Summary of Stephen R Covey’s 7 habits of highly effective people

The 7 habits of highly effective people

By Stephen Covey, Simon & Schuster, 1989

7 habitsIntroduction to ‘The 7 habits’

This book has sold over 10 million copies, and even after 16 years it is still regarded as significant by businesses all over the world.

Covey found that many people who outwardly had achieved success in life were struggling with an inner dissatisfaction.  Aspects of their lives were out of harmony with each other and relationships were unfulfilling.

This book describes seven habits that if integrated into lives will help balance public and private lives.Covey's 7 habits

The first 3 habits are primarily in the private domain and reflect our development from dependence to independence:

  • Being Proactive
  • Beginning with the end in mind
  • Putting first things first

The second 3 habits are in the public domain, and reflect our development from independence to interdependence:

  • Thinking win/win
  • Seeking first to understand; then to be understood
  • Synergy

The final habit is the meta habit that keeps the others alive.

  • Renewal

The 7 habits represent a principle centred, character based, ‘inside out’ approach to personal and interpersonal effectiveness.

A broad view of the 7 habits

A habit is defined as a combination of knowledge, skill and desire:

  • Knowledge is about what to do and why
  • Skill is about how to do it
  • Desire is the motivation to do it – wanting to.

Creating a habit means work in all three dimensions: knowing what needs doing – the right approach; the skill and patience to follow it; the determination to do it.

For example, knowing that you need to listen combines with the ability to listen patiently, yet encouragingly; this, in turn links with actually wanting to listen.

The habits develop with maturity moving from total dependence when we are infants moving to independence as we move towards adulthood.  The final stage is interdependence, which is not always reached, where there is a realisation that if we combine talents and abilities with others we can create something bigger than we could on our own.

Although there is a sequence to these habits they do not necessarily need to be attained in a certain order, but tend to naturally build upon each other.

Covey uses the fable about the goose that laid the golden eggs to illustrate this point.  If the owner of the goose is impatient to get at the eggs, he might cut up the goose to get at the eggs.  This destroys the method of production. If, however, he were to look after the goose well and effectively preserve and maintain his asset he would produce ultimately produce more eggs.

Covey describes this as the balance of Production (P)  and Production Capacity (PC).

Businesses that focus on P to the exclusion of PC may produce short term results, but in the long term they will lack the long term capacity to continue production.

Two obvious examples would be working machines to maximum capacity without stopping for necessary maintenance, or a bullying style of management which might produce short term results as employees are scared of the manager, but ultimately will lead to a decline as employees will leave or will cease to care.

Balancing P with PC occurs not only in work life, but also in personal life.  Burning the candle at both ends may produce short term results, but will ultimately lead to burn out.

Not starting with these principles and understanding that they form the core of our being and therefore the basis of our success is akin to focusing on the P at the expense of the PC.

Habit 1 – Be Proactive

The first habit stems from self-awareness, or the ability to think about our thought processes, a capacity which distinguishes us from animals.  It is the ability to stand apart from ourselves and examine our moods, feelings and thoughts in a similar way to how we might examine those of others.

Much psychological theory is based on determinism.  Your personality, skills and abilities being determined by genes, or upbringing and you have little ability to control or change these factors.

Covey, however believes that in the gap between stimulus and response we have:

  • The capability to choose how we will allow situations to affect us
  • The ability to imagine beyond our present reality
  • A conscience, an inner awareness of right and wrong
  • An independent will, a freedom to act irrespective of the expectations or influence of others

We are capable of acting proactively, we can take initiative and change the way we behave, to choose our response to a particular event or situation.

People who are proactive take responsibility for their own behavior and actions, they don’t blame others

Ghandi is famously quoted as saying ‘They cannot take away our self-respect, unless we give it to them’.

Others may be able to hurt us socially or physically, but unless we choose for it to be so, they cannot hurt our base identify.

Being proactive also encompasses our ability to make things happen, however, this does not just happen, we have to show initiative, think of less obvious ways of doing things, be resourceful, not rely entirely on others, look for creative solutions to problems, loot at them from a new perspective.  The key point is that we have the ability to do this, but in order to use this ability we need to choose to do it.

Covey also acknowledges that you need to be proactive in how you respond to your own mistakes.  You need to acknowledge these mistakes, correct them and learn from them.  It is important in Covey’s view not to focus on the mistakes of others.

Acting proactively means keeping commitments, working unswervingly to reach your goals and not wallowing in the failures of others to keep their promises.

Habit 2 – Begin with the end in mind

Covey invites each of us to imagine our own funerals and to imagine how we will be remembered.  What meaning did we attach to our life? What mattered to us?

If we truly understand what is important to us, and manage ourselves to do and be what really matters most, we will be much more effective.  By beginning each day with the end, not only of that day but of life as a whole, you gain a perspective which will enable you to manage whatever life throws at you.

Drawing on your imagination of a yet uncreated future, rather than feeding on a memory of how things have been enables you to shape yourself and things around you.

This ‘personal mission statement’ forms your centre, your personal sense of worth.  Your centre needs to be based on principles.  These principles give you the freedom to make choices and retain control over your life.

Habit 3 – Put first things first

This is all about self-management, not just in terms of managing our time, but more importantly about fixing and following our priorities.  It is about turning our vision into reality, slowly but surely.

covey 4 quadrants

Covey suggests a four quadrant model to help with this prioritisation process.  This model focuses on relationships and results rather than things and time:

Covey suggests that quadrant 2 should be the main focus.  The first has to be dealt with, but real fulfillment lies in quadrant 2.

Importance is about results and the achievement of high priority goals.  Often urgency can override the importance of a task as the urgency makes it particularly visible.

Time to focus on quadrant 2 needs to come from quadrants 3 and 4.  By focusing on quadrant 2 should reduce the number of items in quadrant .  We tend to be reactive about urgent matters, important or not as they tend to be highly visible.  By using initiative and being proactive there will be a tendency to focus on quadrant 2, as in quadrant 2 you will tend to be opportunity minded rather than problem minded.
Covey maintains that putting first things first goes beyond your normal to do list.  The key is ‘ not to prioritise what is on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities’.  This ensures that you will not lose sight of your long term goals and what you would like to be remembered for under the deluge of urgent items.


Interdependence is the area of relationships and comes after one has moved through the stages of dependence and independence.  What you are in the development of the first three habits will determine how the next three habits blossom.  Self-mastery and self-discipline are the foundation of good relationships with others, Interdependence is a choice that only independent people can make.

Building up good relationships flows from trust.  Covey uses the metaphor of an ‘emotional bank account’ to illustrate this point.  In our relationships with others we make deposits out of what we are, which build up a favourable balance, based on courtesy, kindness, honesty and commitment keeping.

Where we have a positive balance in this account, even our occasional mistakes or poor communications cannot disturb the relationship.  But discourtesy, disrespect, betraying trust will lead to the balance becoming overdrawn and worthless.

Habit 4 – Think win-win

Covey puts forward 6 paradigms:

  • Win-win – a total philosophy of human interaction where in any relationship both parties
  • Lose-lose – both gain no benefit
  • Win-lose – I win you get nothing; I get my way, you don’t get yours
  • Win – my mind is concerned that I win, your concerns are irrelevant, I may not try to make you lose but I am going to win
  • Lose-win – I lose, you win
  • Win – win or no deal – we will try for a benefit for both of us, but if this is not possible we will drop the attempt without rancor.

Win-win sees life as a co-operative non-competitive arena, based on the principle that there is enough for everyone, one person’s success does not have to be at the expense of another.

Covey acknowledges that there are some situations where a win-win situation may not apply, for example in a tennis match, however, he contends that in the majority of cases win-win is the best choice and the most profitable in business situations.

Habit 5 Seek first to understand, then to be understood

This habit is fundamentally about empathetic listening.  Many disputes and failures arise as people are so anxious to get across their point of view that they do not listen to the other party.  In order to move towards interdependence and successful interactions with others we first have to understand correctly what the other person is saying.

The fact that someone is genuinely listening helps the discussion as the other person feels that he or she is being taken seriously and not ridden rough shod over.

Empathetic listening takes time, but nothing like the time needed to patch up a misunderstanding.  Empathetic listening is not just getting the facts straight but also to understand perceptions and feelings as well as the logic.

Along the same principles as think win-win, by understanding the other person you are building up your emotional bank account deposits.  This will make the other person more conducive to listening to your points.  By having listened empathetically you will have adapted what you have to say to take into account their point of view thereby expanding your circle of influence – and theirs.

Habit 6 – Synergy

Synergy means creative co-operation where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Habits 4 and 5 will have already started this process.

Synergy is where both parties are lifted out of their own ruts by the influence that each has upon the other.  By working and creating synergy both find new elements to help the realization of their ultimate goals.  Synergy is fundamentally built on trust, utilising principles, openness and character rather than manipulation, intrigue, self-centeredness or defensiveness.

Synergy values difference, as it uses difference to enable new insights.  It involves feeling as well as logiv, because that is how life is.

Habit 7 – Renewal – Sharpening the saw

This habit is the glue that holds the rest together.  Covey uses a story to bring this habit to life.

A man is sawing down a tree.  He is sweating and making slow progress, but is driven to continue.  A passerby asks him why he doesn’t take a break and sharpen the saw; the work would then go faster.  Back came to reply: ‘I haven’t time to sharpen the say; I am too busy sawing’.

Maintenance is essential.  Reviewing ourselves and how we are operating enables us to ensure that we are using all 6 habits and not slipping back into old unfruitful ways.

What is true about renewal for individuals is equally true for organisations.  Any vision needs to be kept alive.  Publishing a vision to your employees is the start of the process not the end.

We all need to take time to sharpen our saw; otherwise we will waste an awful lot of energy using a blunt saw.