I have read the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People many times and taught others its principles. As Covey rightly said “you need to learn to teach and teach to learn”. The first three habits are extremely effective for anyone looking to add structure to their lives in a way that gets them out “the rut”, looking forward and making choices. Habits 1 and 2 (summary below) lead on to the real jewel in the crown of Habit 3, practical steps to bring the theory into practice.
Habit 1: Being Proactive is about taking responsibility for your life. You can’t keep blaming everything on your parents or grandparents. Proactive people recognize that they are “response-able”. They don’t blame genetics, circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behavior. They know they choose their behavior. Instead of reacting to or worrying about conditions over which they have little or no control, proactive people focus their time and energy on things they can control. The problems, challenges, and opportunities we face fall into two areas – Circle of Concern and Circle of Influence. Proactive people focus their efforts on their Circle of Influence. They work on the things they can do something about: health, children, problems at work. Reactive people focus their efforts in the Circle of Concern – things over which they have little or no control: the national debt, terrorism, the weather. Gaining an awareness of the areas in which we expend our energies in is a giant step in becoming proactive.
Habit 2: Habit 2 is based on imagination – the ability to envision in your mind what you cannot at present see with your eyes. It is based on the principle that all things are created twice. There is a mental (first) creation, and a physical (second) creation. The physical creation follows the mental, just as a building follows a blueprint. If you don’t make a conscious effort to visualize who you are and what you want in life, then you empower other people and circumstances to shape you and your life by default. It’s about connecting again with your own uniqueness and then defining the personal, moral, and ethical guidelines within which you can most happily express and fulfill yourself. Begin with the End in Mind means to begin each day, task, or project with a clear vision of your desired direction and destination, and then continue by flexing your proactive muscles to make things happen.
The final habit in the private victory section, Habit 3: putting first things first, invites the reader to build on the foundations set in Habit 1 and 2. As quoted by Covey himself “if Habit 1 says you are the creator, Habit 2, the first creation, then Habit 3 is the second creation, the realization and living of the first two habits”. As Covey also states, Habit 3 cannot be reached until the first two habits have been mastered. This is the crux of Covey’s first three habits in that they are completely linked and build on one another. If read purely on its own, one could imagine that it is just another time-management system added to all the others that have been created. Covey acknowledges this in describing various first, second and third generation time management approaches and goes so far as to say that his particular version moves the process onto the fourth. So what makes Covey’s different. On first sight, not much but when seen in collaboration with Habits 1 & 2, it sets the foundation for long-lasting and effective change.
The basis for putting first things first is firmly grounded in the concept of independent will and self management. That means identifying what is most important to you based on the values and principles found earlier and choosing to schedule them into your weekly activities. It means to proactively know what is in store for you rather than reacting to daily crises and emergencies. Summed up, putting first things first means choosing to concentrate on proactive, preventative activities that are habitual as part of your own value system. Covey exemplifies this in a way that can be used by businesses and individuals alike by showing common activities in four quadrants and what these activities usually are:
Quadrant 1: (important and urgent) contain activities that are usually pressing, crisis and time driven and are usually placed on us by others. By concentrating on these, we become stressed, burnout and are always working on crisis management. These are the activities of the reactive person and where, Covey suggests, most people spend their time.
Quadrant 2 (important and not urgent) is where proactive people centre their activities. Working on such things as prevention, relationship building and production capability, this quadrant nullifies the other quadrants. While there are also stressful, critical activities to master, they are done in the spirit of values and principles.
Quadrant 3 (urgent and not important) is similar to quadrant 1 but contains activities given the wrong priority. People here believe that they are in Q1 but are wasting time on things that make no difference or are trying to make them popular with others.
Quadrant 4 (not urgent and not important) contains the real time wasters. People stuck here just manage to answer a few calls or send a few mails while enjoying trivial and meaningless tasks and trying to look busy at the same time. People here and in Q3 tend to have no responsibility (or want it) and are usually totally dependent on others.
Covey goes on to suggest ways to make sure that we spend more time in Q2 than in the others. The first suggestion unsurprisingly is to learn to say no to activities that will drag us into Q1 particularly. These are often things that are asked of us by others that we feel we have an obligation to do and mainly by people stuck in Q1 themselves. Delegation to others, especially in business is also highly important if time is to be freed up enough to be able to concentrate on the right activities. Covey describes the difference between “gofer” delegation and “stewardship”. By just telling someone to do something and not to come back until it is finished (gofer) creates more problems in the long term. Stewardship on the other hand, allows for a framework with structure, support and consequences for the end of the task. Covey skillfully uses the example of his seven year old son to exemplify this.
The real art of Covey’s Habit 3 is the application of the Q2 tool. This is a method of ensuring that we are prioritizing on the right activities in our schedule. Covey advises to plan over a period of a week and not daily. This is to give a greater overview and to avoid planning for daily crises. Covey says that activities placed in a Q2 schedule should be based on defining the various roles one has in accordance with the mission statement from Habit 2. This could be manager, father, partner and so on. Each week, these roles would have goals which need to be addressed, for example, as a father, a parent evening or as a manager giving an appraisal meeting. Once these are defined, it is a simple case of scheduling and delegating using the weekly worksheet provided by Covey.
Covey’s Habit 3 is, in my opinion an impressive piece of common sense. It is the kind of thing we all know we should do but as most of us are stuck in Q1, we cannot see the “wood from the trees”. As with habits 1 and 2, Covey skillfully builds on his ideas and writes in a convincing and intelligent manner. If the reader is a committed Covey fan, the techniques acquired in Habit 3 can surely make a difference. If there is one thing to be said against the process, it would be that the message comes from a very idealistic point of view and to apply it to extremely stressful situations would be difficult for some people. It is certainly a process that needs constant attention to make sure it is not subdued by daily activities. Covey, though recognizes this and offers encouraging tips for anyone who is prepared to start the journey.