Many people have searched for a perfect solution, a golden mean, that would resolve all their problems concerning time management, troublesome relations with co-workers, an inability to refuse, or a break down in a relationship. Unfortunately, it turns out that there is no suitable solution for everyone. What one might do to improve their situation is, as Jackson sang, “starting with the man in the mirror” (Jackson 1988), and although the effects will not be visible in a day or even a month, the long-term consequences of the actions taken today will bear astonishing fruit in the future.
In order to know what people can change in their lives, Stephen F. Covey wrote a book entitled: “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. His work presents 7 habits that everyone might implement in their lives, and by doing so, improve the quality of their relationships and lives in general. The aforementioned habits fall into three categories: the personal sphere, the public sphere and continuous growth.
To begin with, the personal sphere habits focus on self-mastery and moving from dependence to independence. The first step to achieve this state is to take responsibility for one’s actions and be proactive. This means, therefore, that rather than taking a passive stance and believing that the world is out of one’s control one should think of oneself as being “response-able” (Covey 2006)- able to choose the response to a given stimulus. By acting this way, one feels that what happens to oneself is in one’s power, and as a result, one is more self-confident and active.
Being proactive is also related to thinking about the areas one can do something about, rather than those that one has no influence on. The Serenity Prayer gently summarises it by saying “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference” (Niebuhr 1934).
The next, second habit states that one should begin with the end in mind. What this implies is the fact that by having a clear aim and the final vision of a goal in mind one can be certain that the steps one takes are taken in the right direction. As Covey claims: “It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in an activity trap, in the busy-ness of life, to work harder and harder at climbing the ladder of success only to discover it’s leaning against the wrong wall” (Covey 2006:46). To be effective and head towards being more and more independent one has to be self-aware of what one’s values and goals are. For some people, relations with one’s family and friends would be critically important, while for others money and career would mean more. However, there are no good or bad values, the point is to define one’s own and follow them.
The last habit concerning the personal sphere is a continuation of the second one and is entitled: put first things first. This habit focuses on commonsensical and successful time management that would result in following one’s values and goals in spite of momentary whims and impulses. To make it happen Covey proposes spending 30 minutes a week on filling in a simple table with two columns “urgent” and “not urgent” and two lines “important” and “not important” with one’s weekly duties. He argues that following this table and performing important and urgent businesses first would make us 10 times more effective (Covey 2006:75). This is a very successful method as Jackson advocates that:
there was one thing I remembered from reading that book 23 years ago, which really has stayed with me through my career and has been of immeasurable help to me. It’s not even a habit. It’s a two-by-two matrix used to help remind you to plan things out before you take action (Jackson 2012).
What is highlighted by Covey in relation to this habit is that one should prioritise quadrant II, important but not urgent, as there are our goals and future plans we would like to realise but usually have no time for them. Spending from 10 to 30% of our daily time on quadrant II would lead us to success.
The following habits, from 4 to 6, constitute one’s public sphere and concern interpersonal skills. The fourth habit which is entitled ‘think win-win’, encourages readers to create mutually beneficial situations that are satisfying for both sides. While discussing an important issue some people want to “win” the discussion at all costs. This leads, however, to a situation where the other part has to lose for us to win, and to a belief that if the other part gets a prize, we do not. To overcome this assumption one should think more widely about the problem, not about the people, and stay focused on results, not methods (Covey 2006: 98). The world’s greatest leaders were always committed to the win-win approach which was visible in their co-workers’ loyalty and the good connections the leaders had with powerful people. A piece of advice given by Covey says that to have strong relations with others one should spend some time on meetings and show interest in friends’ personal matters.
The fifth habit states clearly: seek first to understand, then to be understood. One should first listen actively before offering a quick solution to the problems of an interlocutor. Listening, however, has been neglected for so many years, as we have been taught how to speak, walk and write, but nobody has taken care of our listening skills (Covey 2006: 120). Repeating from Covey “if you want to interact effectively with me, to influence me -your spouse, your child, your neighbour, your boss, your co-worker, your friend – you first need to understand me” (Covey 2006: 120). The question is what to do to understand. Luckily, the answer is well-known and simple: listen despite the modern times tendency defined as “[p]eople do not listen, they just wait for their turn to talk” (Fight club 1999). The emphatic listening proposed by Covey differs considerably from the autobiographical listening we mostly apply, as the latter relies on our own perspective as a referential point, and the former is devoid of our opinions and beliefs which significantly improves communication and listening skills.
The last habit in the category of interpersonal relations deals with synergy. According to the Oxford Dictionaries it is: “The interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects” (Oxford Dictionaries “synergy”). Playing as a team we may achieve much more than we can alone, as we may create new alternatives or possibilities. To work in accordance with the rules of synergy one should take advantage of two previous habits, that is think win-win and seek first to understand. Only then is synergy manageable. Many studies cited in the book have proved that if one provides trust, understanding and a safe environment, others will become extremely open and co-work will become uniquely efficient. An indispensable factor in creating such an environment is appreciating the differences between people that might be enriching and beneficial. As Covey states “the key to valuing those differences is to realize that all people see the world, not as it is, but as they are” (Covey 2006: 142).
Finally, to be able to work on those habits we have to devote some time to ourselves, which in the book is called ‘sharpening the saw’. There are four dimensions of sharpening, and each should be equally exercised: physical, spiritual, mental and social. The physical dimension refers to one’s body and physical well-being. One has to keep one’s body in good shape by doing exercises, eating healthy food and sleeping around 7-8 hours a day. Those conditions enable one to be full of positive energy. The spiritual part of sharpening the saw includes engagement in religious practices, contact with nature and culture. By doing so we constantly remind ourselves about the values we believe in, and as a result we follow them. Developing the third element, the mental dimension, means reading and learning, which enriches our lives with new concepts and ideas, and at the same time reducing our reliance on the Internet and television. The last, but equally important, dimension is the social one that requires the emotional fulfilment derived from contact with our relatives and friends. It is worth remembering that only when one’s basic needs are satisfied one can think of any other goals and aims.
There was a vivid example in the book illustrating how important the seventh habit is, namely a logger was to cut down a tree in a dense forest, and was supposed to do this in 8 hours. Asked how he would do this he answered: for the first four hours I will sharpen the saw. This story underlines the often ignored fact that it is essential to take care of oneself before anything else can be done.
Applying those rules may change your life for the better and restore the balance between all the spheres of your life. Do not wait for the next New Year’s Eve, Christmas or tomorrow. Start now and make your life truly yours.