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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

By Debby Wiesen Kelly

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
By Stephen R. Covey
Simon & Schuster, 1st published 1989

Classic self-help book continues to provide timely and meaningful professional and life advice

7 habits of highly effective people book coverMy mom used to say “times change, people don’t.” I interpret her comment to mean human nature doesn’t change. But the world is changing due to advances in technology, fluctuations in the economy, climate change, many other factors.

The book The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People by Stephen Covey teaches a series of habits, that, if practiced, can improve effectiveness at work and in life. You won’t become a different person. But you could become a more impactful one.

I believe Dr. Covey’s principle-centered habits are as relevant today as they were 30 years ago when his book was first published. Here are the habits:

Habit 1: Be Proactive
The first habit, Be Proactive, is a discussion about exactly this. Highly proactive people take responsibility for their actions and don’t blame others. They know that behavior is a choice based on values. Covey talks about the role of responsible behavior which he defines as the ability to choose how you respond.

Proactive people are driven by values based on careful, selective thought. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Proactive people take full responsibility for their actions, results, and outcomes.

Also considered here are three types of circumstances and how we engage with them: experiential (what happens to us), creative (what we bring into existence), and attitudinal (response to difficult circumstances).

Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind: principles of personal leadership
When you are keeping the end in mind, contemplate what kind of impact or difference you would like to make in your life.

With Habit 1, you create a life plan and in Habit 2, you manage or execute the vision. First, ask yourself what do I want to accomplish? Second, answer the question, how do I want to accomplish this goal?

With intention, you create a plan congruent with how you want to be remembered based on what difference/impact you would like to make in the world. And we can use our imagination and creativity to write updated plans that are reflective of ourselves and align with our deeper values.

The author suggests spending time creating a personal mission statement focused on a principle-centered life. Our principles don’t change; our understanding of them does. Whatever is at the center of your life will be a source of security, guidance, wisdom, and power. Security provides our sense of worth, guidance is our source of direction in life, wisdom provides perspective and a sense of balance, and power gives us the capacity to act.

Habit 3: Put First Things First
The author suggests we answer these two questions before focusing on this habit:

Question 1: What one thing you could do (and aren’t doing now) that if you did it on a regular basis would make an important difference in your personal life?

Question 2: What one thing in your professional life would bring you a similar result?

Habit 3 is the practical actualization of Habits 1 and 2. It is the physical plan. With Habit 1, you are in charge of the creation and with Habit 2 you develop a mental creation based on imagination and the ability to envision. With Habit 3, there is a focus on effective management, time management, preserving and enhancing relationships, and accomplishing results.

Habit 4: Think Win/Win
The transition from independence to interdependence shifts people from their own ability to produce to a focus on production capacity through leadership and the skill to influence others. Win/Win, according to Covey, “is a frame of mind and heart that constantly seeks mutual benefit in all human interactions.”

There are three character traits to succeeding in Win/Win: integrity, maturity, and an abundance mentality. Integrity is the value we place on ourselves and maturity is the balance between courage and consideration.

The goal is to arrive at synergistic solutions that culminate in Win/Win outcomes or a no-deal situation (walk away). There are no losers. The focus is on results, consequences, systems, and cooperation.

Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
The key to effective communication is interpersonal communications. It is one of the most important skills in life and can be improved by spending time reading, writing, and speaking. The other most important skill (not usually taught in school) is listening — specifically, empathetic listening.

We need to listen with the right brain, the intuitive and feeling side. Empathetic listening requires maturity and an inside out approach to connecting with others. This process leads to an increased ability to influence others and an expanded circle of influence.

Habit 6: Synergize
Synergy happens states Covey – echoing Aristotle – when “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

In business, the author suggests creating a corporate mission statement. This process is designed to be a meaningful experience for the participants and serves as a reference point for future plans and decisions. Differences are valued and the result is a shared common vision.

When someone is truly effective and has the humility to recognize their own limitations and appreciates the resources available through other people, that person values differences. Those differences add to their knowledge and understanding of reality. When we only access information from our own experiences, we have a shortage of data. We gain from others’ interpretations and can arrive at a better solution than we would have otherwise if we had only considered our limited view.

Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw
This is the principle of self-renewal. Philosopher Herb Shepherd describes a healthy life as encompassing four values: physical, social, mental, and spiritual.

Covey suggests continuing to practice the 7 Habits by reading and writing. Read a book every week, keep a journal, write good letters, organize, plan, and continue to work on creating daily private victories. Renewal is the principle and the process that empowers us to move upward, grow, change, and inspire continuous improvement.

Emerson said, “That which we persist in doing becomes easier, not that the nature of the task has changed, but our ability to do it has increased.” Becoming a highly effective person is a way of living, thinking, and being. Good luck on your journey.


Debby Wiesen Kelly spent 15 years as a senior manager and executive in the areas of adult education and workforce development. She also is the former VP & founder of the Veterans Training School at the New England Center and Home for Veterans. In these roles, Debby was responsible for program oversight and management of ESOL classes, vocational training, grants administration, and strategic partnerships in higher education and business, while providing fiscal oversight. Additionally, Debby presented at several national conferences on the subjects of the “Power of the Partnership” and “Employer Engagement.” Prior to a career in the nonprofit sector, she conducted research at several consulting firms.


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