calls it a “a character-based code for human interaction and collaboration”.

5. Seek First to Understand, Then Be Understood

This could be folded into #4, so they could be filed together under “Were you raised by psychopaths?” If you take the time to listen to people, they’ll listen to you! When you try to understand the other person’s point of view, they’ll be willing to try to understand yours!

Okay, I take it back. This is 2020 and we know people are sorely lacking in basic empathy and social skills. I think it’s turned into a far larger problem that a bullet point toward the bottom of a list. These are much bigger issues than cultivating good interpersonal habits.

6. Synergize

Here Covey has again crammed two habits into one. As a bonus, he turned it into corporate jargon. Synergy! Why can’t we call it what it is: teamwork, and process improvement.

Teamwork starts with giving the right people the right jobs. Then make sure all of the people on your team can work together. After that, get them to share ideas with one another and help each other out. Leverage each others’ strengths, and compensate for each others’ weaknesses.

Process improvement could be folded into the final habit, below. I know that here it means getting better collectively, rather than on a personal level. Teambuilding is really just an extension of personal development, in my mind. It’s also kind of weird to have the group version of this idea higher on the list than the individual version.

7. Sharpen the Saw

This is about self-care and personal development. I would just call it that. Maintain your physical, mental, and emotional health. Read books and continue to learn new things. I think is says a lot about corporate culture that this is dead last. Number 7 on a list of Covey’s 7 habits is taking care of yourself. I don’t think this is a “last, but not least” or “finally, the most important habit” situation. The corporate world implementation always felt more like “oh, and if you get around to it…”

I had a boss who used to ask me, “What have you done to sharpen the saw?”. Not “How are you doing?” or any number of related questions. Not even asking what I’ve done to sharpen my saw. As if I’m a self-maintaining machine, rather than a human being. Again, it’s not just that this human factor is at the end of the list. It’s that it uses very impersonal, even dehumanizing language to describe it.

Revisiting Covey’s 7 Habits

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About Simplify – Create – Thrive

This blog is dedicated to one basic principle: if you can simplify your life and dedicate time to create things, you will be able to thrive and find the health and happiness you seek.

About Berin Kinsman

Berin Kinsman is a writer, simple living minimalist, and spoonie. By day he works as the owner/publisher at Dancing Lights Press. An American by accident of birth, he currently lives in Finland with his wife, artist Katie Kinsman.