Stephen Covey: 7 Habits Model

By Mark Connelly       Updated: 12 September 2020

Stephen Covey reviewed 200 years of success literature and crystallized what he learned into seven habits that took the world by storm in 1989.

More than three decades later The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People continues to be an influential business book delivering powerful lessons in personal change.

The seven habits are not a quick and easy formula for success. But together they form a powerful model for personal change and leading change.

All You Need To Know About The 7 Habits

This page provides you with an excellent overview of the seven habits. However, it's best to read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People as there's a wealth of information in the book that you are not going to find on any web pages.

I really recommend Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In fact, I first listened to Stephen Covey speaking about the seven habits on a set of CD's and it was useful to go back to this as I read the book. Have a look at the CD's, DVD's and books that are available and get your copy now.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens, published in 1998, adds value to the seven habits model, and helps to make it more accessible.

Empower Yourself - Step by Step

Stephen R. Covey emphasizes a return to principles or values in order to achieve change in our lives. The seven habits are a step by step model that empower you make decisions and take action rather than reacting to events around you.

The reason I favor this model is that it has strong links to Emotional Intelligence and emphasizes the importance of self awareness before successful engagement with others.

Stephen Covey suggests that this model is a process of learning new habits that are aligned with the seven habits he presents in his book.

Learning a new habit is not easy. It takes time and practice. For most of us this is a big ask! But if you're willing to make the time and put in the practice then Stephen Covey is the best place to start.

Stephen Covey: What Are The Seven Habits?

The seven habits are not intended to be a formula that we can just apply and be "better". Stephen Covey says that the seven habits build on each other to create personal and interpersonal effectiveness.

The seven habits are divided into two groups of three which focus on:

  • "Private Victory" (personal change), and
  • "Public Victory" (interacting with others).

According to Covey it's essential to master personal change before we can enjoy success outside of ourselves and with others.

If you're paying attention you'll realize that one habit is missing from this formula. The last habit (number 7) focuses on sustaining these habits and continuing development.

Habit 1: Be Proactive

Being proactive is more than just taking action. In this first habit Stephen Covey tells us we are responsible for our reactions to people or events. We are Response-able and have Response-ability because we have the ability to consciously choose how we respond to any situation.

Stephen Covey makes the point that humans can think things through and don't need to be caught up in simple stimulus --> response patterns like Pavlov's dogs. To be proactive is to choose your response rather than relying on instinctive reactions.

So, what's your Response-ability like? Stephen Covey introduces the story of Viktor Frankl to emphasise the point that we have the freedom to choose our response to whatever happens to us. Frankl was a psychiatrist and is well known for his theory of Logotherapy and publishing "Man's Search for Meaning". While enduring Nazi concentration camps Frankl realised that we can always choose our response, no matter what happens to us.

"Man's Search for Meaning" is essential reading, by the way, and should be high on your list. It's an easy powerful read.

People who do not consider their reactions are reactive and often blame others or things outside of themselves for what happens. They don't take any responsibility. They'd say I failed the paper because the examiner doesn't like me.

Proactive people take responsibility for their response, often looking for what they can learn from what happened. They might say I failed the paper...maybe I didn't spend enough time learning, or didn't plan my time. What can I do differently next time?

The Circle of Influence

To help you develop proactivity Stephen Covey introduces the concept of the Circle of Concern and Circle of Influence.

He says proactive people focus their time and energy in the Circle of Influence where they work on things they can do something about.

This is a powerful metaphor and I use it often in organizations involved with change. It's a tool that helps people identify what's important and what they can do to positively influence their future rather than feeling like a pawn on a chessboard.

Habit 2: Begin With The End In Mind

When I read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People I was struck by the wonderful metaphors that Stephen Covey uses to help us understand the points he makes. For example, he talks about how easy it is to get caught up in the busy-ness of life, working hard to climb the ladder of success, only to discover that all this time the ladder has been leaning against the wrong wall. I find this a very simple and powerful image.

It's this metaphor that Stephen Covey uses to describe Habit 2, Begin With The End In Mind. It's a simple idea really and is about making an effort to start with a clear understanding of your destination and where you are going. Making sure your ladder is up against the right wall before you start climbing.

This is essentially about planning so that we know where we are going all the time instead of being busy with day to day activities that actually take us nowhere. Taking the time to see the bigger picture, to plan where we are heading, leads to personal effectiveness.

"“Begin with the end in mind” is based on the principle that all things are created twice. There’s a mental or first creation, and a physical or second creation to all things.” Stephen Covey makes the point that everything is created twice, first in the mind and then in reality.

If you're building a house you plan every detail with architects drawings, builders and landscapers according to what you want to create. Only then does the physical work begin.

Before you go on a holiday you've usually planned the trip very carefully before you set foot out of your front door. If you're giving a business presentation you plan it before you present it.

The question of course is why we neglect to do this when it comes to our own lives? Life throws so many things at us that keep us so busy that often we have never thought about where we are heading and if what we are doing is taking us closer to, or further from our destination.

Stephen Covey provides many effective ways to begin this level of planning in your personal life together with lots of examples. He also provides very useful suggestions for applying the ideas he has presented at the end of each 'habit' chapter.

Habit 3: Put First Things First

This is the last of the habits that deals with self awareness and "Private Victory".

Stephen Covey recommends that you identify what is important to do in order to keep you heading towards your destination, and then do those things.

Ok, so how do you know what's important and what is not? It's about managing our time and what we do in that time.

Now, I have always struggled with traditional time management ideas. I resist being told that I must manage my time better, or worse, being told how to manage my time. Stephen Covey has a 4-quadrant time management model that actually got me interested in thinking about how I manage my time.

Covey spends a lot of time working with this model and emphasizing that we should aim to spend our time in Quadrant II.

This is where you focus on activities that are important to your values and goals, but that are not urgent.

"If we don't practice Habit 2, if we don't have a clear idea of what is important, of the results we desire in our lives, we are easily diverted into responding to the urgent".

The urgent things are often those things that keep us away from focusing on what is important.

As with the other habits Stephen Covey provides lots of practical thoughts and examples to help you develop and practice Habit 3 including a useful template for a weekly worksheet (printed in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) to help you focus your week on what is important to you.

Habit 4: Think Win/Win

Habit 4 is the first of the Habits dealing with what Covey calls interdependence - working effectively with other people. In describing each habit Stephen Covey shares powerful insights and "Think Win/Win" is no exception.

Stephen Covey makes the point that the habit of effective interpersonal leadership is Think Win/Win.

This is the habit of always looking for a solution that benefits you AND the other person or group. What's fascinating is that the solution is usually unexpected. "Win/Win is a belief in the Third Alternative. It's not your way or my way; it's a better way, a higher way".

Most of us will say "yeah, yeah, we know this already. Win/Win's the way to go..." It's almost as if it's the socially acceptable attitude. But in reality people are likely to act in their own best interest and when we look we find a 'Win/Lose', 'Lose/Win', or just a plain 'Win' scenario playing out.

After all, many of us are brought up to believe that winning is everything. I just have to watch the dad's on the side of their kids sports field to see this! So in reality this is a habit to be learned and practiced.

Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

Stephen Covey believes this principle is the key to effective interpersonal communication. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

This habit is about communicating with others. It's about developing the habit of listening carefully and really understanding the other person BEFORE giving your thoughts.

This is not easy to learn to do. In my practice I've often heard people saying that no-one really understands what they're feeling. If you're a parent you might hear that from your teenage son or daughter (I do!).

This is because we often feel compelled to give an opinion or to give advice to someone in need. Couples in counselling typically spend more time trying to get their partner to understand their position than they spend listening and understanding their partner's position.

I really enjoy the examples that Stephen Covey shares to demonstrate this habit, especially the conversations between a father and his teenage son.

Listening to these on the CD version of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People really captures the humour that becomes apparent when we realise the ways we often "listen" and respond, even when we have good intentions.

So start practicing this right now. Have fun with it! In your next conversation with someone put your natural and automatic responses aside and focus on genuinely understanding them.

Ask questions such as "Tell me more..." or "What happened next...?".

Spend time with your children, your partner, your colleague, or even your boss, working to genuinely understand them before you respond.

You'll find that when you 'seek first to understand' your response might be different to what you expect, and that you start finding the creative solutions and third alternatives described in habit 4.

Habit 6: Synergize

Dictionary definition: syn·er·gy [sin-er-jee]

1. The interaction of two or more agents or forces so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects.
2. Cooperative interaction among groups, especially among the acquired subsidiaries or merged parts of a corporation, that creates an enhanced combined effect.

The word synergy comes from the Greek synergos meaning working together.

Stephen Covey says,“Synergy is everywhere in nature. If you plant two plants close together, the roots commingle and improve the quality of the soil so that both plants will grow better than if they were separated. If you put two pieces of wood together, they will hold much more than the total weight held by each separately. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. One plus one equals three or more.”

In Habit 6 Covey directs our attention to the power of effective relationships. We can achieve so much more when we engage in effective relationships with others than if we acted alone.

Stephen Covey notes that synergy is difficult for many of us as independence is promoted as a strong value in the Western world today.

Achieving synergy requires high trust and high cooperation and can lead to better solutions than anyone thought of alone. Habits 4, 5, and 6 work together and create an opportunity to discover alternative and creative solutions.

If you're concerned about synergy because you know you don't trust people easily it's ok - go back to habit 1 and Be Proactive about your response to situations or other people.

You don't have to get it all right first time. This is part of a life journey of learning and developing. You will get there if you're willing to spend the time and effort developing new habits.

Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw

Habit 7 is about looking after yourself. You are the greatest asset you have and we have to learn to take time to look after ourselves. Stephen Covey suggests we pay attention to four areas in our lives:

Physical: Exercise, Nutrition, Stress Management
Spiritual: Value Clarification and Commitment, Study and Meditation
Mental: Reading, Visualizing, Planning, Writing
Social/Emotional: Service, Empathy, Synergy, Intrinsic Security.

When I work with someone who has experienced extreme stress to the point of 'breakdown' we often find that their lives have been narrowly focused on work and home. They go to work (often working overtime) and go home simply to eat and sleep so they can go to work again! Is this you? The most important thing you can start doing now is looking after yourself by focusing on the four areas above.

Stephen Covey tells the story of meeting someone who has been sawing down a tree for more than 5 hours. When you suggest that they take a break and sharpen their saw so the job might go faster they tell you they don't have time to sharpen the saw because they're too busy sawing!

It's so easy to get caught up in the demands of life, or even developing the Habits, that we forget to look after ourselves.

In reality it's very unlikely that anyone else is going to step in and do it for you. Covey writes "We are the instruments of our own performance, and to be effective, we need to recognize the importance of taking time regularly to sharpen the saw in all four ways".

All four dimensions of renewal are thoroughly investigated and Stephen Covey ends this chapter with a discussion about the importance of renewal in our lives, and thinking of this as an upward spiral of growth, change, and continuous improvement.

Find out more about work life balance.

Personal and Professional  Change

Stephen Covey provides a useful diagram in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People illustrating how the seven habits work together.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is a powerful book containing effective principles for personal change and for leading change in organisations.

Other authors and commentators have noted that the equivalent of an entire library of success literature is found in this one volume and that there are many more than seven good reasons to read this book.

I highly recommend this book and the practice of the principles contained in it. You really should get a copy or download an audio version!

An 8th Habit?

Stephen Covey published The 8th Habit in 2004 to answer challenges presented by a world that had significantly changed since 1989 when The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People was originally published.

"The 8th not about adding one more habit to the 7 - one that somehow got forgotten. It's about seeing and harnessing the power of a third dimension to the 7 Habits that meets the central challenge of the new Knowledge Worker Age. This 8th Habit is to Find Your Voice and Inspire Others to Find Theirs" and is available in print, audio download or DVD.

Intrigued? Get some Stephen Covey on your bookshelf or in your CD collection. You will not be sorry.

Like This Page?