The 7 habits of highly effective people summary
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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Summary, Analysis and Criticism | Stephen R. Covey

Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

The 7 habits of highly effective people summary

We’re scratching the surface in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People summary. To learn the juicy details and support Stephen Covey, get the book on Amazon or the audiobook for free with a free trial of Audible.

DISCLAIMER: This is an unofficial summary and analysis. It is not affiliated with, authorized, approved, licensed, or endorsed by the subject book’s author or publisher.

Stephen Covey’s Perspective

Stephen Covey was an internationally respected leadership authority. Time magazine recognized him as one of the 25 Most Influential Americans. He was also a family expert, professor, organizational consultant and author. Each of these achievements were built upon his strong academic foundation. Covey became an eager participant in school debates and graduated early from high school. He then attended the University of Utah and got a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration followed by an MBA from Harvard University. He diverted his attention from business studies to doctoral studies in religion. Covey’s most popular book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide since its publication in 1989.

Part I – Paradigms and Principles


The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People challenges traditional self-help that encourages personality ethics, like image and attitude. Covey suggests that readers use a character ethic instead. A character ethic relies on timeless principles, like courage and integrity. To make this transition, you will have to go through what Covey calls a paradigm shift. An effective person has learned to make the paradigm shift from outside in to inside out. They have progressed along the growth continuum from dependence to independence and finally to interdependence. An effective person has also found the balance of production while increasing their capability to produce. To become an effective person, you have to encourage a paradigm shift in your worldview by adopting the seven habits of highly effective people.

The first three habits are habits of self-mastery, or private victories. These are:

  1. Be Proactive
  2. Begin With the End in Mind
  3. Put First Things First

These three must come first. After adopting these habits, you can use the three habits of public victories. These three habits are built on interdependence. These are:

  1. Think Win-Win
  2. Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
  3. Synergize 

The last habit relies on continuous improvement and is key to the proper functioning and renewal of the first six. This habit is: 

  1. Sharpen the Saw

Part II – Private Victory

Habit 1: Be Proactive

Covey encourages you to reconsider your dictionary definition of proactive. You must also forget how you have learned to think about this word not only in your personal life but also in your work.

First, we cannot understand proactivity without understanding human behavior. The widely accepted paradigms of human behavior are:

1) Genetic determinism (you are who you are due to your genes)

2) Psychic determinism (your childhood and upbringing shaped your personality)

3) Environmental determinism (the things around you determine who you are)

The prevailing view based on these paradigms is that we are animals at our core. So, we are compelled to give a specific response to stimuli. That said, Covey quotes psychiatrist and Holocaust victim Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.” We are influenced by stimuli within our environment, like others’ words and actions, but we have the free will to choose our response.

This freedom to choose is fundamental to being proactive. The author defines proactivity (and the paradigm shift that comes with it) as exercising your freedom to choose self-awareness, imagination, conscience, or independent will. A paradigm is our subjective view of our environment. As an example, Covey explains that he experienced a paradigm shift one morning on a New York City subway. He and the other passengers were enjoying the peace of reading before a parent entered the subway car with their noisy children. Covey was annoyed by this family breaking the silence and asked the father if he could control his children. This father explained that he was trying, but they were all in shock because the children’s mother had passed away just an hour earlier. In this moment, Covey experienced a paradigm shift from annoyance to compassion. This example shows that paradigm shifts have the potential to make a powerful change in your life. 

We can create our own paradigm shifts by challenging those accepted paradigms of human behavior. Your unhappiness and lack of success are based on a choice to let something make you that way. But we have a choice in the space between a stimulus and how we respond. So, we have to choose our response. The optimal response is being proactive. 

Note that Covey’s idea of proactivity does not minimize the effect of genetics, upbringings and environments. But we must recognize our responsibility to shape our responses to these factors.

Proactivity is not simply optimism. Instead, proactivity is understanding the reality of a situation and taking ownership of it. 

Circle of Influence

Covey explains that we all have a “circle of concern” representing all the things we care about. We can only influence a small portion of the events in our circle of concern. This small portion is called your “circle of influence.” Many people spend their time and energy worrying or complaining about the things they can’t control. The more you focus on factors outside your control, i.e. outside your circle of influence, the fewer features you will control. Covey describes this as being “reactive.” And as a result, your circle of influence will shrink. At the same time, by focusing on factors within your control, you will find that your circle of influence grows. Stephen Covey describes this as being “proactive.”

An example of an expanding circle of influence is when your productivity results in a promotion. You then have greater influence over your employees. But after the promotion, you must still be aware of where your circle of influence lies. For example, if you are given a management position, you will still have little influence over executives. In this instance, you can be proactive to improve your team’s productivity and find opportunities to grow your circle of influence to include executives. That said, you should not waste time worrying about the executives when you have little influence over them.

To shift your focus to your circle of influence, stop talking about “have/had.” An example of this kind of talk is “If I only had a better job.” Instead, start using “be,” as in “I can be more efficient.” 

Habit 2: Begin With the End in Mind

Everything is created twice. You first create something in your mind. It then becomes a physical reality. 

But suppose you don’t consciously choose to control your mental creations. In that case, your life is being created by default. In essence, your life is shaped by random circumstances and other people’s expectations and agendas. Covey uses the example of a ladder to explain this point. If your ladder isn’t leaning against the right wall, every step you take gets you to the wrong place faster. The lesson here is that without your end in mind, you will make progress in the wrong direction.

Starting with the end in mind means approaching any role you have in life with clear values and directions. Because we are self-aware, we can realize when we’re not in harmony with our values or not using a proactive design. So, place the outcome you want at the center of your life. Those issues at the center of your life will be the source of your security (your sense of worth), guidance (your source of direction), wisdom (your perspective), and power (your capacity to act and accomplish).

Most people do not take the time to align their values with their center. As a result, they have multiple centers. People can be spouse-centered, family-centered, money-centered, work-centered, pleasure-centered, or self-centered. Many of these centers are acceptable. But Covey explains that it is unhealthy to depend on any of these centers for security, guidance, wisdom, or power. 

Instead, to be an effective person, you need to have a “principle” center. Your principle center should be based on timeless, unchanging values. The principle center puts all these other centers in perspective. It also allows you to see that, just like all the bricks in a house have a purpose, all of your actions have a purpose.

Personal Mission Statement

The best way to make sure your life is aligned with your principles is to write a personal mission statement. Covey suggests approaching your personal mission statement from the perspective of roles and goals. Who do you want to be, and what do you want to accomplish? An authentic mission statement is a key part of becoming effective. You need to put in the time and effort to gain the right perspective and to set yourself up for the next habit.

Habit 3: Put First Things First

Habit 3 uses actions based on the mental changes associated with Habits 1 and 2. Covey characterizes Habits 1 and 2 as leadership. After establishing these two Habits, you can then begin considering management. Management is at the core of Habit 3.

Effective management involves putting first things first and doing what other people don’t want to do. From Habits 1 and 2, you must have a burning “yes” inside you. This “yes” should allow you to say “no” to other circumstances that don’t align with your principles and goals. 

The author explains that there are four types of activities. Activities are urgent/non-urgent and important/non-important. You need to increase the amount of time you spend on important non-urgent tasks and reduce the amount of time you spend on urgent, non-important tasks. The outcome will be approaching things from the inside out. This means you are beginning with your solid core of principles. So when problems arise, you will see them as pieces of the whole rather than the whole itself. 

To highlight this point, Covey talks about his time working with shopping center managers. He noticed that they spent less than 5% of their time building relationships with store owners despite knowing the positive impact of doing so. They were wasting their time on urgent non-important tasks that could be delegated. To challenge this, the managers allocated a third of their time to improving these relationships. The outcome was:

  • Increase in satisfaction among managers
  • Increase in revenue

You can see how time management is key to putting first things first. So, lay out a schedule for the week in advance while also maintaining flexibility for each day.

Covey describes four levels of time management:

Level 1: Notes and checklists (reducing your cognitive burden in the present so you can think about the future)

Level 2: Calendars and appointment books (looking ahead to arrange your future time better)

Level 3: Daily planning using goal-setting and prioritization. Most people never get beyond this level.

Level 4: Categorizing activities and intentionally excluding some of them

The Fourth Level of Time Management

This fourth level is where the author asks us to operate. He borrows the tool for this categorization from Dwight Eisenhower. An effective time manager spends as much time engaging with activities that are important before they become urgent. For example, they prioritize building relationships, long-term planning and preventative maintenance. The more time you spend adopting this approach, the less time you will spend doing tasks that aren’t urgent or important. Delegate or otherwise cut out anything urgent and unimportant or important and not urgent.

Most people generally focus on urgent matters that may or may not be necessary. This approach rarely lets us be effective. We try to get out of this vicious cycle by being more disciplined. But the author argues that our problem is probably not a lack of discipline. More likely, your priorities have not been rooted in your values.

Part III – Public Victory

Habit 4: Think Win-Win

When Covey tells us to think win-win, he doesn’t outline some unrealistically positive attitude. Instead, he defines a win-win mindset as always looking for a third alternative to the “me or you” approach. 

Most people live in one of the following four unproductive alternative paradigms:

1) Win-lose (authoritarian or egotistical)

2) Lose-win (being a pushover, as you are accepting defeat so someone else can win)

3) Lose-lose (when two win-lose people interact, there is little room for personal or team improvement)

4) Win (focused solely on your results and not the success of the team)

To escape these unproductive mindsets, we must develop the three character traits essential to the win-win paradigm:

1) Integrity (the value we place on ourselves)

2) Maturity (the balance between courage and consideration)

3) Abundance (which comes from a sense of personal worth and security)

Try thinking about your relationships as emotional bank accounts. By proactively making deposits, you ensure that the emotional funds will be there when the time comes to make a withdrawal. Win-win is often challenging but is made much easier by creating a hefty emotional bank account. Things like being kind, keeping commitments and showing empathy are all ways to grow your relationship’s emotional bank account.

To better understand what a win-win decision is and how it is structured, Covey provides the following characteristics associated with the three essential character traits:

  1. Integrity – Staying true to your values and commitments
  2. Maturity – Expressing your ideas with confidence but also considering the views of others
  3. Abundance Mentality – Believing there is plenty for everyone

Covey emphasizes that you should not sacrifice these assets that facilitate long-term productivity just for the sake of results. He retells a famous fable to explain this point. It tells the story of a farmer who kills a goose that lays golden eggs in order to get more eggs right away. But he soon realizes it was a mistake because now he won’t get any more eggs. The lesson from this story is that assets that support production (production capability) should be valued more than production itself. You also have to balance your production of desired results (P) and production capability (PC). Covey calls this the P/PC balance.

 The three assets that support production are:

  1. Human Assets
  2. Financial Assets
  3. Physical Assets

In most difficult situations, the problem is the system rather than the people. Many complicated problems can be resolved if you ask yourself how you can improve the system.

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

If you want to interact effectively with people and influence them, you must first understand them. It may be common sense, but most people do not prioritize understanding. Instead, they are primarily concerned with being understood.

Again, Covey breaks things down into a step-by-step framework that makes your behavior easier to understand. Here are his four levels of listening:

1) Ignoring

2) Pretending to listen

3) Attentive listening

4) Empathic listening

Empathic Listening

The first three are self-explanatory, but you may not have heard the term “empathic listening” before. Empathic listening involves experiencing someone else’s frame of reference by “listening” to their body language, tone, expression and feelings. It also means completely removing the goals of listening for the purpose of forming a response or making a connection. Instead, you should focus on understanding the other person so you can earn their trust. Empathic listening is a tremendous deposit in the emotional bank account.

In contrast to empathic listening, we tend to listen from our own point of view (even if we listen attentively) and have these responses:

1) Evaluate (agree or disagree)

2) Probe (ask questions from our points of view)

3) Advise (give counsel based on our own experiences)

4) Interpret (explain people’s actions based on our motivations)

We should listen empathically instead of forcing our natural responses onto each situation. If we do this, we can get beyond transactional exchanges and have a significant impact. Satisfy the need to be understood, and you can move on to being productive. 

This habit is powerful because it is always in your circle of influence to initially understand, then be understood. When people understand each other, the door is opened for win-win solutions.

Habit 6: Synergize

Covey challenges the self-help literature’s support of individualism and independence. He believes that independence creates obstacles to teamwork. He describes synergy as something that may be impossible to understand unless you have experienced it. Synergy happens when a group of people enters a simultaneous and cooperative state of flow. Covey defines this as the “peak experience” of group interaction.

Let’s think about what this peak experience might look like. You may have played in sports where the team completely jelled. When this happens, your team’s plays start clicking like you are moving as one body. Or, maybe you’ve performed in a music group. Imagine the moments where every note combines perfectly. Finally, you might recall an emergency where strangers came together to act with unprecedented cooperation. These are all examples of people choosing a character ethic rather than a personality ethic. The character ethic was more popular as a self-improvement approach during the American Revolution. Covey believes this ethic is at the foundation of the cooperative model of the US Constitution. The idealistic cooperation of the individual states in the United States reflects the value of interdependence that Covey recommends.

These examples are what the author means by synergy – a shared peak experience. This experience can be created as a result of the first five habits. The key here is that synergy of this type doesn’t have to be a rare experience. We can create it in our everyday lives. Start to live at a higher level by putting the first five habits into practice and adding authenticity and openness. Also, surround yourself with a diverse range of people and listen to their opinions. If you operate at this level consistently, you can become more effective than most people can dream of being.

Part IV – Renewal

Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw

A habit is something practiced repeatedly. So, you need time to recharge yourself before practicing the other habits. This means making time for activities that restore your mental, physical, spiritual and emotional states. 

Covey provides an example to emphasize this point. He describes a woodcutter who had been struggling to cut down a tree for hours. A young man who was watching suggested the woodcutter take a break and sharpen his saw. The woodcutter replied that he was too busy to stop. The young man explained that the woodcutter could cut the tree down far quicker if he took a break and sharpened his saw. This solution might be obvious to us as well. But how often do we hit a wall, burn out, or keep grinding along without taking the time to work on our skills, knowledge, or emotional and physical health? The lesson from this story is that taking time to improve yourself will save you time in the long term. 

Covey recommends you carve out the time for activities that renew what he classifies as the four dimensions of human nature:

1. Mental (reading, visualizing, planning and writing)

2. Physical (exercise, nutrition and stress management)

3. Emotional (service, empathy, synergy and intrinsic security)

4. Spiritual (value clarification, commitment, study and meditation)

Balance is also key. When you neglect any one area, you damage the rest. So, commit at least one hour of every day to these practices.

An overall balance of these dimensions is necessary for supporting the other six habits. Effective balance can lead to a virtuous cycle of continuous personal growth.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Final Summary

The lesson of this book is that you must come from a place of authenticity to be effective. You should start with your values and build with each successive habit. 

The 7 Habits Re-Outlined

To refresh your memory, here are the seven habits of highly effective people:

Habit 1: Be Proactive

Habit 2: Begin With the End in Mind

Habit 3: Put First Things First

Habit 4: Think Win-Win

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

Habit 6: Synergize 

Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Criticism

Many people criticize Seven Habits of Highly Effective People for being vague and outdated. However, these were not problems with the original text, but rather with its followers. Covey and his work were revolutionary and many people did not comprehend the depth of the content in his book. He often gave speeches to follow up on his book’s ideas and would give more in-depth explanations to answer questions from his audience, who are often comprised of authors, journalists, entrepreneurs, business owners, marketers, educators and other professionals.


We rate The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People 4.4/5.

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The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey summary
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    1. Hi Allie,

      Thanks for the feedback! What in particular would you like us to elaborate more on?

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