Summary: First published in 1989 The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People written by Stephen Covey (1932 – 2012) details 7 habits, which are based on principles that help readers develop what the author describes as a strong ‘character ethic.’  A graduate from Harvard Business School, Covey was a teacher, writer, speaker, and a businessman.

Read this book summary in 12 Minutes

The 7 Habits:

1. Be Proactive
2. Begin With the End in Mind
3. Put First Things First
4. Think Win-Win
5. Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
6. Synergize.
7. Sharpen the Saw

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People By Stephen Covey Summary

Book Notes

Habit 1: BE PROACTIVE.

  • “As you read this book, try to stand apart from yourself. Try to project your consciousness upward into a corner of the room and see yourself, in your mind’s eye, reading. Can you look at yourself almost as though you were someone else?”
  • “Your ability to do what you just did is uniquely human. Animals do not possess this ability. We call it “self-awareness” or the ability to think about your very thought process.”
  • “Self-awareness enables us to stand apart and examine even the way we “see” ourselves—our self-paradigm, the most fundamental paradigm of effectiveness. It affects not only our attitudes and behaviors, but also how we see other people. It becomes our map of the basic nature of mankind. “
  • “…because of the unique human capacity of self-awareness, we can examine our paradigms to determine whether they are reality- or principle-based or if they are a function of conditioning and conditions.”
  • Thus, if the only vision we have of ourselves comes from the social mirror— from the current social paradigm and from the opinions, perceptions, and paradigms of the people around us—our view of ourselves is like the reflection in the crazy mirror room at the carnival.
  • This reflection of the current social paradigm tells us that we are largely determined by conditioning and conditions.
  • “But how accurately and functionally do these deterministic maps describe the territory? How clearly do these mirrors reflect the true nature of man? Do they become self-fulfilling prophecies? Are they based on principles we can validate within ourselves?”
  • “In answer to those questions, let me share with you the catalytic story of Victor Frankl…“
  • “He was imprisoned in the death camps of Nazi Germany, where he experienced things that were so repugnant to our sense of decency that we shudder to even repeat them. ”
  • “Frankl himself suffered torture and innumerable indignities, never knowing from one moment to the next if his path would lead to the ovens or if he would be among the ‘saved’…”
  • “One day… he began to become aware of what he later called ‘the last of the human freedoms’—the freedom his Nazi captors could not take away… ”
  • “They could control his entire environment, they could do what they wanted to his body, but Victor Frankl himself was a self-aware being who could look as an observer at his very involvement. His basic identity was intact. He could decide within himself how all of this was going to affect him.”
  • “Between what happened to him, or the stimulus, and his response to it, was his freedom or power to choose that response.”
  • Frankl would project himself into different circumstances. Whilst being tortured, he would imagine lecturing to his students after his release from the death camps. He would picture himself in the classroom, in his mind’s eye, and give his students the lessons he was learning during his very torture.
  • In the midst of the most degrading circumstances imaginable, Frankl used the human endowment of self-awareness to discover a fundamental principle about the nature of man…

“Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.”

  • Within the freedom to choose are those endowments that make us uniquely human.
  • “In addition to self-awareness, we have imagination—the ability to create in our minds beyond our present reality. We have conscience —a deep inner awareness of right and wrong, of the principles that govern our behavior, and a sense of the degree to which our thoughts and actions are in harmony with them. And we have independent will—the ability to act based on our self-awareness, free of all other influences.”
  • “In discovering the basic principle of the nature of man, Frankl described an accurate self-map from which he began to develop the first and most basic habit of a highly effective person in any environment, the habit of proactivity.”
  • “Proactivity mean that as human beings, we are responsible for our own lives. Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions. We can subordinate feelings to values. We have the initiative and the responsibility to make things happen.”
  • “Look at the word responsibility—“response-ability”—the ability to choose your response.”
  • “Highly proactive people recognize that responsibility. They do not blame circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behavior. Their behavior is a product of their own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product of their conditions, based on feeling.”
  • “Reactive people are often affected by their physical environment. If the weather is good, they feel good. If it isn’t, it affects their attitude and their performance.”
  • “Proactive people can carry their own weather with them. Whether it rains or shines makes no difference to them. They are value driven; and if their value is to produce good quality work, it isn’t a function of whether the weather is conducive to it or not.”
  • “The ability to subordinate an impulse to a value is the essence of the proactive person.”
  • “Reactive people are driven by feelings, by circumstances, by conditions, by their environment. Proactive people are driven by values— carefully thought about, selected and internalized values.”
  • “Proactive people are still influenced by external stimuli, whether physical, social, or psychological. But their response to the stimuli, conscious or unconscious, is a value-based choice or response.”
  • The difference between people who exercise initiative and those who don’t is literally the difference between night and day. I’m not talking about a 25 to 50 percent difference in effectiveness; I’m talking about a 5000-plus percent difference, particularly if they are smart, aware, and sensitive to others.”
  • “We don’t have to go through the death camp experience of Frankl to recognize and develop our own proactivity. It is in the ordinary events of every day that we develop the proactive capacity to handle the extraordinary pressures of life.”
  • “It’s how we make and keep commitments, how we handle a traffic jam, how we respond to an irate customer or a disobedient child. It’s how we view our problems and where we focus our energies. It’s the language we use.”
  • “We are responsible for our own effectiveness, for our own happiness, and ultimately, I would say, for most of our circumstances.”
  • “Knowing that we are responsible—“response-able”—is fundamental to effectiveness and to every other habit of effectiveness we will discuss.”

 

Habit 2. BEGIN WITH THE END IN MIND.

  • “In your mind’s eye, see yourself going to the funeral of a loved one. Picture yourself driving to the funeral parlor or chapel, parking the car, and getting out…”
  • “… As you walk down to the front of the room and look inside the casket, you suddenly come face to face with yourself. This is your funeral, three years from today. All these people have come to honor you, to express feelings of love and appreciation for your life.”
  • “Now think deeply. What would you like each of these speakers to say about you and your life? What kind of husband, wife, father, or mother would you like their words to reflect? What kind of son or daughter or cousin? What kind of friend? What kind of working associate?”
  • “What character would you like them to have seen in you? What contributions, what achievements would you want them to remember?”
  • “If you participated seriously in this visualization experience, you touched for a moment some of your deep, fundamental values. You established brief contact with that inner guidance system…”
  • “… the most fundamental application of “begin with the end in mind” is to begin today with the image, picture, or paradigm of the end of your life as your frame of reference or the criterion by which everything else is examined.”
  • “To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.”
  • “Begin with the end in mind” is based on the principle that all things are created twice. There’s a mental or first creation, and a physical or second creation, to all things.”
  • “Take the construction of a home, for example. You create it in every detail before you ever hammer the first nail into place. You try to get a very clear sense of what kind of house you want. Then, you reduce it to blueprint and develop construction plans.”
  • “The carpenter’s rule is “measure twice, cut once.” You have to make sure that the blueprint, the first creation, is really what you want, that you’ve thought everything through. Then you put it into bricks and mortar.”
  • “It’s a principle that all things are created twice, but not all first creations are by conscious design. In our personal lives, if we do not develop our own self-awareness and do not become responsible for first creations, we empower other people and circumstances outside our Circle of Influence to shape much of our lives by default.”
  • “Whether we are aware of it or not, whether we are in control of it or not, there is a first creation to every part of our lives. We are either the second creation of our own proactive design, or we are the second creation of other people’s agendas, of circumstances, or of past habits.”
  • “Put another way, Habit 1 says, “You are the creator.” Habit 2 is the first creation.”

 

Habit 3: PUT FIRST THINGS FIRST.

  • “In Habit 3 we are dealing with many of the questions addressed in the field of life and time management. As a longtime student of this fascinating field, I am personally persuaded that the essence of the best thinking in the area of time management can be captured in a single phrase: Organize and execute around priorities.”
  • “… the two factors that define an activity are urgent and Urgent means it requires immediate attention. It’s “Now!” Urgent things act on us. A ringing phone is urgent. Most people can’t stand the thought of just allowing the phone to ring.”
  • “Urgent matters are usually visible. They press on us; they insist on action. They’re often popular with others. They’re usually right in front of us. And often they are pleasant, easy, fun to do. But so often they are unimportant!”
  • Importance, on the other hand, has to do with results. If something is important, it contributes to your mission, your values, your high priority goals.”
  • Covey points out that we tend to react to urgent matters. Whereas important matters that are not urgent require more initiative, more pro-activity from our part.

In the book, Stephen Covey presents the time management matrix, emphasizing readers to work on the tasks that are important but not urgent.

the 7 habits of highly effective people by stephen covey summary
  • Covey summarizes: “Look for a moment at the four quadrants in the time management matrix. Quadrant I is both urgent and important. It deals with significant results that require immediate attention. We usually call the activities in Quadrant I “crises” or “problems.” We all have some Quadrant I activities in our lives. But Quadrant I consumes many people. They are crisis managers, problem-minded people, deadline-driven producers.”
  • “As long as you focus on Quadrant I, it keeps getting bigger and bigger until it dominates you. It’s like the pounding surf. A huge problem comes and knocks you down and you’re wiped out. You struggle back up only to face another one that knocks you down and slams you to the ground.”
  • “Some people are literally beaten up by problems all day every day. The only relief they have is in escaping to the not important, not urgent activities of Quadrant IV.”
  • “So when you look at their total matrix, 90 percent of their time is in Quadrant I and most of the remaining 10 percent is in Quadrant IV, with only negligible attention paid to Quadrants II and III. That’s how people who manage their lives by crisis live.”
  • “There are other people who spend a great deal of time in “urgent, but not important” Quadrant III, thinking they’re in Quadrant I. They spend most of their time reacting to things that are urgent, assuming they are also important.”
  • “But the reality is that the urgency of these matters is often based on the priorities and expectations of others. People who spend time almost exclusively in Quadrants III and IV basically lead irresponsible lives.”
  • “Effective people stay out of Quadrants III and IV because urgent or not, they aren’t important. They also shrink Quadrant I down to size by spending more time in Quadrant II.”
  • “Quadrant II is the heart of effective personal management. It deals with things that are not urgent, but are important. It deals with things like building relationships, writing a personal mission statement, long-range planning, exercising, preventive maintenance, preparation—all those things we know we need to do, but somehow seldom get around to doing, because they aren’t urgent.”
  • “What one thing could you do in your personal and professional life that, if you did it on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your life? Quadrant II activities have that kind of impact. Our effectiveness takes quantum leaps when we do them.”
  • “The key to effective management of self, or of others through delegation, is not in any technique or tool or extrinsic factor. It is intrinsic—in the Quadrant II paradigm that empowers you to see through the lens of importance rather than urgency.”

 

Habit 4: THINK WIN/WIN.

Covey points out the 6 paradigms of human interaction:

  1. Win/Win
  2. Win/Lose
  3. Lose/Win
  4. Lose/Lose
  5. Win
  6. Win/Win or No Deal

He briefly describes each of these paradigms…

  • [On Win/Win]: “Win/Win sees life as a cooperative, not a competitive arena. Most people tend to think in terms of dichotomies: strong or weak, hardball or softball, win or lose. But that kind of thinking is fundamentally flawed. It’s based on power and position rather than on principle.
  • “Win/Win is based on the paradigm that there is plenty for everybody, that one person’s success is not achieved at the expense or exclusion of the success of others.”
  • “Win/Win is a belief in the Third Alternative. It’s not your way or my way; it’s a better way, a higher way.”
  • [On Win/Lose]: “In leadership style, Win/Lose is the authoritarian approach: “I get my way; you don’t get yours.” Win/Lose people are prone to use position, power, credentials, possessions, or personality to get their way.”
  • [On Lose/Win]: “Lose/Win is worse than Win/Lose because it has no standards—no demands, no expectations, no vision. People who think Lose/Win are usually quick to please or appease. They seek strength from popularity or acceptance. They have little courage to express their own feelings and convictions and are easily intimidated by the ego strength of others.”
  • [On Lose/Lose]: “When two Win/Lose people get together—that is, when two determined, stubborn, ego-invested individuals interact—the result will be Lose/Lose. Both will lose. Both will become vindictive and want to “get back” or “get even,” blind to the fact that murder is suicide, that revenge is a two-edged sword.”
  • [On Win]: “Another common alternative is simply to think Win. People with the Win mentality don’t necessarily want someone else to lose. That’s irrelevant. What matters is that they get what they want.”

The most effective paradigm for human interaction, Covey tells us is the paradigm of Win/Win or No Deal.

  • He writes: “No Deal basically means that if we can’t find a solution that would benefit us both, we agree to disagree agreeably—No Deal.”
  • “When you have No Deal as an option in your mind, you feel liberated because you have no need to manipulate people, to push your own agenda, to drive for what you want. You can be open. You can really try to understand the deeper issues underlying the positions.”

To demonstrate the paradigm of Win/Win, Covey recalls how the president of a small software company story was able to secure a major contract deal:

  • “We had developed new software which we sold on a five-year contract to a particular bank. The bank president was excited about it, but his people weren’t really behind the decision.”
  • “About a month later, that bank changed presidents. The new president came to me and said, ‘I am uncomfortable with these software conversions. I have a mess on my hands. My people are all saying that they can’t go through this and I really feel I just can’t push it at this point in time.”
  • “My own company was in deep financial trouble. I knew I had every legal right to enforce the contract. But I had become convinced of the value of the principle of Win/Win.”
  • “So I told him ‘We have a contract. Your bank has secured our products and our services to convert you to this program. But we understand that you’re not happy about it. So what we’d like to do is give you back the contract, give you back your deposit, and if you are ever looking for a software solution in the future, come back and see us.’ ”
  • “I literally walked away from an $84,000 contract. It was close to financial suicide. But I felt that, in the long run, if the principle were true, it would come back and pay dividends.”
  • “Three months later, the new president called me. ‘I’m now going to make changes in my data processing,’ he said, ‘and I want to do business with you.’ He signed a contract for $240,000.”
  • Covey adds: Character is the foundation of Win/Win, and everything else builds on that foundation. There are three character traits essential to the Win/Win paradigm.
  1. Integirty
  2. Maturity
  3. Abundance Mentality
  • “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.”

 

Habit 5: SEEK FIRST TO UNDERSTAND, THEN TO BE UNDERSTOOD.

  • “ ‘Seek first to understand’ involves a very deep shift in paradigm. We typically seek first to be understood. Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak. They’re filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people’s lives.”
  • “They’re constantly projecting their own home movies onto other people’s behavior. They prescribe their own glasses for everyone with whom they interact.”
  • “When another person speaks, we’re usually “listening” at one of four levels. We may be ignoring another person, not really listening at all. We may practice pretending. “Yeah. Uh-huh. Right.” We may practice selective listening, hearing only certain parts of the conversation. We often do this when we’re listening to the constant chatter of a preschool child.”
  • “Or we may even practice attentive listening, paying attention and focusing energy on the words that are being said. But very few of us ever practice the fifth level, the highest form of listening, empathic listening.”
  • “Communications experts estimate, in fact, that only 10 percent of our communication is represented by the words we say. Another 30 percent is represented by our sounds, and 60 percent by our body language.”
  • “When I say empathic listening, I mean listening with intent to understand. I mean seeking first to understand, to really understand. It’s an entirely different paradigm.”
  • “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.”
  • Empathic listening involves 4 stages:
  1. Mimic content
  2. Rephrase the content
  3. Reflect feeling
  4. Rephrase the content and reflect the feeling

To demonstrate, Covey provides an example of a conversation between a father and his son, and how, the father cultivates this skill of empathetic listening to have a meaningful conversation with his son…

Son: “… Dad, I’ve had it! School is for the birds!”

Dad: “You’ve had it. You think school is for the birds.”

  • He writes: “You have essentially repeated back the content of what was being said. You haven’t evaluated or probed or advised or interpreted. You’ve at least showed you’re paying attention to his words. But to understand, you want to do more.”
  • “The second stage of empathic listening is to rephrase the content. It’s a little more effective, but it’s still limited to the verbal communication…”

Son: “… Dad, I’ve had it! School is for the birds!”

Father: “You don’t want to go to school anymore.”

  • “This time, you’ve put his meaning into your own words. Now you’re thinking about what he said, mostly with the left side, the reasoning, logical side of the brain.”
  • “The third stage brings your right brain into operation. You reflect feeling…”

Son: “… Dad, I’ve had it! School is for the birds!”

Father: “You’re feeling really frustrated.”

  • “Now you’re not paying as much attention to what he’s saying as you are to the way he feels about what he’s saying.”
  • “The fourth stage includes both the second and the third. You rephrase the content and reflect the feeling…”

Son: “Dad, I’ve had it! School is for the birds!”

Dad: “You’re really frustrated about school.”

  • “Frustration is the feeling; school is the content. You’re using both sides of your brain to understand both sides of his communication.”
  • “Now, what happens when you use fourth stage empathic listening skills is really incredible. As you authentically seek to understand, as you rephrase content and reflect feeling, you give him psychological air. You also help him work through his own thoughts and feelings.”
  • “Habit 5 is something you can practice right now. The next time you communicate with anyone, you can put aside your own autobiography and genuinely seek to understand.”

 

Habit 6: SYNERGIZE.

  • “What is synergy? Simply defined, it means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It means that the relationship which the parts have to each other is a part in and of itself.”
  • “If you plant two plants close together, the roots comingle and improve the quality of the soil so that both plants will grow better than if they were separated. If you put two pieces of wood together, they will hold much more than the total of the weight held by each separately. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
  • “One plus one equals three or more.”
  • “Many people have not really experienced even a moderate degree of synergy in their family life or in other interactions. They’ve been trained and scripted into defensive and protective communications or into believing that life or other people can’t be trusted. As a result, they are never really open to Habit 6 and to these principles.”
  • “This represents one of the great tragedies and wastes in life, because so much potential remains untapped—completely undeveloped and unused. Ineffective people live day after day with unused potential. They experience synergy only in small, peripheral ways in their lives.”

Covey demonstrates an example of synergy in the workplace:

  • “I enjoyed one particularly meaningful synergistic experience as I worked with my associates to create the corporate mission statement for our business. Almost all members of the company went high up into the mountains where, surrounded by the magnificence of nature, we began with a first draft of what some of us considered to be an excellent mission statement.”
  • “At first the communication was respectful, careful and predictable. But as we began to talk about the various alternatives, possibilities and opportunities ahead, people became very open and authentic and simply started to think out loud.”
  • “The mission statement agenda gave way to a collective free association, a spontaneous piggybacking of ideas. People were genuinely empathic as well as courageous, and we moved from mutual respect and understanding to creative synergistic communication.”
  • “Everyone could sense it. It was exciting. As it matured, we returned to the task of putting the evolved collective vision into words, each of which contains specific and committed-to meaning for each participant.”

The resulting corporate mission statement reads:

  • “Our mission is to empower people and organizations to significantly increase their performance capability in order to achieve worthwhile purposes through understanding and living principle-centered leadership.”
  • “The synergistic process that led to the creation of our mission statement engraved it in the hearts and minds of everyone there, and it has served us well as a frame of reference of what we are about, as well as what we are not about.”
  • “Once people have experienced real synergy, they are never quite the same again. They know the possibility of having other such mind-expanding adventures in the future.”
  • “Valuing the differences is the essence of synergy—the mental, the emotional, the psychological differences between people. And the key to valuing those differences is to realize that all people see the world, not as it is, but as they are.”
  • “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.”
  • “You can exercise the courage in interdependent situations to be open, to express your ideas, your feelings, and your experiences in a way that will encourage other people to be open also.”
  • “Think about a person who typically sees things differently than you do. Consider ways in which those differences might be used as stepping-stones to third alternative solutions. Perhaps you could seek out his or her views on a current project or problem, valuing the different views you are likely to hear.”

 

Habit 7: SHARPEN THE SAW.

  • “Habit 7 is taking time to sharpen the saw. It surrounds the other habits on the Seven Habits paradigm because it is the habit that makes all the others possible.”

Covey draws on an analogy to clarify:

“Suppose you were to come upon someone in the woods working feverishly to saw down a tree.”

“What are you doing?” you ask.

“Can’t you see?” comes the impatient reply. “I’m sawing down this tree.” “You look exhausted!” you exclaim. “How long have you been at it?” “Over five hours,” he returns, “and I’m beat! This is hard work.”

“Well, why don’t you take a break for a few minutes and sharpen that saw?” you inquire. “I’m sure it would go a lot faster.”

“I don’t have time to sharpen the saw,” the man says emphatically. “I’m too busy sawing!”

  • [Sharpen the saw]… “It’s preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have—you.”
  • “It’s renewing the four dimensions of your nature—physical, spiritual, mental, and social/emotional.”
  • “This is the single most powerful investment we can ever make in life— investment in ourselves, in the only instrument we have with which to deal with life and to contribute.”
  • “Although renewal in each dimension is important, it only becomes optimally effective as we deal with all four dimensions in a wise and balanced way. To neglect any one area negatively impacts the rest.”
  • “I have found this to be true in organizations as well as in individual lives.”
  • “In an organization, the physical dimension is expressed in economic terms. The mental or psychological dimension deals with the recognition, development, and use of talent. The social/emotional dimension has to do with human relations, with how people are treated. And the spiritual dimension deals with finding meaning through purpose or contribution and through organizational integrity.”
  • “The law of the harvest governs; we will always reap what we sow—no more, no less. The law of justice is immutable, and the closer we align ourselves with correct principles, the better our judgment will be about how the world operates and the more accurate our paradigms—our maps of the territory—will be.”
  • “… as we grow and develop on this upward spiral, we must show diligence in the process of renewal by educating and obeying our conscience. An increasingly educated conscience will propel us along the path of personal freedom, security, wisdom, and power.”
  • “Moving along the upward spiral requires us to learn, commit, and do on increasingly higher planes.”
  • “To keep progressing, we must learn, commit, and do— learn, commit, and do—and learn, commit, and do again.”

The book on Amazon:
‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’