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Summary of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People + free ebook, audiobook and animated summary


To sum up the seven habits at a high level, 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 to interdependence. An effective person has found the balance of production while also increasing their capacity to produce.

The first three habits are habits of self-mastery or private victories. These habits must come first, after which come the second three habits of public victories. The last habit is one that is key to the proper functioning and renewal of the first six.

About Stephen Covey

Stephen Covey, the well-known author of the seven Habits of Highly Effective People, was an internationally respected leadership authority, family expert, teacher, organizational consultant, and author. He is also recognized as one of Time Magazine’s 25 most influential Americans. 

“Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he can and should be and he will become as he can and should be.”

– Stephen Covey

Habit 1: Be Proactive

“But until a person can say deeply and honestly, “I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday,” that person cannot say, ‘I choose otherwise.'”

– Stephen Covey

Covey redefines several terms we are accustomed to using. For example, you have to forget your dictionary definition of proactive. Plus, you must forget how you have been taught to attribute this word to your workforce.

The best way to understand a paradigm is first to understand the widely accepted paradigms of human behavior. 

1) Genetic determinism (you are who you are because of your genes)

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

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

The prevailing view is that at our core, we are animals. Therefore, we are compelled by a given stimulus to give a specific response. While there is undoubtedly some truth to this, Covey quotes psychiatrist and Holocaust victim Victor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.” (See Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning for his story.) Hence, we are influenced by stimuli, but we have free will.

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. This choice generally occurs between stimulus and response. This view argues that your unhappiness and lack of success are due to you choosing to let something make you that way. Therefore, we have to choose our response, which is being proactive. Covey’s idea of proactivity does not minimize the effect of genetics, upbringings, and environments. However, we must recognize our responsibility to shape our responses to these factors.

Proactivity is not an optimistic stance. Instead, proactivity means understanding the reality of a situation. 

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 things in our circle of concern. Many people spend their time and energy worrying or complaining about the things they can’t control. The more you focus on things outside your control, i.e., outside your “circle of influence,” the fewer things you’ll control. Your circle of influence will shrink. In contrast, by focusing only on those things within your control, you will find that your circle of influence will grow.

(Chart credit: Hilarie Deverell)

To shift your focus to your circle of influence, stop talking about “have” (if I only had a better job) and start saying “be” (I can be more efficient).

Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind

Everything is created twice. You first create something as a mental creation. Then, as a result, it becomes a physical creation. 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. (Refer to the summary of Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill to better understand what this means, and to learn how to shape your actions based on this principle.)

Beginning with the end in mind means approaching any role you have in life with your values and directions clear. Because we are self-aware, we can realize when we are acting in a role that isn’t in harmony with our values or isn’t a result of our proactive design.

Those things at the center of your life will be the source of your security (your sense of worth), guidance (your source of direction in life), wisdom (your perspective on life), 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 alternative centers. People can be spouse centered, family-centered, money centered, work-centered, pleasure centered, or self-centered. You probably know someone who is an example of being centered around each one of these things. 

Many of these centers are sufficiently good things to be focused on. However, Covey explains that it is not healthy to depend on any of these centers for security, guidance, wisdom, or power. Instead, to be an effective person, we need to have a “principle” center. Our principle center should be based on timeless, unchanging values. The principle center will put all these other centers in perspective.

“The personal power that comes from principle-centered living is the power of a self-aware, knowledgeable, proactive individual, unrestricted by the attitudes, behaviors, and actions of others or by many of the circumstances and environmental influences that limit other people.”

– Stephen Covey

The best way to make sure your life is aligned with your principles (and the best way to track when you move off-center) 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?

This principle is the same for families or organizations. An authentic mission statement is the first step in the process of being effective. Importantly, 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 is the second creation–the physical realization of Habits 1 and 2. Habits 1 and 2 are best characterized 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 things that don’t align with your principles and goals.

Covey describes four levels of time management:

1) Notes and checklists (reducing your cognitive burden in the present)

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

3) Daily planning utilizing goal-setting and prioritization. Most people never get beyond this level

4) Categorization of activities and intentional focus on and exclusion of certain activities

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 as possible in quadrant II. They do things that are important before they become urgent. For example, they prioritize building relationships, long-term planning, and preventative maintenance. The more time you spend in this quadrant, the less time you will have to spend in quadrant I. Delegate or otherwise cut out anything in quadrants III and IV.

In reality, most people spend most of their time in quadrant I and III. They are always focusing on urgent things that may or may not be necessary. This approach rarely allows you to be effective. Most of us try to get out of this vicious cycle by trying to be more disciplined. However, the author contends that your problem is probably not that you lack discipline. More likely, it is simply that your priorities have not been rooted in your values.

To become a quadrant II self-manager, Covey suggests a series of four steps:

1) Identifying roles. Write down a list of roles that you wish to devote time and energy to fill. This could be your role as an individual (for which you would devote time for self-improvement). Alternatively, it could be your role as a family member (spouse, son, mother, etc.). Finally, it could be your role at work (roles that relate to your job title)

2) Selecting goals. Write down one or two goals for each role that you want to accomplish over the next week. Since you’ve already gone through the process of establishing Habits 1 and 2, these goals should be tied into your larger purpose and long-term goals

3) Scheduling. Take things a step beyond where most people get with their use of scheduling. Hence, sit down and plan out your schedule a week at a time. Scheduling will allow you to match your goals with the best time to accomplish them. For example, peak productivity for most people is between 2 – 5 hours after waking. One use of this principle might be to schedule time 2 – 5 hours after waking on Saturday to do the most critical quadrant II activities that your job won’t allow you to do during the week

4) Daily adapting. Take a few minutes at the beginning of each day to review the schedule you put together and revisit the values that induced you to establish your goals for the day. In real life, things change. Therefore, it is crucial to allow your schedule to be fluid and adaptable while keeping your focus on your values and priorities

Habit 4: Think Win/Win

Covey is not outlining some unrealistically happy and friendly attitude. Instead, the author defines thinking win/win as a mindset that is always looking for a third alternative to the “me or you” decision. Most people live in one of the following four alternative paradigms:

1) Win/lose (authoritarian or egotistical)

2) Lose/win (being a pushover)

3) Lose/lose (when two win/lose people interact)

4) Win (focused solely on the results you get for yourself)

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 an emotional bank account. 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 the presence of a hefty emotional bank account.

To better understand what a win/win decision is and how it is structured, Covey provides the following characteristics:

1) Clear identification of desired results

2) Specified parameters within which to achieve those results

3) Resources to be used to accomplish the results

4) Accountability through specific standards of performance and times for evaluation

5) Consequences of the results of the evaluation

The key to this chapter is that, in most difficult situations, the problem is the system, not the people. By approaching those situations with the question of how we can change the system to make it work for all involved, many difficult problems can be resolved.

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

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

– Stephen Covey

If you want to interact effectively with people and influence them, you must first understand them. It may be common sense, but it stands in direct contrast to most people’s modus operandi, which is to be 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

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’s a tremendous deposit in the emotional bank account.

In contrast to empathic listening, we tend to listen from our frame of reference (even if we listen attentively) and have these “autobiographical responses”:

1) Evaluate (agree or disagree)

2) Probe (ask questions from our frame of reference)

3) Advice (give counsel based on our own experience)

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

We should listen empathically instead of forcing our natural autobiographical responses onto each situation. If we do this, we can get beyond a surface-level, transactional exchange and have a real impact. Needs stop motivating people once those needs are satisfied. Satisfy the need to be understood, and you can move on to being productive. Subsequently, the other half of this habit is being understood.

Covey refers to the Greek philosophies of ethos, pathos, and logos. You should first focus on your character and then your relationships. However, both rely on your logic, which should be pursued after the first two philosophies. Most people try to skip straight to logos in every exchange. However, someone must first understand you emotionally before understanding how your logic fits your perspective’s overall picture. Approach your communication through this framework, and you’ll be surprised at how efficiently you get your point across.

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 third alternatives – win/win solutions.

Habit 6: Synergize

Covey does not refer to the type of “synergy” that occurs when two companies merge and become better together by cutting down on administration costs. Additionally, he is not referring to collaborative efforts to accomplish more than you could alone.

Covey describes synergy as something that may be impossible to understand unless you have experienced it. One way to describe it is when a group of people enters a simultaneous and cooperative state of flow. Covey describes this as the “peak experience” of group interaction.

You may have experience of playing sports where the team just gelled. When this happens, your team’s plays start clicking like you were moving as one body. Alternatively, you may have experience of performing as a musical group. Imagine the moments where every note was perfect, and every hook was tight. Finally, you might recall an emergency where strangers came together to act with unprecedented cooperation.

These examples are what the author means by synergy – a shared peak experience. This experience can be created as a culmination 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. To operate at this level consistently, you can become more effective than most people can dream of being.

Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw

Remember, these are all intended to be habits. A habit is something that is practiced repeatedly. Subsequently, you need to take the time to renew yourself before practice.

Covey recommends you carve out the time to do things to renew what he classifies as the four dimensions of human nature:

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

2. Physical (exercise, nutrition, stress management)

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

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

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. If done correctly, this practice can lead to a virtuous cycle of continual personal growth.


“It is one thing to make a mistake, and quite another thing not to admit it. People will forgive mistakes, because mistakes are usually of the mind, mistakes of judgment. But people will not easily forgive the mistakes of the heart, the ill intention, the bad motives, the prideful justifying cover-up of the first mistake.”

– Stephen Covey

The crux of the 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. Unfortunately, it is human nature to imitate without delivering authenticity.

 Once you’ve read the book, you’ll have grasped the greater meaning and the nuances of his points, but it’s still useful to refresh your memory in this way:

1. Be proactive. Adopt a perspective of responsibility for your actions, reactions, and results.

2. Begin with the end in mind. Make sure your efforts start with the establishment of your principles.

3. Put first things first. Spend your time on important things, not urgent things.

4. Think Win-Win. Approach every interaction with the perspective of trying to fix the system, not the person, to find the best solution for all involved.

5. Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood. Meet people’s needs to be understood, establish trust, and communicate your emotions; communicate your logic last.

6. Synergize. Combine the first five habits for an exponentially higher level of effective and cooperative daily interaction.

7. Sharpen the Saw. Take the time to maintain and renew your mind, body, emotions, and spirit.

If you have feedback about this summary or would like to share what you have learned, comment below.

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