The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is one of the business books that everyone says you must read.

Well, I’m not everyone. There are some worthwhile bits, but so much terrible padding that I’m going to tell you not to read the book. So, don’t read the book look here and get some of the key points and save yourself the eye pain from rolling them so hard and so often.

Seven Habits Has Terrible Padding

One of the things that gets more and more on your nerves as you read the book will be the stories Stephen Covey uses as illustrations of the habits. They’re almost always so contrived as to be laughable.

He talks to his kids about internalizing the habits, and they willingly say okay? No fighting and he never has to talk to them about it again?

I’ve got kids, that’s just not how it works. Kids argue and fight, and you have to have the same discussion with them over and over.

The second thing that gets progressively worse in the book is buzzword bingo. The last short chapter is so bad that after three reads my only note from it is “I don’t know.”

Yes after a single read, then a second read more carefully, then a third read, I have no idea what point he was trying to get across in the final chapter. But man can Covey use buzzwords.

So, don’t read the book, but there are some great ideas in the book. I can see why this was a revolutionary book when it came out; it just doesn’t hold up well against so many other padded business books. So let’s dig into what Covey says, with fewer buzzwords and no stupid stories.

Before he dives into the foundation of the book, Covey talks about the importance of habits.

Habits are powerful factors in our lives. Because they are consistent, often unconscious patterns, they constantly, daily, express our character and produce our effectiveness…or ineffectiveness.

If you’ve ever tried to break a habit, you know the power it can have over you. We need to be very careful about the habits that we let get into our lives. In fact, more than just trying to “be productive” I rely on habits and routine to all but guarantee that my day will be an effective one. I shape my path to ensure that the day goes well1.

Key Concept of P/PC Balance

P/PC Balance is one of the key concepts that Covey will come back to in an effort to show that we need to follow his seven habits to be effective.

Effectiveness lies in the balance – what I call the P/PC balance. P stands for production of desired results, the golden eggs. PC stands for production capability, the ability or asset that produces the golden eggs.

So P would be all the work you get done. If you pull a bunch of all-night work sessions, you’ve got a bunch done, but you’re going to pay the price for it because your PC is gone.

You’ll need days to rest and get back to effective production capacity. Did you get all that much more productive work done in the long run? Quite probably not.

There are organizations that talk a lot about the customer and then completely neglect the people that deal with the customer — the employees. The PC principle is to always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customer.

The seven habits, focus right on developing PC knowing that production will follow from having taken care of production capacity.

The Seven Habits

Clearly, since the book is called The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, there are 7 habits that Covey feels you must develop. They are:

  1. Be Proactive
  2. Begin with the End in Mind
  3. Put First Things First
  4. Think Win/Win
  5. Seek First to Understand, Then Be Understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the Saw

Let’s look at each one.

Habit 1: Be Proactive

While the word proactively is now fairly common in management literature, it is a word you won’t find in most dictionaries. It means more than merely taking initiative. It means that as human beings, we are responsible for our own lives. Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions. We can subordinate feelings to values. We have the initiative and responsibility to make things happen.

Being proactive is you planning your tasks the night before and focusing on the items that you know have the highest potential to move your business forward. It’s asking yourself: “What is the single thing I can do that will make the rest of my work easier or irrelevant.”

If you want to get more work done, plan ahead so that you don’t get derailed by the “important” things that want to jump up and steal your attention. Tim Urban would often refer to these interruptions as the instant gratification monkey. We get a reward from jumping on an email. That dump of happy brain chemicals rewards us for not planning ahead and working on email.

It’s only at the end of the day that we sit back and feel a general lack of progress and disappointment in our day that we realize our day was crap. Future you, has very little influence on you currently. Future you just has to deal with the crap you left for them.

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 to do whatever is necessary, consistent with correct principles to get the job done.

If you want something awesome to happen to you, then get in the driver’s seat and start making sure that you’re focused on the right work where you bring the most value.

There is no one to blame for your crappy day of tasks but yourself. If you’re blaming someone or something else, stop being a child, adults take responsibility.

It is so much easier to blame other people, conditioning, or conditions for our own stagnant situation. But we are responsible — “response-able” — to control our lives and to powerfully influence our circumstances by working on be, on what we are.

Being proactive means, you take responsibility for your actions or your lack of actions. You know the results rest squarely on the activity you took and that if you want different results, only different action on your part can make that happen.

Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind

Insert the old, and getting lamer, story about yourself at a funeral and what people will say about you. Somehow, Covey takes this story to a new level of eye rolling. Not sure how because I generally like the analogy.


To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.

In my 8 Week Business BootCamp we walk through a few different exercises to get at this idea because when you know where you want to go, you can filter all your current decisions through that lens. You can look at a business activity and see if it will help you get to your goal or not. If not, drop it.

Again, one of the keys in this chapter is that you must take responsibility for your actions if you want to get to your desired result. Covey seems to be focusing your proactivity in this chapter.

He wants you to write a multipage mission statement, not just a sentence, and then spend a day or so every year evaluating it and rewriting it over a number of hours.

I do this when I start my new notebook for a year, but somehow the way Covey explained the process made it seem like a terrible endeavour. Not sure how he did that because I have always enjoyed the two or three hours I spend working on my plan.

Habit 3: Put First Things First

But as we examine the endowment in the context of effective self-management, we realize it’s usually not the dramatic, the visible, the once-in-a-lifetime, up-by-the-bootstraps effort that brings enduring success empowerment come from learning how to use this great endowment in the decisions we make every day.

This section lines up very, very well with The ONE Thing2, which I loved. While much of the media glorifies the flash in the pan and popular people, that is almost never the case for work that lasts. In fact, much of what we view as amazing work decades later was a result of long, arduous work day in day out3.

Covey also spends a bunch of this habit talking about how always going for ‘more’ work means we break relationships. We can deal with people and emotions faster and expect to do an effective job.

The efficiency focus creates expectations that clash with the opportunities to develop rich relationships, to meet human needs, and to enjoy spontaneous moments on a daily basis.

Scheduling every minute of the day leaves no room for relationships, and I firmly believe that business success with relational failure still means you’ve failed. A broken marriage as the price of business wins is way to high a price to pay.

Many people seem to think that success in one area can compensate for failure in other areas of life. But can it really? Perhaps it can for a limited time in some areas. But can success in your profession compensate for a broken marriage, ruined health, or weakness in personal character? True effectiveness requires balance, and your tool needs to help you create and maintain it.

You must spend your time on the right things, those that are not urgent but are essential. It’s not critical for me to finish my next book. I have no deadline, but these books do more than just create some sales for me. They help frame my thinking and force me to dig even deeper into my thoughts so that I can wrestle them out in a coherent way.

I’m a better thinker and business owner for writing. That’s why they often fall into the single thing I can do to make the rest of my business easy or irrelevant.

With that covered, we jump into Covey’s Public Victory Habits.

Public Victory

You can’t be successful with other people if you haven’t paid the price of success with yourself.

There is a tendency to want the outward results of success without putting in the work first. I was talking a friend a few weeks ago, and he wants a great job with an awesome company. What he has is a mediocre job with an okay company. The thing is that is all he’s currently ready for.

He has a mediocre attitude, so he’s going to get average work.

You need to be in the right spot for those opportunities you long for, or you’ll squander them.

You’re reading this, so I can fairly confidently say that you’re working on yourself. Which means you might be ready to move on to the next habits.

Habit 4: Think Win/Win

This is where Covey really goes off the deep end regarding buzzwords and things that just don’t seem to mean anything. Specifically in his explanations of his Six Paradigms of Human Interaction.

Six Paradigms of Human Interaction

  1. Win/Win
  2. Win/Lose
  3. Lose/Win
  4. Lose/Lose
  5. Win
  6. Win/Win or No Deal

This was the first section I read through once, then twice and just gave up on. The reasoning between the different options is so convoluted that I felt I understood them better from just the list above than from the explanations of the list.

Now I’m firmly with Covey in the last category, Win/Win or No Deal. That’s what all consulting is. You find something you can do that provides value to the client, and they pay you for that value. You both win, and if you can’t figure out a way that you both win, you don’t do the work.

Covey uses way too many contrived stories and buzzwords to say that one paragraph though.

Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

We have such a tendency to rush in, to fix things up with good advice. But we often fail to take the time to diagnose, to really, deeply understand the problem first.

Many freelancer’s start here. They say “yes” to everything. They can fix any problem under the sun and don’t even bother to figure out if it’s really the problem that will change the prospects business. The see some complaint from a prospect and they say “yes” they can solve it.

But just like a doctor that prescribed a medication before doing any diagnosis would be considered malpractice, I believe that not diagnosing the problems your clients have before offering options is malpractice. It also makes you worth so little that you get to race to the bottom on pricing.

Deeper than that though, listening is one of the best ways to build up relationships. Listening and empathizing is one of the key ideas in No Drama Discipline4, which not only changed the interactions in my house but changed how I speak to clients5.

Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak.

I’ve tried to stop waiting for my turn to speak, and this is not my first time with a kick at the can. In fact the first time I started to try this was when watching Fight Club years ago.

As a freelancer, clients can tell when you’re just saying yes to everything that you probably don’t have the chops for the work.

If you don’t have confidence in the diagnosis, you won’t have confidence in the prescription.

When you jump straight to pricing work without digging in, you’re telling them you’re worth very little. One of the reasons that I have really high rates is that my conversations focus 90% on diagnosing to the extent that a number of prospects that come to me for a membership site do some business coaching first to make sure they’re even on the right track.

Habit 6: Synergize

What is synergy? Simply defined, it means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It means that the relationship which the parts have to each other is a part in and of itself. It is not only a part, but the most catalytic, the most empowering, the most unifying, and the most exciting part.

Yeah, I have no idea what is up here. That sentence above is the best I’ve got, and I’m not convinced it says..anything.

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I guess Covey is trying to say that if you perform the other habits they’ll continue to compound on themselves and you’ll “synergize” into exponential success.

But I’m totally grasping here.

Habit 7: Sharpening The Saw

This is the final habit, but I’d argue that it’s the most important. It’s the one that tells you to take care of yourself and talks about some ways to do it because if you don’t, you’ll burn out and do crappy work.

According to Covey, there are four areas you need to care for.

1. Physical

This is sleeping right, eating right and getting exercise.

2. Spiritual

This is meditation or prayer and sticking with values that are matched to who you are or your whole being will rebel.

3. Mental

Most of our mental development and study discipline comes through formal education. But as soon as we leave the external discipline of school, many of us let our minds atrophy. We don’t do any more serious reading, we don’t write — at least not critically or in a way that tests our ability to express ourselves in distilled, clear, and concise language. Instead we spend our time watching TV.

So start reading books and doing courses. Make sure that your brain is getting exercised just like any other muscle.

One of the benefits of joining BootCamp is the book club. You can join us in a year of reading dangerously.

4. Social/Emotional

You must build up the relationships that are around you if you want to thrive. You see this in The Happiness Advantage6 as well. Those that have strong social support get through crappy times.

Taking care of yourself is crucial to being around for the long-term. No one should be impressed you pulled an all-nighter. Keep yourself in tip-top shape to make sure that you can do good work over the long haul.

Inside-Out Again

This is the chapter that really brought home the buzzword bingo in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I read it three times and still can’t tell you what it’s about.

Should You Read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People?

Nope, you shouldn’t. It’s got some great ideas, but they’re so wrapped up in buzzwords and totally improbable examples that it devalues the entire book. I had to force myself to stop skimming the book and to truly focus on it so I could write this review.

Don’t get The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People on Amazon

Photo by: activars

  1. Shaping the path is from Switch, which I reviewed a while ago. Get Switch on Amazon
  2. Get The ONE Thing on Amazon 
  3. Ryan Holiday does a great job talking you out of flash in the pan success in Perennial Seller. I looked at it here
  4. Here is my look at No Drama Discipline 
  5. Clearly I don’t hug clients or rub their backs like I do with my clients, but the first thing I try to do is show them that I have their best interests at heart when we have a disagreement. 
  6. Here is my look at The Happiness Advantage. Get The Happiness Advantage on Amazon