Per-Hour Learning Potential / Utility: ★★★★★★★ (7/7)
Readability: ★★★★★★★ (7/7)
Challenge Level: 2/5 (Easy) | ~330 pages ex-notes (432 official)
Blurb/Description: In an honest, engaging, often-funny book, Stephen Covey lays out seven timeless principles that build an effective “operating system” for life and business alike.
Summary: I am probably the first and only person who read 7 Habits not for personal development, but for due diligence: I was a young analyst at a small hedge fund and Franklin Covey’s CFO was coming through town on a non-deal-roadshow. I wanted to understand the company’s products well enough to have a worthwhile conversation. Well, I got the worthwhile conversation, and then some.
Franklin Covey is Askeladden Capital’s largest portfolio position as of this time.
Highlights: To say that 7 Habits was life-changing would be an understatement; rereading 7 Habits for a third and fourth time 3-4 years later, it’s astonishing how deeply embedded and closely woven into my life these concepts are: 7 Habits has, mostly unconsciously, become a big part of my operating system for life. Frequent readers know how I feel about strong ideology — I’ve never been religious and I’m certainly not a Mormon — but 7 Habits is the closest thing I’ll ever have to a Bible.
The concepts have made me a substantially more effective human being, with the benefits not only accruing to myself, but more importantly, to the people I care about. Like Stephen Covey, I “have personally found living the 7 Habits a constant struggle” and could always (and will always) do better. Notwithstanding, I get something new out of every read and this would undoubtedly be one of my “desert island” books.
If you work for a company, consider checking out Franklin Covey’s phenomenal All Access Pass” for corporate learning content.
Lowlights: The book can be somewhat lengthy and repetitive in places, and I think certain Habits could actually be reordered.
Mental Model / ART Thinking Points: schema, agency,empathy, fairness, trait adaptivity, reciprocity bias,mindfulness, growth mindset, local vs. global optimization,growth mindset, structural problem solving, social connection, inversion
You should buy a copy of buy a copy of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People if: you have a pulse.
Reading Tips: Consider skimming or skipping the sixth habit (Synergize), and be aware of the unique chapter structure where the concept is introduced and then a number of examples are introduced to drive the point home in different contexts. If you feel like you’re “getting it” and it’s dragging on, feel free to skip to the next habit.
“The Happiness Advantage” by Shawn Achor ( THA review + notes). Achor makes many similar points to Covey, ranging from explaining schema to agency, with more of an orientation toward psychology rather than business and family.
“Poor Charlie’s Almanack” by Charlie Munger ( PCA review + notes). Munger, like Covey, made a habit of enhancing his cognition with timeless principles. Munger’s thought process is the foundation of this site.
“Uncontainable” by Kip Tindell ( UCT review + notes). I’m not sure if Covey and Tindell ever met, but I think they would’ve liked each other; Tindell, like Covey, has seven “Foundation Principles” that he applies in work and business, and Tindell also recognizes the value of many of the same models.
Reread Value: 5/5 (Extreme)
More Detailed Notes + Analysis (SPOILERS BELOW):
IMPORTANT: the below commentary DOES NOT SUBSTITUTE for READING THE BOOK. Full stop. This commentary is NOT a comprehensive summary of the lessons of the book, or intended to be comprehensive. It was primarily created for my own personal reference.
Much of the below will be utterly incomprehensible if you have not read the book, or if you do not have the book on hand to reference. Even if it was comprehensive, you would be depriving yourself of the vast majority of the learning opportunity by only reading the “Cliff Notes.” Do so at your own peril.
I provide these notes and analysis for five use cases. First, they may help you decide which books you should put on your shelf, based on a quick review of some of the ideas discussed.
Second, as I discuss in the memory mental model, time-delayed re-encoding strengthens memory, and notes can also serve as a “cue” to enhance recall. However, taking notes is a time consuming process that many busy students and professionals opt out of, so hopefully these notes can serve as a starting point to which you can append your own thoughts, marginalia, insights, etc.
Third, perhaps most importantly of all, I contextualize authors’ points with points from other books that either serve to strengthen, or weaken, the arguments made. I also point out how specific examples tie in to specific mental models, which you are encouraged to read, thereby enriching your understanding and accelerating your learning. Combining two and three, I recommend that you read these notes while the book’s still fresh in your mind – after a few days, perhaps.
Fourth, they will hopefully serve as a “discovery mechanism” for further related reading.
Fifth and finally, they will hopefully serve as an index for you to return to at a future point in time, to identify sections of the book worth rereading to help you better address current challenges and opportunities in your life – or to reinterpret and reimagine elements of the book in a light you didn’t see previously because you weren’t familiar with all the other models or books discussed in the third use case.
Paradigms and Principles
Kindle page 25: Covey on schema:
“we must look at the lens through which we see the world […] the lens itself shapes how we interpret the world. […] 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.”
Kindle page 26: Covey dichotomizes a “character ethic” from a “personality ethic” – the character ethic follows the vein of “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin” ( ABF review + notes) and holds that the integration of principles and habits in accordance with the nature of reality will lead to happiness and success.
The “personality ethic” is more in line with “fake it ‘til you make it” – charisma without character.
Kindle page 29: focusing on techniques rather than principles is like cramming, but life is more like a farm than a school test: you reap what you sow and there aren’t any shortcuts.
Kindle page 30: Covey on integrity:
“eventually, 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.” […] “
many people with secondary greatness – that is, social recognition for their talents – lack primary greatness or goodness in their character.” […]
“in the last analysis, what we are communicates far more eloquently than anything we say or do. We all know it.”
Kindle pages 31-32, again on schema and mental models: “the map is not the territory.” Our paradigms are models of reality… but if we have the wrong paradigm, we have the wrong map for reality, and no amount of effort will overcome that.
“If you have the right map of Chicago, then diligence becomes important, and when you encounter frustrating obstacles along the way, then attitude can make a real difference. But the first and most important requirement is the accuracy of the map.” […] “… and our attitudes and behaviors grow out of those assumptions. The way we see things is the source of the way we think and the way we act.”
On the topic of mapmaking and the map not being the territory, see John Lewis Gaddis’s thoughtful “ The Landscape of History” ( LandH review + notes), where he (sensibly) points out that a map that was the territory would be unusable. Gaddis explores how historians do (and should) select details to build the right maps.
Covey further differentiates between “reality” (the way things are) and “values” (the way things should be). There’s the classic old woman / young woman illusion picture.
Kindle pages 35 – 36: more good discussion of schema; the punchline being:
“each of us tends to think we see things as they are, that we are objective. But this is not the case. We see the world, not as it is, but as we are – or, as we are conditioned to see it.”
Covey goes on to note that this doesn’t mean there is no objective reality (or, as Rand would put it, A = A), but it certainly means that each of us is not thinking about or acting upon reality… we’re thinking about or acting upon reality filtered through our lens.
Also cross-reference some Richard Feynman – not so much anything he specifically says, but more the way he views the world.
Kindle page 38: the “man on the train” example… Covey is particularly good, from a communication standpoint, at these memorable analogies. (even as I write this, I can’t help but think of “the wrong jungle” and smile.)
Kindle page 41: another analogy: “I’m a lighthouse.” and the follow-up: “Principles are like lighthouses. They are natural laws that cannot be broken.”
Covey goes on to advocate, though not in explicit terms, for the mental-models approach:
“The reality of [natural principles or laws] becomes obvious to anyone who thinks deeply and examines the cycles of social history. These principles surface time and time again, and the degree to which people in a society recognize and live in harmony with them moves them toward either survival and stability or disintegration and destruction.”
The right principles are like a human operating system (my words, not his) – there’s a nice quote here about these principles being “part of the human condition.”
Kindle page 42: an example of the fairness model. Also note that:
“principles are not practices […] a practice that works in one circumstances will not necessarily work in another, as parents who have tried to raise a second child exactly like they did the first can readily attest.”
i.e. trait-adaptivity, or context-dependency.
Kindle page 43: maybe the best mental models quote yet:
The more closely our maps or paradigms are aligned with these principles or natural laws, the more accurate and functional they will be. Correct maps will infinitely impact our personal and interpersonal effectiveness far more than any amount of effort expended on changing our attitudes or behaviors.”
Kindle page 45: it’s about taking responsibility for your own actions…
Kindle page 47: nice parenting story
Kindle pages 50-51: the problem isn’t “out there.” it’s “in here.” that’s what Inside-Out means. As Charlie Munger says, if you want something, deserve it.
The 7 Habits – An Overview
Kindle pages 54-55: “our character, basically, is a composite of our habits.”
Covey gives a brief discussion of habits and notes that they have:
“tremendous gravity pull […] like any natural force, gravity pull can work with us or against us.”
See also “ The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg (PoH review + notes), as well as Laurence Gonzales’s “Deep Survival” (DpSv review + notes), the latter of which analyzes how habit interacts with some actual gravity pulls.
Kindle page 58: “private victories precede public victories.”
Kindle page 62: Covey introduces the “P/PC” idea – P being production of results, PC being production capability. The two have to be balanced.
Kindle pages 63-64: other than the parenting lesson, I find the “finding principles in unexpected places” angle fascinating. When you start looking…
Kindle page 66: an example of inconsistent internal logic and not looking far enough for root causes (disaggregation). More amusingly, and perhaps relevantly to the audience, is Covey’s quip:
“Too much focus on [productive capacity without production] is like a person who runs three or four hours a day, bragging about the extra ten years of life it creates, unaware he’s spending them running.”
It reminds me of a Pearls Before Swine strip where Rat is told by his doctor to cut out the potato chips, beer, and TV-watching on the couch. Switching to spinach and running will give him an extra five years of life…
Rat asks what he’ll do with those five years, and the doctor says “run and eat broccoli, of course.” [It may have been something else, but you get the point.] The last panel shows Rat back on the couch, eating potato chips and boozing…
One of the most amusing (and occasionally frustrating) things is some value investors’ “holier-than-thou” depression-era frugality – yes, there’s a lot to be said for living a modest lifestyle and saving, but there is a point at which going five minutes out of your way to pick up a dime isn’t admirable: it’s an idiotic ignorance of opportunity costs.
Kindle page 67: on how Covey recommends using 7 Habits:
“I would recommend that you not “see” this material as a book, in the sense that it is something to read once and put it on a shelf. […] as you progress to deeper levels of understanding and implementation, you can go back time and again to the principles contained in each habit and work to expand your knowledge, skill, and desire.”
I’ve certainly found this to be the case.
I assure you that you are not your habits. You can replace old patterns of self-defeating behavior with new patterns, new habits of effectiveness, happiness, and trust-based relationships.”
Duhigg has some great advice on how to change habits using the reward feedback loop.
Kindle pages 74-76: Covey talks about self-awareness (a component of mindfulness), and here’s a fun place for me to step back and just note how very deeply 7 Habits principles wove themselves into my brain, replacing incorrect ones and amplifying good ones a la Dr. Judith Beck’s “ Cognitive Behavior Therapy” ( CBT review + notes).
Just the other month, I was encouraging someone I cared about to be more proactive rather than reactive in identifying and snuffing out flaws… never once did I even attribute it to 7 Habits. But looking back, there’s a clear before/after in terms of my approach to the world. There is before I read 7 Habits for the first time, and then there’s after. Anyway, Covey:
“we are not our feelings. We are not our moods. We are not even our thoughts. The very fact that we can think about these things separates us from them and from the animal world.”
Covey goes on to reject the various forms of determinism (genetic, environmental, and psychic) – he references Victor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning.)
“Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.”
See also Stephen Colbert’s wonderful GQ cover piece – at every moment, we are volunteers.
Kindle page 78: again on agency and determinism:
“the history of mankind and our own self-awareness tell us that this map [determinism] doesn’t describe the territory at all!”
Contrast that with agency:
“Highly proactive people recognize that responsibility [to choose your response]. They 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.”
Cross-reference Munger’s feelings about self-pity… see Covey’s commentary on page 80 about “our consent to what happens to us” hurting us more than what happens to us.
Kindle, pages 79-80: proactive people “subordinate an impulse to a value” – they carefully think about their values, and use those to guide their responses in any given situation.
And this is one of those nuanced things that, like Covey says, is a struggle to apply. I tend to be a very proactive person in terms of identifying values, areas to improve, and shaping my behavior to that.
But the anecdote about the nurse with the unappreciative patient… well, I was in a situation like that recently, and I spent a lot of time blaming the counterparty before waking up and realizing it was my own damn fault for allowing it to happen to me.
Kindle, pages 80 – 81: little anecdote/example here about the power to choosing your response even in the face of terminal illness. There used to be this really nice older man named Charlie who worked at a local grocery store; he was usually the sample guy, and was a total joy to be around (the new sample guy is not; he always has a dour, uninviting expression.) Seeing Charlie always made my day.
I found out eventually that Charlie was dying a slow, painful death from Agent Orange. It had a huge impact on me to know that despite everything he had gone through and was going through, he managed to have a smile on his face and make everyone’s day brighter while working a low-paying job. I even got him a book that I thought he’d enjoy, but I never got the chance to give it to him.
Kindle, page 82: so Habit 1 alone is sort of worth the whole book. I know this sounds kind of dumb, but I never realized until Covey told me that
“Many people wait for something to happen or someone to take care of them. But people who end up with the good jobs are the proactive ones who are solutions to problems, not problems themselves, who seize the initiative […]”
I had a lot of things in my life that I didn’t like, at the time I read this, and I spent a lot of mental and emotional energy (not to mention time) blaming everyone and everything but myself for those problems. Now I don’t.
Kindle page 83: “R&I” = “resourcefulness and initiative.” Use it!
Kindle page 85: on the nuances of the difference between positive thinking and proactivity
Kindle pages 88 – 93: the “circle of concern” and “circle of influence” approach is one of those things that’s become ridiculously embedded in my life: I now have a very efficient two-step algorithm for processing information or thinking about things:
Step 2: if no, then stop thinking or caring about it (often via structural problem-solving – ex. not watching upsetting news that I’m not going to do anything about, in the vein of Achor.) If yes, then figure out what to do about it, and do it.
It makes life a whole lot simpler. It’s basically the Serenity Prayer. See also Shawn Achor’s work – both “The Happiness Advantage” (THA review + notes) and “Before Happiness” (BH review + notes), particularly his stunningly insightful definition of noise vs. signal in the latter.
Kindle page 96: habit one is more or less a commitment to the following:If I really want to improve my situation, I can work on the one thing over which I have control - myself. - Stephen Covey Click To Tweet
Agency. It’s easy to point the finger of blame…
Kindle page 98: Covey references the “ growth mindset” of viewing failures as learning opportunities.
Kindle page 100: “If you start to think the problem is ‘out there,’ stop yourself. That thought is the problem.” Mental models.
Habit 2: Begin With The End In Mind
(inversion at work.)
Kindle page 104: at the beginning of the book, Covey notes that nobody, on their deathbed, ever regrets not spending more time at the office… I came to similar conclusions when I was about 18-19 and spent a lot of time asking professors and other people I knew who were at the end of their careers what their biggest regrets were and what they’d do differently. Utility, disaggregation, local vs. global optimization, hyperbolic discounting, base rates, and so on all apply here.
They all said that they wished they’d spent more time with family, wished they’d had the courage to do something for themselves rather than taking the safe path, etc. (See also “30 Lessons for Living” by Karl Pillemer – 30L review).
Habit 2 is another one of those basic, “duh” kinda things that’s actually really powerful and surprisingly nonintuitive in terms of the way people plan out their lives: the idea is you start with where you want to go, then you figure out how to get there.
As Covey puts it,
“To begin with the end in mind means […] to know where you’re going so that […] the steps you take are always in the right direction. It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in an activity trap, in the busyness of life, to work harder and harder at climbing the ladder of success to discover it’s leaning against the wrong wall. It is possible to be busy – very busy – without being very effective.”
Someone please tell Angela Duckworth. Cross-reference busyness vs. productivity and also local vs. global optimization; utility as well. see Newport’s “ Deep Work” ( DpWk review + notes) as well as Achor again. Product vs. packaging. Inversion.
Kindle pages 105-106: Covey discusses the “measure twice, cut once” carpentry rule – the analogy is that our “first creation” is our blueprint, and we need to make sure we get that right before worrying about execution.
Kindle pages 106 – 107: excellent block quote about how, if we aren’t proactive, we end up
“reactively liv[ing] the scripts handed to us by family, associates, other people’s agendas, the pressures of circumstance […] these scripts […] rise out of our deep vulnerabilities […] our needs for acceptance and love, for belonging, for a sense of importance and worth, for a feeling that we matter.”
Rewrite the script, rewrite your life. See also Brene Brown for more on the human need for love and belonging in “Daring Greatly” (DG review + notes) and “I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t)” (ITWJM review). See also social connection.
Kindle page 108: here is the famous “wrong jungle” analogy… have fun hacking down trees in the wrong jungle! Another analogy is “straightening deck chairs on the Titanic.” Product vs. packaging, local vs. global optimization, utility, etc.
“envision a group cutting their way through the jungle with machetes […] the leader is the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation, and yells, “wrong jungle!” […] as individuals, groups, and businesses, we’re often so busy cutting through the undergrowth we don’t even realize we’re in the wrong jungle.”
Later in the chapter: the “alternative centers” bit is one of those things that, if you’re being honest with yourself, you’ll probably identify a lot with one of the buckets…
Habit 3: Put First Things First
Kindle pages 159 – 160: the “quadrants” matrix dimensionalizing tasks by “importance” and “urgency” is another simple but powerful tool. It’s really easy to get sucked into firefighting (i.e. dealing only with “urgent” stuff) and never investing time in the “important but not urgent” stuff – whether that’s building mental models or investing in relationships.
Kindle page 163: the “action item” here is asking yourself what you can do regularly that would make a tremendous positive impact? Well, start doing it.
Kindle page 164: some nice practical tips on how to say “no” pleasantly
Kindle page 195: “you can’t talk your way out of problems you behave yourself into”
Kindle pages 198 – 210: the “emotional bank account” concept, discussed at length, is yet another one of the sections that would singlehandedly be worth the entire book.
It’s such a useful metaphor, yet one that, sadly, goes underutilized.
– keeping your word: kinda obvious
– clarifying expectations: surprising how often this comes up
– having integrity
Kindle page 211: so, there is some confirmation bias here for me, because this is something that has always been part of my life philosophy, but worth thinking about and discussing at some length:
“Dag Hammarskjold, past Secretary-General of the United Nations, once made a profound, far-reaching statement: “It is more noble to give yourself completely to one individual than to labor diligently for the salvation of the masses.”
I take that to mean that I could devote [lots of time] to the thousands of people and projects “out there” and still not have a deep, meaningful relationship with my own spouse, with my own teenage son, with my closest working associate.
And it would take more nobility of character – more humility, courage, and strength – to rebuild that one relationship than it would to continue putting in all those hours for all those people and causes.”
Cross-reference Dale Carnegie (and Ayn Rand) on self-interest and altruism. But more relevantly, I think the “circle of influence” should be more carefully thought about and cross-applied here. Obviously there are shades of gray, right? It’s not like there’s some bright line and you either have total control or no control over things; it’s better viewed as a spectrum from de minimis control (policy in some foreign country you’ve barely ever heard of) to near-absolute control (your own behavior).
I have nothing against philanthropy or “causes,” but I’ve always found that the biggest payoff-per-hour in both emotional and practical terms isn’t some abstract, diffuse, far-removed work on something “out there” – Munger, somewhere, discusses the challenge of even knowing, based on n-order impacts, whether you’re actually making a difference. When acting on things closer to your own sphere of influence, i.e. in your community or even better, in your house, you have a much higher probability of knowing you’re doing the right thing.
“many, many problems between people in business, family, and other relationships [are…] the result of a flawed paradigm. […] you can’t change the fruit without changing the root.”
Kindle Page 230: one of the core tenets here is the “abundance mentality,” contrasted against the “scarcity mentality” that most people have. Cross-reference arms races and zero to one… zero-sum games are bad, mmkay?
Kindle Pages 242-243: on playing five-whys, this section reminds me a bit of Don Norman’s fantastic “The Design of Everyday Things” (DOET review + notes). Covey talks about how a president at a company made the assumption that the problem was the lack of sales training; conversely, upon further observation, the real problem was the compensation system (incentives).
Similarly, here are some of my notes from DET:
“[I] never solve the problem I am asked to solve… [it invariably] is usually a symptom…. it is amazing how often people solve the problem before them without bothering to question it.”
“So often the problem is in the system, not in the people. If you put good people in bad systems, you get bad results.”
Cross-reference Norman’s discussions of how, if a product (system) is designed such that “human error” is rampant, maybe the problem is with the system and not with the humans…
Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then To Be Understood
In my opinion, this sort of should’ve come before win-win – to continue with the Getting to Yesreference, if you don’t take the time to understand the other person’s interests, it’s harder to get toWin-Win. (Even Covey, later in the chapter admits that this is “the first step in the process of Win-Win.”) Minor criticism.
Kindle page 249: Covey notes that despite the fact that we
“spend most of our waking hours communicating”
and have spent years
“learning how to read and write [and…] speak,”
on the other hand,
“comparatively few people have had any training in listening at all.”
Kindle page 251: the key challenge with listening is we’re too busy thinking about ourselves; “our conversations become collective monologues.” Cross-reference Dale Carnegie. The idea is to get into the other person’s schema.
Kindle page 263: something I’ve found to be true: “when people are really hurting and you really listen with a pure desire to understand, you’ll be amazed how fast they will open up. They want to open up.”
Habit 6: Synergize
The core of this chapter is essentially the view that differences create potential… this is perhaps the least useful chapter (IMO) because it sort of just drills in concepts elsewhere. That, or I don’t get it. 🙂
Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw
This chapter is about “personal productive capability” – i.e. how to take care of yourself and improve stuff. There’s a nice “one more rep” note on Kindle page 301: “Almost all the benefit of the exercise comes at the very end […] it’s the same principle that works with emotional muscles as well. When you exercise your patience beyond your past limits, the emotional fiber is broken, nature overcompensates, and next time the fiber is stronger.”
First Read: 2015
Last Read: 2017
Number of Times Read: 4
Planning to Read Again?: yes
Review Date: fall 2017
Notes Date: fall 2017