The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – 4 takeaways from a powerful book

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey is probably the book that had the most overall impact on my life. Other impactful books mostly touched my professional life. This one not only did that, but also changed my life outside of work. It impacted my character.

After all, the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is basically a book about character building. Stephen Covey rejects the slightly egoistic notion that most modern (the book was written in 1989) self-help books promote in his view. Instead, he urges to focus on what he calls character ethic. This is essentially a principle-based approach to life.

The book is extremely dense and packed with advice. I will first summarize the seven habits themselves before diving into my own personal takeaways.


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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

The book introduces – who would have guessed – seven habits:

  1. Be proactive
  2. Begin with the end in mind
  3. Put first things first
  4. Think win-win
  5. Seek to understand, and then to be understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the saw

The first three habits deal with self-mastery. They are the “private victories” on the individual’s journey from dependence to independence. The next three habits are about becoming effective with others. They are “public victories” and improve teamwork, collaboration, and communication skills on the journey from independence to interdependence. Finally, the seventh habit is about continuous improvement. 

Let’s tackle these one by one.

1. Be proactive

This habit is all about adopting a mindset that is proactive, as opposed to reactive. We have a choice to actively shape our life instead of being a victim of circumstances. We need to take on responsibility. After all, the word responsibility comes from response-ability. We need to actively use this ability. 

Being proactive is very visible in the type of language we use. Saying “I can’t come because I don’t have time and I have to do something” is passive. Alternatively, saying “I will not come, because I don’t want to spend the time, I want to focus that time on another activity” essentially means the same but carries a completely different vibe. It is proactive. 

It signals that I am in charge and consciously making the choice on how to spend my time. The outcome of the two phrases is exactly the same but the feeling is entirely different.

Being proactive means actively shaping our life and focusing on what we can control. In this context, the circle of concern and the circle of influence is an interesting concept to ponder.

A depiction of the Circle of Concern and Influence

The circle of concern is everything we care and worry about. It is always bigger than the circle of influence. Those are the things we can directly influence. In case the circles are of significantly differing sizes we will be very unhappy because we are constantly worrying about things out of our control. 

In that case we can do two things. Either decrease the size of the circle of concern, i.e., care about less, or increase the circle of influence, i.e. gain more power. The closer the two are in size the happier we will end up being. 

2. Begin with the end in mind

To begin with the end in mind means to know where you want to go in life. It means creating a clear vision of what you want to achieve and taking the necessary steps to achieve it.

In this context, Covey introduces different “centers” in life that people may have. Some may be family centered, others possession centered, others work centered, and there are a few more centers. Depending on what is at the center of your life, you will subconsciously react differently in different situations. 

While there is nothing wrong with any of these centers, life will be much more fulfilling if you have principles that are your center that guide your actions in life. As such, we should try to figure out what those principles are and thus become principle centered, ideally with a personal, principle centered mission statement.    

3. Put first things first

The third habit is all about time management and prioritization. We need to identify what is truly important and focus our time on that. In this context, Covey suggests using an Eisenhower Matrix to structure our tasks. 

It was slightly unintuitive for me at first but most of our time should be focused on Quadrant two in the Matrix (important-not urgent). This is where the truly long-term value generating (and principle centered) activities lay. 

Of course we need to deal with Quadrant one (urgent-important) and solve crises or pressing issues. However, we should try to do this as efficiently as possible and – if possible – delegate those tasks. 

Anything that is not important and in Quadrant three and four should be reduced as much as possible. That means saying no, a lot, and using Pareto to deal with calls, meetings, etc.. Similarly to what Cal Newport notes in the book Deep Work it is important to remember that being busy does not mean being effective.

4. Think Win-Win 

The fourth of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People means thinking in outcomes that are mutually beneficial instead of favoring one side over the other. When looking for solutions to problems we need to find those that benefit all involved parties and be ready to not strike a deal if this cannot be achieved (Win-Win or no deal).

In business, as an organization, we need to align our reward system with our goals and values and have the systems in place to support Win-Win.

Moreover, we should adopt an Abundance Mentality. This is the belief that the world is big enough so that there is plenty out there for everyone. Life is not a zero-sum game with winners and losers but instead offers enough for everyone. 

5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood

This one is pretty straight forward. Listen to truly understand without rushing to give advice. Listening, especially empathic listening, is a skill that we can and should learn. 

When listening to others, far too quickly do we start to give advice or relate the situation our conversational partner is in to our own life. We need to learn to truly listen and try to feel what the other is feeling before rushing in to try and help. This may seem straightforward. However, it is pretty difficult to actually do in practice, at least in my experience.

6. Synergize

Synergize is about effectively working with others to jointly achieve greater results than you could alone. It is about valuing the different perspectives that people bring and using this diversity to create something that is greater than the sum of the parts. 

We need to be open to different points of view, value the differences, and be open to divert from a plan. Then, we can jointly achieve greatness. 

7. Sharpen the saw

The final of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective people is about continuous self-care and self-improvement. We need to regularly engage in activities that improve our physical, mental, social, and spiritual well-being. These are essentially our personal Quadrant Two (important, not urgent) activities that we need to care about every day in order to sustain effectiveness in other fields.

My takeaways from the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

As some other books have done as well, this book had a profound impact on my life. It is so densely packed with advice that it´s not easy to limit myself in this space to four concepts that resonated most with me:

  • Efficiency vs. Effectiveness
  • The principle centered life
  • Active language and the circle of concern
  • The balance of production and production capacity 

Efficiency vs. Effectiveness

This may be straightforward to some (many?) but it wasn´t to me at the time when I first read the book: truly understanding the difference between efficiency and effectiveness.

Most people have likely heard the saying that efficiency is doing the things right and effectiveness is doing the right things. Not until I read this book, did I understand that effectiveness has so much more leverage than efficiency.

Don´t get me wrong, being efficient is extremely important. Doing things the right way and producing output of high quality is something to strive for. However, you first need to make the right decision on what to focus your time on, what to be efficient about. 

Effectiveness is therefore upstream from efficiency. If you make the wrong choice, if you focus on the wrong activities, if you are ineffective, you can be as efficient as you want. You will still be wasting time.

It was not the only reason but it surely had an impact on me becoming a Product Owner. This is the role in Scrum that enables effective product development. It is the role that ensures effective product development, that a hopefully efficient development team builds the product thath is actually needed.

The principle centered life

To me, the main message of the second habit, begin with the end in mind, was determining the principles or values that are most important to me in my personal and professional life. It caused me to sit down, formulate a personal mission statement and write down my core principles in life.

I also found it very helpful to think about the different roles I take on every day (husband, father, teacher, student…) and define how I want to live those roles. The book advises making quarterly and weekly plans based on those roles and principles. 

At one point I actually took the book’s advice and implemented this fully. In the end for me, this was too much overhead and I have now settled into a semi-regular review where I go through my mission statement, my principles and roles and evaluate whether I am satisfied with how I am living them.

Active language and the circle of concern

The entire habit of being proactive immediately resonated with me. It feels incredibly empowering to realize that I am in charge of how I respond to circumstances. It’s also surprising how often we default to passive language. I noticed it everywhere after reading this chapter.

I am now very conscious about using active language. It doesn’t always work out but I try my best. It’s simple things like saying “I will not be joining this meeting” instead of “I can’t join this meeting”. You might not even notice a difference. To me, though, it makes me feel more honest, reliable, and authentic.

The concept of the circle of concern and influence is also very powerful. I realized that my circle of concern was significantly larger than the circle of influence. Thus, I started drastically reducing the size of my circle of concern. I rarely follow the news anymore, I reduced the role of social media in my life and deleted accounts, and I in general try to not care about things out of my control.

Overall, I think this has led to a more balanced me and given me more time that I can choose to spend on the things that I actually want to spend it on.  

The balance of production and production capacity 

Covey focuses on the balance of Production (P) and Production Capacity (PC), on the P/PC balance, as he calls it. 

Production is an abstract concept and generally means getting things done in the short term. This can be producing a blog post, actual physical products, or a clean version of my daughter’s room. Production Capacity is the capability or assets to produce the outputs.

To be successful and healthy in the long run we need to strike the P/PC balance, making sure we create short term results while keeping and honing our capability to produce.

For a blog post, I can stay up all night to write one. Thus, I have focused on P and created output. However, this will surely hurt my PC for the next day.

For the production of physical products, I can’t run the production line at full capacity without ever maintaining it. At some point it will break down. At the same time, I can’t stop production, disassemble the entire production line, clean, and replace every screw. I still need to produce parts so that the company will continue to exist. I need to strike a P/PC balance between producing parts and maintaining the machines.

For my daughter’s room, I can focus on P and quickly clean it myself or I can go through the struggle to try and convince her to clean it herself (likely with my help 😉). The latter will mean a lot of extra time spent in the short term but (hopefully) lead to her at some point being able to clean it herself. It’s a more balanced approach.

The concept of P/PC balance is almost universally applicable. That’s what makes it so powerful. I frequently remind myself of the balance whenever I realize that I drifted too far in the direction of either P or PC.

The book is densely packed with advice

I think this might be the longest text I have ever published (thanks if you got this far 😊). It makes sense. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is so dense, so full of advice that I could have gone on for another 2000 words. 

Hopefully, I was able to provide the essence and a feeling of the impact it can have. I highly recommend reading this book. If that’s not possible, maybe this summary already has an effect. I can honestly attest that the book made me a happier person.