It is perhaps a great compliment to Stephen Covey that today, the substance of this first habit is deeply embedded into the management psyche. We are told, in business, that we should be proactive; and broadly what is meant by that is to focus our efforts and attention on the long-term and to think in terms of the long-term consequences of our actions.
Covey contrasts being proactive or having a proactive mentality with being reactive. Reactive people, he says, are those who are resigned to the truth that whatever they do in the present can have no effect on their circumstances. And interestingly, for reactive people, it really is a truth, for whatever we believe in our heart affects our thoughts, words and actions. If we really believe that we can do nothing about our unreasonable boss or the daily events in our lives, then we simply do not make the effort.
Proactive people, on the other hand, simply will not accept that there is nothing that can be done about the unreasonable boss or the events of daily life - they will point out that there are always choices. It is by the decisions we make, our responses to people, events and circumstances that proactive people can and do affect the future. We may have no control over what life throws at us but we always have a choice about how we are to respond.
Now this notion that having a particular attitude of mind (which is really where this habit begins) can make such a huge and positive difference to almost everything we experience in life is foreign to those who have already internalised the opposite habit as a part of their personalities. For some people, the glass is always half-empty and the feeling of melancholy is a pleasant reminder that something is indeed missing. For such people, this habit represents a bitter pill to swallow - but, says Covey, it is also completely liberating.
When we are finally prepared to accept full responsibility for the effects that are manifest in our lives; when we have the strength of character to admit it when we make mistakes (even big ones); when we are completely free to exercise the options available to us in every situation; then it can be said that we have finally internalised this habit. The other six of the habits require that we first work on our basic character by becoming proactive and thereby transforming ourselves into men and women of integrity.
Many people in the west identify with the frustration of success. Being successful at their chosen career and committed to its progress they come to realise that it does not, in the final analysis, bring any sense of real satisfaction. The reason for this ultimate dissatisfaction is that they did not begin with the end in mind. For many people, it is not just that they did not begin with the end in mind; it goes a bit deeper - they did not ever get around to defining the end itself and so they simply could not begin with the end in mind. So what does all this mean? The end represents the purpose of your life. Until you can say what that purpose is, with assurance, then you just cannot direct your life in the manner that would bring you the greatest satisfaction.
There are no short-cuts here. To engage in this habit, you need to have a dream, define your own vision and get into the practice of setting goals which will allow you to make measurable progress toward the dream. If you practice a faith, then you will want to consider how this affects your purpose in life; if you do not, you will still need to get involved in deep self-examination to find out exactly what it is that will bring you fulfilment. To help you with this, you may wish to obtain my E-Book The Deepest Desire of Your Heart; available from this site. The book contains some excellent self-reflection exercises you can use to focus your mind on what is most important to you in life.
Until you have defined your vision - the big dream to which you will be working - you will be unable to move on to habit 3 which provides a basic framework for you to re-align your efforts so that you will ultimately achieve your heart's desire.
Following the amazing popularity of his work on The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey published a second book that deals with the 7 Habits; and the title of that book is also First Things First. Both the book and this habit deal with subject of managing your time effectively.
Consider the simple 2 x 2 matrix shown below. It plots the concepts of urgency and importance against each other; and represents where you are spending your time. To really understand and apply this habit, you need to have first done habit 2 - that is, you should already have defined what is important to you. Without first doing this, habit 3 has no power because you simply cannot separate what is important from what is not important.
This representation shows four categories of demand which may be made on your time. Quadrant 1 consists of activities which are both urgent and important - in other words, things to which you absolutely must attend. Why must you do these things? Because they are important - meaning that they contribute to your mission; and they are urgent - meaning that they have some sort of deadline associated with them.
Choices about where to invest your time really are made in the other categories; and most people - driven by the concept of urgency - get drawn into Quadrant 3; doing things that consume their time but do not contribute to their goals. Highly Effective People (yes they all fit together you see) understand that the high leverage activities are all Quadrant 2 - important but not urgent. Planning, preparation, prevention, relationship-building, reading, improving your professional knowledge and exercise are all examples of Quadrant 2 activity - not an exhaustive list, by any means.
We all intuitively know that Quadrant 2 activities are the key to getting results; but you need to have internalised the first two habits before you can benefit from the high leverage this habit brings. In other words, you first need to have developed the strength of character (proactivity) which allows you to be able to say no to demands on your time that fall into Quadrants 2 and 3; and you also need to have defined what importance means for you - otherwise the Quadrants do not exist.
Put habits 1,2 and 3 together and you have the ultimate success formula. Stated simply - get your mind right; define what is important; then organise your life to maximise your Quadrant 2 efforts. By spending appropriate time on Quadrant 2 activities, you will gain control over the circumstances of your life; Quadrant 1 will actually get smaller because you will have anticipated and prepared for much Quadrant 1 activity. Concentrating on Quadrant 2 is absolutely fundamental to achieving success. You might like to take a look at the 4tm Spreadsheet, available from this site, which can help you to make this key adjustment in the use of your time.
The next of the 7 Habits is - Think Win-Win. This habit is again an attitude of mind. It concerns fostering an attitude that is committed to always finding solutions that will truly benefit both sides of a dispute. Solutions do not, of course, exist in themselves; they must be created. And, even if we cannot see the solution to a particular problem, it does not mean that no such solution exists. The win-win idea is not based upon compromise - that is where most disputes naturally end. But compromise is the result of not properly perceiving the possible synergy of the situation.
The more you practice this habit, the more committed you will become as you find solutions which truly do benefit both parties, where originally it looked as if no such agreement might be reached. Covey has amended the wording of this habit slightly in recent years to read: Think Win-Win or No Deal. This attitude works well because it liberates the individuals concerned from the effort of trying to persuade the opposite party to shift ground or compromise. The effort is instead spend on trying to understand, which is where habit 5 comes in - you see, they are also sequential.
The fifth habit is - Seek First to Understand. What most people do, naturally, when involved in some type of discussion, meeting or dialogue is exactly the reverse - they seek first to be understood. And, as Stephen Covey says, when both parties are trying to be understood, neither party is really listening; he calls such an interaction, 'the dialogue of the deaf'. This habit is an important key to inter-personal relationships and it seems to be almost magical in its ability to transform the course of discussions. Why? Because by making the investment of time and effort required to understand the other party, the dynamics of the interchange are subtly affected.
This habit is not just about letting the other person speak first; it concerns actually making the effort to understand what is being said. It is about understanding that our natural habit of mind is to misunderstand. When we are engaged in conversation, error is always present. NLP tells us that we simply make our own meaning based on our own experiences and understanding of life; and frequently we make the wrong meaning. You might like to take a look at the answers given by school-children on history exams which illustrates this principle - we are no different!
If however, we are prepared to invest the time and effort to really understand the other person's position; and to get into the habit of spending the first part of the discussion doing so; then, when it is felt by the other person that you do indeed understand, the dynamic changes. People become more open, more teachable, more interested in what you may have to say and with the mutual understanding that flows from this habit, you are ready to practice habit 6; which concerns finding creative solutions.
Habit 6 - Synergize (Synergise)
The sixth of the habits is - Synergize. This habit involves you putting your head together with the other party or parties in order to creatively brainstorm a synergistic solution to a problem i.e. to find a solution which contains win-win benefits. It can only be done successfully if you have first practiced habits 4 and 5. The well-known definition of synergy is as follows:
Synergy - When the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Finding a synergistic solution means finding a solution which is better than either party might first propose. Such a solution can only be found if both parties truly understand the other parties position - the fruit of habits 4 and 5. There have been many books written on successful brainstorming techniques; my own favourite techniques are those proposed by Edward DeBono - professor of thinking and perhaps most famous for Lateral Thinking.
Putting habit 4, 5 and 6 together, you have a perfect model for human interaction. Put simply: first be mentally committed to the idea that a solution that will benefit all parties may be constructed; next invest the necessary time and effort to really understand the other party and do that first; finally creatively brainstorm a synergistic solution - a natural product of mutual understanding and respect.
The last habit of the 7 Habits is - Sharpen the Saw. In this habit, you are the saw; and to Sharpen the Saw is to become better, keener and more effective. Highly Effective People always take time to Sharpen the Saw. What is meant by Sharpening the Saw is to regularly engage in the exercise of the three dimensions which make up the human condition: body, mind and spirit. Covey also adds a fourth dimension - the inter-personal.
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