The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People - Stephen R. Covey

Another book from the 'productivity books recommended by my workplace' series. It's a complete contrast to the Mindgym book. Whereas the Mindgym book is non-judgemental psychology-based techniques to improve your work, this is some kind of complete life make-over! It's effectively the boiling-down of a big pile of research into self-improvement writing.

Covey's thesis is that the older writing on the subject is about encouraging virtues - analysing what you do and improving yourself from the inside out, whereas most of the writing from the 20th century is sales-driven surface-improvement which lacks a real core. By trying to choose your fundamental principles, and committing to them, rather than more transient things, you can be successful in ways that are actually meaningful to you.

The 7 habits themselves are pretty straightforward, and I suspect this is just one of several thousand reviews which will now enumerate them: 1) Be proactive. The whole 'you can do what you want' thing. This isn't mindless 'you can achieve anything you want', but the point that you can, through work, control your reactions to things and put yourself in control of those things that you can affect. 2) Begin with the end in mind. i.e. Know what you want to achieve before you start. This is stating the obvious, but in Covey's scheme this is about choosing your principles, and making sure that you don't focus on one thing at the exclusion of other important things. 3) Focus on the important things. The point here being that many people focus on the urgent things, and then relax from that by falling back to trivial things. So, the plan here is to work to reduce the urgent work and then spend the time on important stuff. This, interestingly, is where some of the subtext kicks in. It seems an assumption that you're a manager, and that you can delegate. I'm sure Dr. Covey would disagree with this assessment, but there are many impressively disempowering jobs, where you are actively discouraged from important things. Ho hum.

The first three items are personal management. The next three are about working with others. What's nice to see here is that his examples aren't just from work environments, but also from the home. 4) Think win/win. i.e. try to avoid the zero-sum mentality, and stop making everything a competition! 5) Listen first. Often the other person actually has a point they want to get across, so try not to make assumptions. 6) Synergise. Er, yeah. This is the bit where you get to be really creative with other people, because you're trusting each other, because of 4 and 5. Bit American, that one. :) Finally, habit 7 is to 'Sharpen the saw' - to balance doing stuff with training yourself - take time out from activity to make sure your activity is effective.

The book is highly American - very sincere and massively uncynical, and in many ways the points aren't earth-shattering - if any of the ideas are utterly contraversial to you, you probably have pretty serious problems! On the other hand, it brings together a great set of examples, a vocabulary with which to discuss the ideas, and a good coherence to all the concepts. While it's not the key to all life, revealing hidden secrets, it's a worthwhile read if you want to have a think about how to organise yourself.

Posted 2009-06-28.