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Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

35 years ago my life was, to put it bluntly, in a bit of a mess. To be honest, I was a mess. My life was heading in the wrong direction. Then 2 things happened that changed my life. The first was that I met the lady who was going to become my wife of 30 years. Secondly, I read a book called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Dr. Stephen Covey. The subtitle of the book was what interested me. It was ‘Powerful Lessons in Personal Change’.

I have read that book many, many times now; as have most of the team here at Eagle Training. I have to say it’s not an easy read because it makes you think very deeply about yourself. I’ve written about it many times and I frequently get asked about it by the delegates that I have the pleasure of working with.

So, I thought I would offer you my summary of ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, its powerful lessons in personal change and how they had such a powerful impact on my life.

Powerful Lessons in Personal Change


The 7 habits 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. Synergise
  7. Sharpen the saw

To be clear here, a habit is a practice or behaviour that you exhibit on a frequent basis and that is, to a large extent, unconscious. Some writers argue that it is our habits that define us, so they are pretty important in our lives and can be used effectively to initiate and maintain positive personal change.

Covey refers to Habits 1, 2, and 3 as private victories. These will help you to develop self-mastery. Habits 4, 5, and 6 are public victories and focus on teamwork, collaboration, and communication. Finally, Habit 7 is the habit of self-renewal. Being proactive is the base on which the other 6 habits sit.


1 – Be Proactive


Many people would define being proactive as taking initiative; which, of course, it is. But, for Covey, it is more than that. Being proactive in this context is being willing to accept responsibility for what happens in our lives. Please note that this is not a blaming thing.

It is accepting that our behaviour is the result of conscious choices that we make that are based on our values and not based on conditions or feelings. As Covey says in the book;


“Look at the word responsibility – ‘response-ability’. It is the ability to choose your response (to the events that occur in our lives).”


The alternative would be to react to those events, led by our emotions, or to lay the blame for them at the door of our genes, parents, or other external factors such as the government, our companies or the economy. Having read the book I would now argue that no matter what happens, you can choose how any event affects you by assessing what it means to you. Please note that I am not saying that this is an easy philosophy to develop. In part, it is an admission that you are where you are today, because of the choices you made yesterday and the days before that.

Let me be clear, even the most proactive person, accepting responsibility in this way does get affected by things. But, proactive people focus more on things they can influence than they do on what concerns them. The more we do this, the more effective we will be, and the more positive personal change we will make.


2 – Begin with the end in mind


Beginning with the end in mind is the habit of personal leadership. I believe that too many people give no thought to this habit and so their lives become a series of random acts and decisions that take them somewhere by accident rather than where they want to be by design. And then they reach a point where they say something like, “If only I had xxxxx”.
Without a clear direction, you are effectively a passenger in your life’s journey (sorry!). Beginning with the end in mind puts you in the driver’s seat, aware of both your destination and how you will get there.


3 – Put first things first


If beginning with the end in mind is the habit of personal leadership, putting first things first is the habit of personal management. This habit is all about how you use the time available to you in order to achieve what you identified in the second habit. Yes, folks, it’s about time management!

Effective time management is organising and executing around the priorities in our lives; i.e. the important things. Maybe this habit should be called Put Important Things First. Calendars, to-do-lists, and Filofaxes can and will only take us so far.  If we populate them with unimportant things, we will never be effective. Remember the old computer adage; garbage in, garbage out! To be effective, not just efficient, we have to maintain our focus on the important things and not just the things that are urgent. Now, this really is easier said than done because being busy is a drug and many people are addicted to being busy. Please do not let the illusion of ‘busyness’ fool you into believing you are effective.


Covey’s methodology – The Four Quadrants of Time Management


To help us, Stephen Covey talked about four quadrants of time management. They are:

  • Quadrant 1 activities are important and urgent. These are things such as crises, emergencies, or deadlines
  • Quadrant 2 activities are important but not urgent
  • Quadrant 3 activities are not important but urgent
  • Quadrant 4 activities are not important and not urgent (and probably will never be either)

Most people that I work with spend most of their time in Quadrants 1 and 3. Why? Because they are seduced by urgency. It becomes an addiction. Obviously, we have to deal with Quadrant 1 activities because they are important. However, we should spend as much time as we can in Quadrant 2, even if it is not urgent. This quadrant includes planning, preparing, and relationship building. You can find out more about the time matrix here.


4 – Think Win-Win


Thinking win-win is, in my opinion, much misunderstood because people perceive it to be about ‘being nice’. Well, it’s sure not about being nasty. Someone once told me that a win-win outcome is like a yeti; people talk a lot about it, but no-one has ever really seen one!

Adopting a win-win mentality will build trust while making a deposit in the ‘emotional bank account’ that exists between us and others in our life. I believe that this trust, in turn, leads to open and honest communication.


The Five Paradigms of Human Interaction


There are five paradigms of human interaction. They are:

  • Win/Win
  • Win/Lose
  • Lose/Win
  • Lose/Lose

Of course, there will be times when it is not possible for both parties to get what they want. Consequently, the fifth paradigm is Win/Win or No-Deal. Ideally, this should be where we disagree, but we do it agreeably so that our relationship remains intact.

Thinking win-win requires us to balance two focuses. Firstly we have to have the courage to stand up for what we want. Secondly, we should have consideration for what the other person wants. This paradigm is a very assertive one. It is not about giving in to be nice.


5 – Seek to Understand, and be Understood


Seeking first to understand, then to be understood is counter-intuitive. Put simply it is being prepared to listen to someone else before we put our side of the story. It is about putting inquiry before advocacy; asking before telling.

This habit is all about listening at the highest level. After all, if you want to influence anyone, you must understand what they want. To know this, you need to listen empathically. And, this can’t be done with techniques; people are good at sensing false motives. You must truly care.

Now, listening at this high level is hard because there are so many things that get in the way, not least the unconscious biases that we all have. You can find out more about this habit here.

6 – Synergise

Habit 6, Synergise is all about making the most of peoples’ complementary skillsets. It is a phenomenon found in nature where certain species of plants benefit from being next to other plants. So it is with any relationship where one person’s skills offset the lack of those same skills in another person.

7 – Sharpen the Saw

Sharpen the saw is about taking time to self-renew. A useful analogy here is if a lumberjack does not occasionally stop to sharpen their axe each tree will be harder to chop down; eventually no matter how hard they work.

Covey talks of four ‘saws’ that we have to sharpen. They consist of the:

  • Physical saw – eating well, exercise and rest
  • Mental saw – making sure that you stretch your mind by reading, doing crosswords, etc
  • Interpersonal saw – building and maintaining our relationships with others in our personal and professional lives
  • Intrapersonal saw – maintain our relationship with ourselves to understand who we really are and what we are about

Covey claims that by sharpening our saw in any one of the dimension will positively impact the other dimensions. For example, our physical health affects our mental health, and our mental health affects our social life, all driving towards positive personal change.

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