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My Path to a Cloud Project Manager

Naturally Curious

Communication Tower
  • Writer's pictureMarcus Yeo

7 Habits of Highly Effective People - Book review/summary

I first came across this book about 20 years ago. It has such a catchy title, that since then, I have purchased the paper book, kindle version, and tried picking it (god knows how many times) to try finish reading the book. I was never successful; not even up to the half way mark. This year is the year when I finally managed to check this off my bucket list, and I was really happy to do so. This is a book written by Stephen Covey, first published in 1989, which has apparently sold tens of millions of copies worldwide. It explains an approach to being effective in attaining goals by aligning oneself to what he calls 'true north' principles based on a character ethic, which is universal and timeless.

7 habits, long story short - if you want to achieve lasting improvement, you need to develop better habits

  1. Being Proactive

  2. Beginning with an end in mind

  3. Putting first thing first

  4. Thinking win-win

  5. Seeking first to understand, then to be understood

  6. Synergising

  7. Sharpening the saw

Personality vs Character

For lasting change, you have to address your character, not just behaviour

The author explains that there are 2 ways to strive for improvements in your life:

  1. Work on skills necessary for the behaviour you desire. This method is called the 'personality ethic'. Eg. if you want to improve your relationships with others, you might study communication or body-language techniques. However, this is actually just a shortcut as it avoid the fundamental character traits that are holding you back. Thus, this almost never results in lasting personal growth.

  2. A far more effective method would be to work on your character - the fundamental habits and belief systems that form your view of the world. Only behaviour stemming straight from your character will endure over time, because your true character will shine through. This is called 'character ethic' and emphasises things like courage, integrity and the golden rule. An example quoted by the author: If you'd like to have a happy marriage, you need to 1st become a more positive person yourself, not just master a few easy techniques that'll make others like you more.


The author explained that a person's paradigms guides the way in which we perceives and understands the world. No one really an objective observer and we are tinted by our own paradigms.

Shifting our paradigms is the key to making lasting changes. Only in this way can we change our subjective realities - our characters and behaviours. We need to recognise and monitor our own paradigms; if we don't, we won't know which ones are holding us back.

And attaining this kind of principle-based paradigm is what the 7 habits are all about. The author explained the shift of paradigm using an interesting example of a Sunday morning when he was taking the subway, a man entered the car with his children. His children began shouting and throwing things, disturbing everyone in the car, while the father just sat down with his eye closed. The author was so irritated by the disturbance that he asked the father to control his children. The man answered that he probably should, but that the children's mother had died a mere hour earlier, and they were all in shock. The author's paradigm shifted instantaneously to one of profound compassion and a desire to help.

1st habit: Be proactive and take control of your own fate

Unlike animals who react on instincts, we have the ability to proactively influence how we react to the world around us. Unfortunately, many people choose to be reactive and allow external circumstances to dictate their behaviour and emotions. Such people tends to say phrases like 'It wasn't my fault' or 'It's out of my hands', as oppose to 'I've decided to...' or 'Let's try to find a solution to this problem'.

The author explains attitudes using 2 imaginary concentric circles.

The outer circles is your 'Circle of Concern', representing all things you are concerned about. Inside this circle is the smaller 'Circle of Influence', which represents all the things you can actually do something about.

Proactive people focus on their Circles of Influence, choosing to work on things within their control. And this results in the expansion of their Circle of Influence. To put this into practice, whenever you catch yourself blaming someone or something external for a problem you face, remind yourself that the root cause is your reaction to the problem. Focus on finding solutions instead of accusing others.

2nd Habit: Begin with the end in mind

Whenever you perform an action, you're actually performing it twice: 1st in your mind, when you imagine it, and then physically, when you do it. Better to ask twice than to lose your way once. Without a plan to follow, there will likely be costly missteps. The more exact and realistic the mental picture of the action is, the better its execution will be - and hence, better the results.

Personal Mission statement and integrate it into your daily life

Many people spend their time working towards goals that don't really matter to them, because they never stopped to define them properly. They focus on efficient instead of effective. Effective people focus on what's important to them; everything else is a waste.

The author proposed writing a personal mission statement - what kind of person you want to be, what you hope to achieve in your life, basic values and principles underlying these goals. To do this, one example is to imagine if you have passed away. What would you like your partner, best friend, colleague to say in their eulogies? What sort of person do you want to be remembers as? What do you want to be remembered? The personal mission statement should be reviewed occasionally.

Eg. of personal statements: 'I value my work and family equally, and seek balance on time spent on them', 'I sympathetic person and put in significant amount of time in volunteering and helping the less fortunate', 'I constantly strive to improve myself to be a better person to the world and everyone around me'.

3rd Habit: Put first things first

Most time-management techniques focus on increasing efficiency, not on improving effectiveness.

'First things first' means to prioritise everything you do so that the important things are always taken care of first.

The author suggest to categorise all tasks according to 2 dimensions: 'Urgency' and 'Importance'. Thus, giving you a 2x2 matrix with 4 quadrants:

  • Quadrant 1: Tasks are important and urgent. Needs to be dealt with immediately

  • Quadrant 2: Tasks are important but not urgent. E.g. writing your mission statement. Needs to be done, but can wait

  • Quadrant 3: Tasks are urgent but not important. E.g. a phone ringing while you're working on something else

  • Quadrant 4: Tasks are no important nor urgent. A pure waste of time

The author suggest that the most important quadrant to focus is number 2, which are important but often neglected and when worked enough, will find far fewer crises emerging in quadrant 1. Thus, a good 1st step in implementing this habit in life is to identify a quadrant 2 activity that you've been neglecting - one that would have significant impact on your life if you did well - then commit in writing to doing more of it.

4th Habit: Think 'win-win'

Most people's world-views are shaped by a strong 'win-lose' paradigm. They see any interaction with others, whether at work or in their personal life, as basically a competition, fighting the other person for the bigger slice of pie. However, the situation usually becomes a 'lose-lose' one, while the dog gets the entire pie, which was knocked to the floor during the argument.

But most situations in life don't need to be competitions. There is usually enough pie for everyone and it is far better when all parties work towards a 'win-win'. You'll find yourself building lots of positive relationships because each interaction strengthens the relationship.

The author suggested an exercise to think of an important relationship you have where you'd like to develop a 'win-win' mentality. And to put yourself in the shoes of the other party and write down what you believe would constitute wins for him. Then think about what results would be wins for you. Do this before approaching the other party and ask if he'd be willing to try to find a mutually satisfactory agreement.

Forming stable relationships means investing in emotional bank accounts

By putting time, effort and goodwill into it, the balance of the account grows, reflecting the increasing trust between the 2 parties.

E.g. of deposits includes:

  • sticking to promises made

  • Try to understand others. Listening empathically to the other person,

  • be explicit about that you expect of the other person

  • be courteous and sensitive even in small matters

  • Maintaining the utmost personal integrity. Being loyal to those who are not present, and never bad-mouthing them

5th Habit: Seek 1st to understand, then to be understood

If you want to be respected as a listener, you need to develop the skill of empathic listening.

Empathic listening means trying to get inside the other person's frame of reference so you can understand them both intellectually and emotionally.

This necessitates a change of paradigm from 'I'm listening so that I can provide an answer' to 'I'm listening so that I can really understand the person in front of me.'

The below accounts for the breakdown of our communication:

  • 10% what we say

  • 30% how we sound

  • 60% our body language

If you learn to listen in a truly empathic way, you'll notice that many people fully prepared to open up to you and to reciprocate by considering your opinions and advice.

6th Habit: Synergise by treating others with openness and respect

Synergy means a situation where the contributions of many add up to a total that exceeds the combined contributions of the individuals. 1 + 1 can be 3 or more. Each of us sees the world differently and each have our own strengths.

When people synergise, they listen to each other, put themselves in each other's shoes and use the contributions of others as a springboard to create something great. They're on the same side, trying to tackle a shared challenge, not fight each other.

One example quoted by the author was a leader during the WW2, who put together a group of highly influential and capable people, who each had his strong pride and agenda. He scheduled several weeks for the group to know each other. Many considered this inefficient, but this human interaction helped the team get into an open, trusting and synergistic mind-set. When disagreement arose, instead of opposition, there was a genuine effort to understand the other, resulting in a respectful, creative and productive culture.

The outcome of your interactions with others may not be completely under your control, but you should still embrace it with openness. This requires self-confidence and the conviction that the combined contribution of each party can lead to something great, even if the journey to get there is a bit chaotic.

7th Habit: Sharpen the saw if you want to keep sawing

If you never pause to take care of yourself, any gains in effectiveness you achieve will be short-lived, for you'll soon exhaust yourself and won't be able to maintain any of the good habits you've developed.

There are 4 dimensions of life:

  • Physical: Exercise regularly, eat healthily and avoid stress

  • Spiritual: Praying or meditating, or reflecting on your own norms and values

  • Mental: Read good books, avoid spending too much time on TV and make time for your own writing. Organising and planning things to keep your mind sharp and fresh

  • Social and emotional: Build positive relationships with people around you

Consciously make time to recuperate and recharge. The author suggested to write down activities that could contribute to your well-being in each of the 4 dimensions. Pick 1 activity in each as a goal for the week.


For lasting effectiveness, adopt these 7 habits:

  • Be proactive: Don't spend time reacting to external events. Take charge and assume responsibility for your life.

  • Begin with an end in mind: Have a vision for the future and align your actions accordingly to make it into a reality

  • Put 1st thing 1st: Prioritise your work, focus on what's important. Don't get distracted by urgent but unimportant tasks

  • Think win-win: Don't try to get the biggest slice of the pie, but rather find a division that is acceptable and beneficial to all. You get your fair share and build strong positive relationships in the process.

  • Seek 1st to understand, then be understood: We should 1st take time to listen to the other person, only then make recommendations

  • Synergise: Adopt the guiding principle that contributions of many will far exceed the sum total of individual contributions.

  • Sharpen the saw: Strive for a sustainable lifestyle that affords you time to recuperate and recharge, so you can stay effective in the long-term

My thoughts:

I am really glad to have taken the time to finally finish reading this book after so many years. Out of the 7 habits, I can easily apply many of them into my personal life and in my job as a project manager, where I need to interact with many people daily. Many of the habits would require a fair amount of practising in your real life, others require you to first put down your pride. This book review/summary will be a page which I will constant refer back to remind myself. I wouldn't say which habit is more important, but I look forward to practising #2 'Beginning with an end in mind' and #7 'Sharpen the saw'. I can imagine #3 'Put 1st thing 1st' as a habit I can use almost everyday.

After reading this book, I come to know that there is a separate book which Stephen Covey writes about 'The 8th Habit', which is a follow up to this book. Apparently, the 8th habit is about 'finding your inner voice and inspire others to find theirs', which relates more on 'unique personal significance', as compared to effectiveness in the 7 habits. I have already added this to my bucket list and will hope to start reading this soon.


"What do you think?"

Let me know if you think there are any important/useful details I have missed in the above write up.

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