Mental Pivot

Notes and observations from a lifelong pursuit of learning.

Insights and interesting reads delivered straight to your inbox.
Sign up for the free Mental Pivot Newsletter.

Book Notes: “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey


The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey (1989) is a modern classic in the self-improvement genre. The book opens with the assertion that perception shapes reality. Covey follows that in order to change our reality we must change our underlying beliefs. To this end, Covey champions a “character ethic” approach to life. Character ethics are “timeless principles” like integrity, fidelity, courage and justice. This is in contrast to “personality ethics” which Covey defines as quick fixes, shallow aphorisms and public image techniques (the sorts of things espoused by most self-help literature). This focus on character ethics is part of a concept Covey calls the “Inside-Out approach”: we must work on our character first (the "inside") before we can start to effectively influence others or see the positive manifestations in our life (the "outside").

The majority of the book is structured around this “Inside-Out” idea. The first three habits are grouped into a section titled “Private Victory.” The goal of habits 1-3 are the improvement of the individual (the "inside"). These include ideas of personal responsibility (“be proactive”), long-term planning (“begin with the end in mind”) and effective prioritization and decision-making (“put first things first”). Habits 4-6 are the “Public Victory” habits; they pertain to our interactions with the outside world. A successful expression of these habits is contingent on an understanding of the initial “Private Victory” habits. These habits include the adoption of an abundance mindset in our interpersonal interactions (Habit 4: “think win-win”), learning to communicate better through empathetic listening (Habit 5: “seek first to understand, then to be understood”) and cooperating creatively with others by embracing complementary differences (Habit 6: “synergize”). The final habit, “sharpen the saw,” is about attending to your physical, spiritual, mental and emotional health so that you are able to effectively practice and improve upon the first six habits.

Despite being published over 40 years ago, 7 Habits remains as relevant as ever for those looking for solid personal development advice. True to his word, Covey eschews trendiness and quick fixes and successfully delivers timeless advice and wisdom. He does meander at times and is prone to overly long anecdotes, but I can easily recommend this book without hesitation.

Pros: Covey’s ideas hold up surprisingly well and are still very relevant for the present-day reader.

Cons: Some of Covey’s anecdotes ramble on for longer than necessary. Non-Christian readers may find too many Christian or biblical references.

Verdict: 9/10

Notes & Highlights

Part One: Paradigms and Principles

  • Your perception shapes your reality: Examine the lens through which you view the world in order to understand yourself and make effective change.
  • “If we wanted to change the situation, we first had to change ourselves. And to change ourselves effectively, we first had to change our perceptions.”
  • The “character ethic” vs. the “personality ethic”:

    • Character ethics: integrity, humility, fidelity, temperance, courage, justice, patience, industry, simplicity, modesty and the Golden Rule.

      • Benjamin Franking as an exponent of this ethos.
      • The integration of core principles and habits into one’s life.
    • Personality ethics: positive mental attitude (PMA) and human and public relations techniques.

      • Quick-fix influence techniques, power strategies, communication skills and positive attitudes.
      • Maxims such as “your attitude determines your altitude” and “smiling wins more friends than frowning.”
      • Success is a function of personality, public image, attitudes and behaviors, skills and techniques.
  • Covey is a strong proponent of the character

  • Covey is a strong proponent of the character ethic which he sees a deeper, less superficial and more effective approach. Personality ethics, while useful, are secondary.
  • Value-based motives are the primary drivers behind our behaviors.
  • “If there isn’t deep integrity and fundamental character strength, the challenges of life will cause true motives to surface and human relationship failure will replace short-term success.”
  • “What we are communicates far more eloquently than anything we say or do.”
  • “Paradigms”: The models, assumptions and theories we use to understand the world.

    • Paradigms can be understood as maps. A way to make sense of the world.
    • But we must remember: The map is not the territory. That is, a map is just a simplification or explanation of a thing. Not the thing itself. We sometimes lose sight of this fact and confuse the map for the territory.
  • Types of maps we use:

    • Maps of the way things are (based on our perception of reality).
    • Maps of the way things should be (based on our values).
  • “We interpret everything we experience through these mental maps. We seldom question their accuracy; we’re usually even unaware that we have them.”
  • “To try to change outward attitudes and behaviors does very little good in the long run if we fail to examine the basic paradigms from which those attitudes and behaviors flow.”
  • We each believe that we possess an objective view of the world. In fact, we see the world as we have been conditioned to see it.
  • “Paradigm Shift”

    • Term introduced by Thomas Kuhn in his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.”

    • A paradigm shift is when an individual or society shifts its way of thinking from one framework to another.

      • Example: Shift from a geocentric view of the Solar System (e.g. planets revolve around Earth) to a heliocentric view of the Solar System (e.g. planets revolve around the sun) through the observations of Copernicus and others.
    • Shifts can be both positive and negative.

    • New information can result in paradigm or perceptual shifts.

      • Example of the subway car. A father and his rowdy children enter a subway car, annoying the author. After scolding the father, the author discovers that the family has just left the hospital where the mother of the children recently died. The author’s perception of the situation shifts with the revelation of this new information.
    • Not all shifts are instantaneous. Some are slow, difficult and deliberate.

  • Principles are deep, fundamental truths that have universal application.

    • Examples of principles: fairness, integrity, honesty, human dignity, service, excellence, potential, growth.
    • Principles are not values. Principles are the territory. Values are the maps.
    • Principles are not practices: A practice is a specific activity or action.
  • Taking shortcuts to self-improvement often leads to disappointment and frustration.
  • Albert Einstein: “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”
  • The “Inside-Out” approach: Start with your paradigms, character and motives in order to effect external changes in your life.
  • Habits: The intersection of knowledge, skill and desire.

    • Knowledge is the theoretical paradigm.
    • Skills is the how or means by which something is accomplished.
    • Desire is the motivation.
  • The “maturity continuum” represents stages of growth:

    • Dependence paradigm: You take care of me; I blame you for the results.
    • Independence paradigm: I can do it. I am responsible. I can choose.
    • Interdependence paradigm: We can do it. We can cooperate.
  • The "P / PC Balance" paradigm:

    • P represents "production output". This is what is produced. Example: Golden eggs (laid by a golden goose).
    • PC represents "production capability". This is the asset or means of production. Example: The golden goose (which generates golden eggs).
    • Effectiveness lies in the blance of P / PC.
    • A person cannot be productive if they are only focused on the "P." Attention must be given to maintenance and improvement of the underlying asset, the "PC." In the case of self-improvement, the "PC" is you, the individual.

Part Two: Private Victory

Habit 1: Be Proactive

  • Self-awareness: The uniquely human ability to examine our paradigms and determine if they are principle-based or the function of conditioning and poor assumptions.

  • 3 theories of determinism:

    • Genetic: “your grandparents did it to you.”
    • Psychic: “your parents did it to you” (via your upbringing/childhood).
    • Environmental: “something in your environment is responsible…”
  • Victor Frankl: people have the freedom to choose.

  • Proactivity:

    • We are responsible for our own lives.
    • Our behavior is a function of our decisions (not our conditions).
    • Subordinate you feelings to you values.
    • Take the initiative and responsibility to make things happen.
  • Responsibility = “Response-ability”: The ability to choose your response.

  • “Highly proactive people…do not blame circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behavior. Their behavior is a product of their own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product of their conditions, based on feeling.”

  • Reactive people allow themselves to be at the mercy of their conditions and the environment.

  • “I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday.”

  • Frankl’s three central values in life:

    1. Experiential: What happens to us.
    2. Creative: What we bring into existence.
    3. Attitudinal: Our response to circumstances.
  • Language as a frame for proactive and reactive thinking:

    • Reactive language: That’s just me. That’s how things are. There’s nothing I can do about it. I’m not responsible. I can’t do it. I don’t have the time. I have to do it. If only. If I had…
    • Proactive language: I will. I can. I choose. I will fix this.
  • Circle of Concern vs. Circle of Influence:

    • The circle of influence is a subset of the circle of concern.
    • Proactive people focus on their “circle of influence”: i.e. those things over which they have control and can do something about.
    • Reactive people focus on their “circle of concern”: the wide range of issues and problems in which, in many instances, they have no control.
  • Types of problems:

    • Direct control: Problems involving our own behavior.

      • Can be solved by working on our habits.
    • Indirect control: Problems involving other people’s behavior.

      • Can be solved by changing our methods of influence.
    • No control: Problems such as our past or situational realities.

      • Can be dealt with through acceptance and our attitude.
  • We can choose our actions but we don’t get to choose the outcomes or consequences of those actions. We can, however, choose to accept our mistakes, learn from them and grow as a result.

  • Making and keeping commitments with ourselves is a critical part of developing effective habits.

Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind

  • Exercise: Imagine your funeral. Friends and loved ones are in attendance. What do they say about you? What are you remembered for and what do they remember about your as a person?
  • Examine your decisions through the lens of a long-term perspective.
  • “Make certain that whatever you do on any particular day does not violate the criteria you have defined as supremely important, and that each day of your life contributes in a meaningful way to the vision you have of your life as a whole.”
  • “Know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.”
  • Peter Drucker: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
  • Leadership is difficult because we are often caught in a management paradigm.
  • A “personal mission statement” as an effective tool for this habit:

    • What you want to be (character).
    • What you want to do (contributions and achievements).
    • The values and principles you will use.
  • Personal mission statement may take weeks and even months to craft. Once written it should be reviewed and revised regularly.
  • A mission statement is your personal constitution: an expression of your vision and values.
  • Ideally the mission statement will align your behaviors and beliefs and help you prioritize the choices you make.
  • Ingredients of a good affirmation:

    • Personal
    • Positive
    • Present tense
    • Visual
    • Emotion
  • Affirmations are a way to remind yourself regularly of your personal mission and your goals. Can be done daily.
  • Affirmation example: “It is deeply satisfying (emotional) that I (personal) respond (present tense) with wisdom, love, firmness and self-control (positive) when my children misbehave.” (Then meditate and VISUALIZE situations in your mind and consider your response).
  • Roles and goals as a framework for structuring your personal mission.

    • Example: “Father: I help my children experience joy in their lives.”
    • Example: “Scholar: I learn important new things every day.”

Habit 3: Put First Things First

  • Goethe: “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”
  • Independent will makes effective self-management possible: “the ability to make decisions and choices and to act in accordance with them.”
  • Independent will is a function of our personal integrity: can we make and keep commitments with ourselves?

    • Leadership decides what “first things” are.
    • Management is the discipline of carrying out those decisions.
  • E.M. Gray: “The successful person has the habit of doing the things failures don’t like to do. They don’t like doing them either…but their disliking is subordinated to the strength of their purpose.”

  • Four generations of time management:

    1. Notes and checklists.
    2. Calendars and appointment books.
    3. Prioritization and goal setting.
    4. Manage yourself rather than manage time
  • Decision-making matrix (similar to the Eisenhower matrix):
(Image from
  • Peter Drucker: “Effective people are not problem-minded; they’re opportunity-minded. They feed opportunities and starve problems. They think preventatively.”
  • Learn to say “yes” to more Quadrant II priorities and to say “no” to issues from the other quadrants.
  • Computer metaphor for the first 3 habits:

    • Habit 1: You’re the programmer.
    • Habit 2: Write the program.
    • Habit 3: Run the program.
  • Effective delegation is one of the highest ROI activities available to successful people.

  • Two types of delegation:

    • Gofer delegation: Focused on the method.
    • Stewardship delegation: Focused on results rather than methods.
  • Stewardship delegation expectations:

    • Desired results: Create clear understanding on what needs to be done. Focus on the what or desired outcome NOT on the methods.
    • Guidelines: Identify any necessary parameters (minimize if possible).
    • Resources: Identify the human, financial, technical and organizational resources available to the agent.
    • Accountability: Establish the measures for evaluating results.
    • Consequences: Establish what will happen, positive or negative, as a result of the evaluation.

Part Three: Public Victory

  • The “Emotional Bank Account”: Metaphor that describes the amount of trust that has been built up in a relationship.
  • The more courtesy, kindness, honesty and commitment you show to another person, the greater trust you build with that person.
  • Ways to build the Emotional Bank Account (“deposits”):

    1. Understanding the individual. Understand what is important to the other person (and treat it as importantly as they do).
    2. Attending to the little things. Small courtesies and acts of kindness can loom large in the minds of those you help.
    3. Keeping commitments and holding to your promises.
    4. Clarifying expectations. Helps avoid misunderstandings and improves interpersonal communication.
    5. Showing personal integrity. Treat everyone by the same set of principles.
    6. Apologizing sincerely when you make a withdrawal

Habit 4: Think Win-Win

  • Six paradigms of human interaction:

    • Win-Win: Seeks mutual benefit in human interactions. Life is cooperative, positive-sum game.
    • Win-Lose: Competitive and adversarial. External comparisons with others. Winning comes at another’s expense (consider our approach to litigation).
    • Lose-Win: “I lose, you win.” “Go ahead, have your way with me.” Permissive, indulgent. Win-Lose people use Lose-Win people. Lose-Win people bury their true feelings.
    • Lose-Lose: The result of two stubborn, egotistical individuals. Each wants to “get back” or “get even” with the other.
    • Win: This person only cares about what they get. What the other party gets is irrelevant. Let the other party do as they will.
    • Win-Win or No Deal: “Higher expression of win-win.” If both parties can’t arrive at a win-win outcome, they agree to call off the deal or interaction. The “no deal” part of this framework gives you the option to go your separate ways rather than fall back to a less desirable outcome (like win-lose, lose-win, lose-lose, etc.).
  • Four types of consequences (rewards and penalties):

    • Financial: Income, stock options, allowances, penalties.
    • Psychic: Recognition, approval, respect, credibility or the loss of these things.
    • Opportunity: Training, development, perks, other benefits.
    • Responsibility: Increased or reduction of authority.
  • Five dimensions of Win-Win:

    • Character:

      • Integrity: The value we place on ourselves.
      • Maturity: The balance between courage and consideration.
      • Abundance Mentality: Belief that there is “plenty for everybody.” Is contrasted with a “scarcity mentality.”
    • Relationships:

      • Trust through the building of an “Emotional Bank Account” fosters respect, communication, credibility, openness and creativity.
    • Agreements (same delegation model from Habit 3):

      • Desired results: Create clear understanding on what needs to be done. Focus on the what or desired outcome NOT on the methods.
      • Guidelines: Identify any necessary parameters (minimize if possible).
      • Resources: Identify the human, financial, technical and organizational resources available to the agent.
      • Accountability: Establish the measures for evaluating results.
      • Consequences: Establish what will happen, positive or negative, as a result of the evaluation.
    • Supportive systems:

      • “Win-win can only survive in an organization when the systems support it. If you talk win-win (cooperation) but reward win-lose (e.g. competitive contest with a single winner), you’ve got a losing program on your hands.”
      • For win-win to work all of an organization’s systems must be aligned. In a company this means training, planning, communications, budgeting, information, compensation.
    • Processes

      • See the problem from the other point of view: articulate the needs and concerns of the other party as well as they can.
      • Identify key issues and concerns.
      • Determine the results for an acceptable solution.
      • Identify approaches/options to achieving those results.

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

  • The ability to communicate is critical to your effectiveness.

  • Types of communication:

    • Reading
    • Writing
    • Speaking
    • Listening
  • We spend the least amount of time training the skill of listening.

  • Interpersonal trust comes through true understanding. Listening is an essential component of understanding.

  • “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

  • We filter everything through our paradigm and our perspectives. We read our personal autobiography into other people’s lives.

    • Examples:

      • “I know exactly how you feel!”
      • “I went through the very same thing…”
    • Projecting our ideas and situations onto others.

  • Four levels of listening:

    • Ignoring or pretending to listen (e.g. “uh huh, right”).
    • Selective listening: hearing only certain parts of conversation.
    • Attentive listening: focusing on what’s said.
    • Empathetic listening: listening with intent to understand.
  • “When you listen with empathy to another person, you give that person psychological air. And after that vital need is met, you can then focus on influencing or problem solving.”

  • Diagnose before you prescribe (listen and understand before attempting to influence).

  • Four autobiographical responses:

    • Evaluation: Agree or disagree.
    • Probe: Ask questions from our frame of reference.
    • Advise: Give counsel based on your own experience.
    • Interpret: Try to explain using our own paradigms.
  • Three keys to being understood (and making effective presentations):

    • Ethos: Your personal credibility. Faith and trust people have in your competence.
    • Pathos: Empathy, the ability to transcend our individual perceptions in order to deeply communicate and come to win-win solutions.
    • Logos: The logic and reasoned part of the argument. Most people jump straight to this part of persuasion (skipping the first two essential pieces, ethos and pathos).

Habit 6: Synergize

  • Synergy combines all the prior habits to build something that is greater than the sum of its parts (“one plus one equals three”).
  • Creative cooperation is one way to manifest synergy.
  • Diversity of abilities and perspectives is critical: different strengths augment and complement the weaknesses in others and vice-versa.
  • Synergy requires enormous personal security, openness and a spirit of adventure.
  • Synergy is unpredictable: requires casting aside the old scripts and creating a new one.
  • Trust and the levels of communication:

    • Low-trust: Defensiveness, protectiveness, legalistic language. Results in win-lose or lose-lose outcomes.
    • Medium-trust: Respectful interactions. Polite but not emphatic interactions. Does not maximize creative possibilities. Results in compromises with limited upside. Results in low-yield win-win outcomes.
    • High-trust: Logical and emotional interactions that value the differences between us and aim for high-impact win-win outcomes.
  • “Valuing the differences is the essence of synergy”: these can be mental, emotional and psychological differences.
  • To be effective you must recognize your own perceptual limitations and appreciate the perspectives and experiences of others.
  • The result of considering more opinions and perspectives is MORE DATA.
  • Adopt this mentality: “You see it differently. Help me see what you see.”
  • “When you see only two alternatives—yours and the ‘wrong’ one—you can look for a synergistic Third Alternative. There's almost always a Third Alternative, and if you work with a win-win philosophy and really seek to understand, you usually can find a solution that will be better for everyone concerned.”

Part Four: Renewal

Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw

  • This habit is about maintaining and improving yourself.
  • Your greatest asset is you, so you must constantly attend to it.
  • Four dimensions of renewal:

    • Physical: Exercise, diet, sleep.
    • Spiritual: Meditation, self-reflection, thought, literature and music.
    • Mental: Learning, reading, writing, planning.
    • Social emotional: Relationships, connection, service.
  • These activities are all Quadrant II activities: high importance but low urgency.
  • Strive to maintain balance in all of the above four dimensions.

Get weekly email updates and additional content: Sign up for the free Mental Pivot Newsletter.