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The Seven Habits - revisiting one of the business book classics

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10th Dec 2013
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Graham Allcott revisits a classic for this festive period.

Stephen Covey’s book 'The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People' is one of the seminal books written on the subject of personal development and self management. Originally published in 1989, it became an instant best-seller, even prompting US President Bill Clinton to call up Covey and invite him to help him integrate the principles of '7 Habits' into his administration. My view is that no one will ever be perfect at all seven habits, so that means a quick refresher will always be useful.

Habit 1 - Be proactive

Being proactive is about knowing where you have the ability or authority to take action, versus the things that you have no control over. Smart people don’t blame their surroundings or make excuses - they learn to accept and react to the things they can’t control, but to take affirmative action to solve the problems within their control.

Habit 2 - Begin with the end in mind

Covey invites you to spend time thinking about your ‘personal mission statement’. Imagine being a fly on the wall at your own funeral. What do you want people to be saying about you? What is the mark you’ve left on the world? Who remembers you, and for what character traits? Thinking about your legacy as being one that you deliberately choose is a great way to delve deeper into your own values and goals. The end point becomes your compass as you make the day-to-day decisions right now.

Habit 3 - Put first things first

'Don’t prioritise your schedule, schedule priorities' is a fantastic piece of advice. Some of the time management advice in the book seems a little dated now but the idea of looking at your work through the lenses of urgent and important - and placing particular emphasis on making sure ‘quiet priorities’ are structured into your days to save them being forever neglected - is as useful as ever.

Habit 4 - Think win-win

Covey talks inspiringly of developing an ‘abundance mentality’: the idea that so much of our behaviour in work and in life is driven by a ‘zero-sum mentality’, where there are scarce resources, where everyone is in competition with each other and where if I’m to win, you must lose. The abundance mentality is the ultimate in turning the Gordon Gekko 'greed is good' mantra on its’ head. What if instead of win-lose, we focussed on co-operation and win-win? Co-operation is a much better strategy for work and life. When you achieve success or receive resources (both material and emotional), share them and demonstrate that you have more than you need. Like magic, you’ll find that you build up goodwill with so many people, that their successes are shared with you too. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.

Habit 5 - Seek first to understand, then to be understood

This is probably my favourite of the seven habits. Listening is the most important communication skill there is. Practising ‘empathic listening’ in your conversations with people is about approaching the world through their frame of reference, not yours. Of course, it’s possible to deeply understand someone and have a great handle on the way they see the world, even if you still disagree with them. It’s all about diagnosing the situation before you prescribe a solution ('the amateur salesman sells a product, the professional salesman sells a solution to a problem'). So, next time you’re in a conversation with someone, try listening less with your ears and more with your eyes and your heart. You’ll be surprised how powerful that can be.

Habit 6 - Synergise

OK, so a book that sells that many million copies will have inevitably spawned its fair share of cringey business-speak. In simple terms, synergise means seeking the areas of shared purpose in a situation and being respectful and mindful that there may also be differences too. Again, it’s about working for collaboration and being respectful of others.

Habit 7 - Sharpen the saw

This is most definitely the habit that a lot of people neglect the most: renewal. Covey focuses on four dimensions of renewal: physical, mental, social/emotional and spiritual. He argues that if we don’t take some time out to rest and recuperate, we risk burnout. Also, this rest time doubles up as our time to reflect on what we’re doing, check our progress and form ideas to improve or change tack. So ‘sharpening the saw’ is actually what makes the other six habits work well.

We all generally know what's good for us and we know that most of that common sense and cliched stuff does actually work. Similarly, Covey’s work often articulates things that we instinctively already knew - but crucially he also tells us that 'just knowing' alone is useless, and inspires us to take some action instead.

Graham Allcott is the founder of Think Productive, which provides productivity workshops to some of the UK's leading companies. He's also the author of "How to be a Productivity Ninja".

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