Suppose you were to come upon someone in the woods working feverishly to saw down a tree.
“What are you doing?” you ask.
“Can’t you see?” comes the impatient reply. “I’m sawing down this tree.”
“You look exhausted!” you exclaim. “How long have you been at it?”
“Over five hours,” he returns, “and I’m beat! This is hard work.”
‘Well, why don’t you take a break for a few minutes and sharpen that saw?” you inquire. “I’m sure it would go a lot faster.”
“I don’t have time to sharpen the saw,” the man says emphatically. “I’m too busy sawing!”
– Stephen Covey on Sharpening the Saw
These 7 Habits of Highly Effective People are a great fundament for Personal Development. I can remember how positively influenced I was when I first read them in his best-selling book.
These 7 habits are really a guide along which you can develop your potential … to fulfill your dreams and to become the best you can be. The idea is to describe principles of human growth, you can say natural laws for a human being, which understood and applied will lead to effectiveness. I learned a lot from it and applied it. I want to look at these habits and explain them from my understanding here, so let’s see how they can be of value for us now.
Recognizing the matter of perspective
What do you see in this image to the left?
This is a great image that reveals the importance of perspective. While you see an elderly woman with a huge nose and white hair looking down, I see a young woman from left behind, who has a veil on the back of her hair. Or maybe vice versa.
To be aware that what you have in mind is not reality but your view on reality, and that someone with a different history can have a totally different view on reality, is the message that is brought to light here. Nobody is wrong, as you can see in this example with the picture. It is futile to argue about this. And that is true with a lot of situations where different viewpoints collide.
To be able to hear the perspective of the other person then opens the possibility to not only see it, but to be positively influenced by it, by seeing a larger picture and finding a better solution for all involved.
I encounter this twist around different perspectives so often, that this is totally worth pointing out. Awareness is always the first step to change. And becoming aware of this phenomenon gives you the power to react accordingly.
I wrote a whole posting about The matter of perspective here.
The 7 habits are divided into the Private Victory, which means mastering self, and the Puplic Victory, mastering relationships with others. The important note is that private victory always precedes the public victory. This is also called the Inside-Out approach to life. You look inside yourself first, you develop yourself and clear the limiting factors in your own life , before you become effective in your public life with others. This makes so much sense and is the best way to succeed on the long run – only if you truly mastered yourself you can be effective with – and even lead others.
The first three habits of private victory are basically about (1) taking full responsibility for yourself, then (2) deciding what you want, and then (3) live by it and do it. It’s that simple and that’s what it takes to make dreams come true. On this road to personal effectiveness
Independence is what can be reached here, coming from dependence.
1. Be Proactive
„There is no real excellence in all this world which can be separated from right living“ – David Starr Jordan
Being pro-active is the opposite of being re-active. Both are active, but the first is coming from an inner impulse inside yourself, powered by own desires, while the latter is reacting to outer circumstances. The worst case of being reactive is only acting on outer stimulus without any inner reflection, drive or initiative. To cultivate this initiative is achieved by taking full responsibility for your own life, by becoming response-able – able to choose your response to the world from the inside, before the world is showing you, that you have to act.
The space inside of us between stimulus and response is the space of our freedom to choose, to chose our response. It is what makes us human, and not stimulus-response animals. We are able to choose our reaction. „Act or be acted upon“ is one headline that illustrates the point here.
The Circle of Concern and the Circle of Influence
The Circle of Concern are all areas in live that we are concerned with, that we have „on our radar“, may it be our health, out children, the national dept or global warming. The Circle of Influence are those areas inside the circle of concern, that you actually can do something about now. My favorite example is the bad news on TV. Usually you can do absolutely nothing about it and you won’t do anything except saying „Oh look how bad this is“. Why should you pollute your mind with it and distract your focus to something you are helpless with? Can you see how futile and self-defeating this is?
If you are proactive you focus only on your Circle of Influence, where you actually can influence the situation. By doing so, you not only enable yourself to do something of value you also increase your Circle of Influence. If an event on the corner of your Circle of Influence is happening, you have the choice to act on it mastering the situation and so increasing your Influence, or you can move backwards which will decrease your Influence. An example would be if you lose your driving license because you can choose to do the tests again to regain it or you can choose to retreat from driving and then lowering your mobility, thus decreasing your Circle of Influence.
2. Begin with the End in Mind
„What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.“ – Oliver Wendell Holmes
This habit is based on the principle of Personal Leadership, which means you decide what you want , you lead yourself into the direction you choose. There are always two creations of everything that we do: The first is the creation is mental, in our heads and not yet materialized. This is what the 2. habit it about. The second creation is in the material world. This is what the 3. habit is about.
Begin with the end in mind says that we need to develop a vision, a clear picture of what we choose to be and create in our lifetime. Stephen is illustrating this nicely by the suggestion to write your own funeral speech! What kind of person have you been, what did you stand for, what did you create? What where your contributions to the people you love and what difference have you made in their lives?
This is a fantastic visualization exercise that connects us deeply with ourselves and it is the perfect illustration of Begin with the End in Mind. Having such a personal vision rooted in our own values acts like a guidance-system. That is what the habit does: if you think from the end, you become like Michelangelo in the great metaphor of sculpting the statue of David out of a blog of stone, where he simply cut of the pieces of stones that were still in the way of his vision to materialize.
3. First Things First
„Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.“ – Wolfgang von Goethe
The 3. habit is where you make your plan happen – where you develop an action-plan and execute it the best way possible. While the 2. habit is the Leadership habit, this is the Management habit. And you do this in an effective way, by setting priorities for the most important things first. Then you work on these first things until they are done. You exercise your discipline powered by your vision and goals, where you know what you have to do to create this vision into reality. It is to really live your decisions, to walk your talk.
There are several tools here that can improve walking your talk. Setting the right priorities is one of the most important tasks. To set priorities, you first have to execute habit 1 and 2 of course, because otherwise – as Stephen also explains it – it happens to you that your ladder of success is leaning toward the wrong wall. If you haven’t taken full responsibility and clearly decided what you want in life, the priorities you set cannot have a deeper meaning to you. It just does not happen by accident. So choose proactively what you want first, then create an action-plan, set priorities and act on them.
One of the most helpful things in execution is to effectively manage the time that we have available. Basically there are 4 areas where we spend our time. You can divide them into 4 quadrants by categorizing each task on a) Importance and B) Urgency:
A task is important or not important and it is urgent or not urgent:
- Quadrant of DEMAND – important and urgent
This is usually the core of a busy person, tasks that are important and also urgent, you just can’t put them off and they have to be done now. It is important and critical to be well executed.
- Quadrant of THE ZONE – important but not urgent
This is The Zone. It means it is where you plan and improve, where you develop, build relationships and see opportunities. It is the basis for real success and the heart of leadership.
- Quadrant of ILLUSION – not important but urgent
The quadrant of illusion is a serious problem in personal management, because it eludes you that the tasks you do are important, while they are only urgent by demands from outside or by wrong judgments of yourself. In reality they have no profound impact to your achievements at all.
- Quadrant of ESCAPE – not important and not urgent
This is the area you need to avaoid alltogether if you are interested in success. It is the escape from what matters by distraction, because of fear, irresponsibility or fuzzy goals.
What you need to do is to move as much time as possible into The Zone (Quadrant II) and spend the rest of time in Quadrant I, the important and urgent demands. What you can do to raise awareness of your tasks is make a list of all tasks you do over the day/week. Then put all tasks honestly to the quadrant where you really spend your time doing them. Remember that it serves no purpose at all to be nice to you here, total honesty to yourself is always the most empowering thing you really can do. Then get rid of tasks in quadrant III and IV (not important) as soon as possible and move into Quadrant I and II. The best managers spend at least 50% of their time in Quadrant II and those are the most effective.
If you are really overwhelmed by Quadrant I and also III tasks (urgent), here is what you can do:
- Do less: Say „No“ more often, focus more on the most important tasks, your highest priorities, do less better!
- Delegate more: give tasks to people who can do it better, more efficient or are simple more qualified or more suitable for the task than you
- Go into The Zone to create more resources for the urgent matters or lessen urgent by better preparation and proactivity
Please also take a look at my later article: A Beginners Guide to Time Management.
These were the 3 habits for private victory as described by Stephen Covey. I think they are really principles, they are like natural laws for personal development and effectiveness. I’m looking forward hearing your view and experience with these three habits! What kind of successes or disappointments have you dealed with? Share them in the comments, I will also join in and answer questions of course.
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