Although I’m the type of person that is skeptical of “self-help” type literature, I heard one executive of a large company say that if you could only read one book, it should be this one. Although I’ve heard of this book for years, such a stirring review intrigued me. In addition, while I worked at Microsoft, I was able to watch a live webinar where I got to hear Stephen Covey himself present, so I thought I’d give it a shot.
After having read just the first half of the book, I’ve already found myself positively impacted by the simple, yet profound, ideas laid out by Mr. Covey. I’d like to share several of the points which have stood out to me so far. And if you find yourself wanting to read the book yourself, please do so; it’s worth the time it takes to read it, in my opinion. The book isn’t just about work, but about “life management”.
Habit 1: Be Proactive
The key here is to be proactive, not reactive. (This something I really struggle with!) The reactive person only takes action when they are responding to someone else. What that means is that the reactive person is allowing their own behavior to be dictated by others. Instead, a mature person decides that they have the power to choose how they will respond to a situation or a person.
I have to admit, this is something that I really struggle with. I can get very exasperated at some clients who seem to want something for nothing, or co-workers who don’t understand that I don’t want to be called five times a day. I often let my frustration with these people consume me so much that I get distracted from my true objectives. It’s true that I’m human and I’m going to have emotional responses to things, but they key is to move on and not let that sidetrack me.
Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind
It’s so easy to get stuck in a rut, to live every day as “Wake up, go to work, go to bed, repeat…” The second habit involves stepping back and looking at the big picture. What is really important in life? What drives you? If you allow yourself to be motivated by money, by being too codependent on another person, by what others think of you, by being identified with an organization, then you are always going to be at the whim of some outside force; to combat that, you will eventually cling tighter and tighter to that which you bind your identity to.
The author points out that if your life is grounded in what he calls “values”, you will not be shaken by any of these. If you will indulge a little side note here, as a Christian, I believe that my life has intrinsic value because I was created in God’s image; it doesn’t matter if other people think I’m of value, I know that I have value because I was assigned it apart from any worth that I could achieve for myself. Furthermore, I believe that God has laid out for us how we are to live, and if we choose to live in obedience to Him, following the path of good and not bad, then we will avoid many negative consequences and will live a fuller life than if we consistently choose to engage in evil and destructive thoughts and activities. I believe that God desires to be the first thing in our life, and as long as we find our worth in Him and care more about what he thinks about us than what , we will be unmoved by what others say about us or what we think about ourselves. This will free us up to live proactive and not reactive lives.
Beginning with the end in mind means determining what the good and healthy things that you would like to achieve in your life. Setting these things out will help you gain a bigger perspective about what’s important in your life. For instance, I say that I want to be healthy, but I have to admit… every single day, when it approaches 5 o’clock and I know I need to go to the gym, I say to myself, “But I’m really in the zone with my coding, and if I walk away now, I’ll lose that momentum. If I don’t go to the gym today, it won’t kill me.” The ironic thing, though, is that if I take that attitude my whole life and live an unhealthy live, it will kill me. As Mr. Covey points out, saying “yes” to something always means saying “no” to something else. After reading this book, I’m starting to realize that saying “yes” to more work means saying “no” to my health, and that’s not acceptable to me.
Habit 3: Put First Things First
Maybe one of the most famous ideas from this book is the idea of the 4 quadrants; imagine a grid with 2 rows and 2 columns; on one side you see the headings “important” and “unimportant”, and “urgent” and “not urgent”. Most people who allow others to drive their activities (those who are reactive) live in the “important and urgent” box. People who are constantly “putting out fires” are stressed and get burned out quickly. These kind of people try to escape that mentality by engaging in “not urgent” and “unimportant” activities, which is not particularly useful, either. People who are proactive will pull them away from some of the most urgent activities of the day in order spend time on “important” but “not urgent” activities. To put it in other words, it’s important to distance yourself enough from the “tactical” battles of everyday life to find time to act “strategically”.
Because I work for myself, I sometimes worry that I won’t have enough work to live off of. This not only means that I tend to take on too much work at any given time, it also means I tend to say “yes” to too much work because I’m afraid if I tell someone “no”, it doesn’t just mean “no for now”, but I have this irrational fear that they’ll hang up the phone and never want to do work with me again. What this means is that I’m continually overpromising work and then constantly trying to peddle faster to meet all the timelines I’ve allowed to be defined for myself.  After reading this book, I realized that I needed time to “get off the treadmill” so to speak. This has meant a couple things for me:
  • The fact that I’m even taking a half hour each day to read this book, in the hopes that it will make me a more effective person at work, even though it’s ‘non-billable’ work, is already reducing stress in life. I’ve made a personal choice to become a better person rather than allow looming timelines to always dictate how I spend my time.
  • I’m saying “no” to more work, even if I think, “I could probably squeeze some time in for that.” Taking time off to take a few breaths and remember that saying “no” doesn’t mean the end of a relationship means I think before I commit.
  • I had a situation this week where I was frustrated at the actions of an individual with whom I’ve worked with for a year and a half. I was so upset I was ready to walk away from the relationship. Although I knew I had work that needed to get done, I chose instead to drive across town to have lunch and work out the matter. (I might add that I felt I had the freedom to do this because I’ve started saying “no” to too much work… see previous bullet.) The relationship was repaired and hopefully now I have maintained the ability to continue to gain work from this person for the long term, which I achieved by sacrificing the “urgent” and “important” work of immediate deadlines.

All this is not to say that there aren’t trade-offs; I can’t just pretend like deadlines don’t exist. If I take an action, I need to be prepared for the accompanying consequence. However, taking the time to focus on “preventative” measures can provide a better quality of life down the road.