When Stephen Covey published his seminal book on personal productivity and leadership back in 1989, he had no idea what kind of impact it would create — not just within the business community, but across industries and even international borders. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People became his most popular book. It has sold over 25 million copies in over 40 languages, and became the foundation for his consulting and speaking career. It firmly established Covey as a management guru, and his company, Covey Leadership Center, as the go-to for management advice. At one point in 1996, their client list included 82 of the Fortune 100 companies.
But what was the book really about? And are those 7 habits that Covey set forth in his book still relevant to a high-speed world that’s heard one too many productivity mantras?
First, what are the 7 habits of highly effective people?
First off, let’s review the meat of his book. Covey posits that every highly productive, highly efficient person with an ounce of time management skills and the ability to prioritize uses seven basic habits to tie everything together. These 7 habits are:
1. Be proactive
Being reactive means focusing on the things you cannot control and then complaining about it uselessly! (“No one downloads apps anymore! What an awful time to be an app developer!”) But being proactive means choosing to look at what you can control and influence, and using those to improve your situation. (“How can I make my app so sticky that my customers get hooked on it?”)
2. Begin with the end in mind
When you visualize the end goal, you end up having a strategic vision for yourself or your organization. Now every project, in fact every single task you work on should align and move you toward that goal. “Do these things matter? Will they bring me closer to my goal?” If not, then you’re wasting time doing something that will lead you somewhere different from that end goal.
An important step in setting goals is knowing the values you stand for, because whatever is at the center of your life will be the source of your security and power. This self-awareness may sometimes lead to paradigm shifts however. Because you will inevitably find some ineffective “scripts” — those embedded habits that are misaligned with what we really value (e.g. eating fast food burgers on the way home, when you say you value good health) — which only means you have to realign what you’re doing with what you truly value. This is a process Covey calls “rescripting,” and it’s part and parcel of shifting your paradigm — of using your imagination to visualize your ideal future — and rewiring your habits and actions to further that goal.
3. Put first things first
Put simply, this is the habit of prioritizing the most important and the most urgent in whatever role we are in. To figure this out, you chart all your concerns on a time management matrix (AKA an Eisenhower Matrix) and place each in one of four quadrants:  important and urgent,  important but not urgent,  urgent but not important,  not urgent not important. This way, you can live life according to the values you chose in habit #2 and are consciously moving towards those goals by focusing on putting out the fires in quadrant 1, then spending the remaining time improving yourself in quadrant 2.
4. Think win-win
Sure, you compete and want to win. But in order to succeed, another person or company does not have to lose. For your most important interactions, always think win-win — this means finding ways to build interdependent relationships that are mutually beneficial to all parties. For example, this could mean collaborating with competitors so that you can raise the awareness of your industry. Or it could be a company allowing a worker to do remote work so she can get more work done away from office distractions as well as take care of her toddler.
Thinking win-win can only happen when you have an abundance mentality — this is the world view that believes there is plenty more “success” out there for everyone to have. Thinking otherwise — the scarcity mentality— will lead you to play a zero-sum game, where “If you get it, I don’t.”
5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood
This is a principle that is hammered into the training of every marketing person (especially email and online marketing) simply because target audiences will always ask “What’s in it for me?” Which means marketers can’t talk about all the new features and all the work they did to improve the product. Instead they have to listen with empathy to what their customers are saying about their problems. Once you gain a deep understanding of where the audience is coming from, then you can respond in a way that truly addresses their concerns.
Now here’s a term that sounds cheesy 27 years later. What this habit simply means is to engage in teamwork so openly and so well that even disagreements and differences of opinion can somehow lead to finding new ways of approaching a problem. When members in a team are thinking win-win and seeking first to understand one another, it will eventually lead to synergy, to aligning on the same side with the same goals, and finding creative solutions despite the chaos of managing a project. Sure, the term has been used and abused over the years, but the general benefit of this habit rings true no matter what decade you’re in.
7. Sharpen the saw
The final habit deals with recharging the spirit and may seem like the most touchy-feely of Covey’s habits. To sharpen the saw simply means taking the time to ensure your mind, body, heart, and spirit are ready to take on the challenge of constant improvement. But this cannot happen unless you take a step back from your frenetic schedule in order to rest, relax, reflect, read Scripture (Covey was a practicing Mormon) or great literature, and spend quality time with your loved ones.
7 Habits of Highly Effective People Summary
Was that too long? If you didn’t have the patience to go through everything, this video very aptly summarizes Covey’s 7 habits with some effective whiteboarding:
So has the world moved on and made this book irrelevant to our culture of hyper-productivity? I say no! Even if some items sound dated (“synergy” anyone?) or metaphorically cheesy (“sharpen the saw”), the majority of Covey’s 7 habits are timeless principles not just for getting stuff done blindly, but for looking at work and yourself from a higher perspective. His habits go to the root of the problem, namely: we can’t improve our efficiency until we know why we’re seeking to optimize, what our goals are, and why we’re all working so damn hard. And we definitely can’t start thinking about win-win situations until we’re mature enough to understand that there is more success out there for everyone to have. In the end, Covey didn’t just write a manual for business effectivity, he penned a manifesto for living life maturely.