Some Quick Ideas from One of the Better Self-Help Books

“Some people are literally beaten up by problems all day every day. The only relief they have is in escaping to the not important, not urgent activities…” (pp. 160-161)

This quote, though a classic example of a statement where the author doesn’t literally mean literally, unless actual assaults by fellow workers is the issue at hand, is actually still an example of what is worthwhile in this book:

Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (25th anniversary ed.; London: Simon & Schuster, 2004).

This is one of those books that I’m reading decades after everyone else, and self-help is not a genre I am normally drawn to. But my wife left this one lying around, and I thought I’d take a look, motivated by the nagging feeling that I need to work smarter, not harder.

Here are Covey’s seven main points in a nutshell, in case there’s an English language reader on the planet who doesn’t know yet:

  1. You have to be “proactive”. (I wonder if Covey is to be thanked for entrenching this word in the language?) I.e. don’t just let life steer you, but take the initiative a bit. Some things you can’t control, so be a bit self-determining in those areas you can control. Okay, that’s got something to it.
  2. Be sure of your main purpose(s). Don’t let sheer busyness blind you to the fact that you might be busy on a project you don’t really want to do or shouldn’t be doing. Are you barking up the right tree, before you expend all that energy barking? Yep, that matters too.
  3. Once you’re busy around the right tree, so to speak, don’t let the urgent stuff crowd out the important stuff. Be firm about investing effort in those long-term efforts that will pay off in producing something important (e.g. loving your children, your wife or husband, or doing that thing that will make you a more effective worker), though the urgent stuff threatens to crowd it out. Hence the opening quote, which I can identify with!
  4. Where there are competing interests at stake, look for new solutions where both parties can find something they’re after.
  5. Listen to what the other person is saying before trying to get your own opinion across. “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Not rocket science, is it, but one of those things that would practically change the world if all of us did it. Covey points out how selfish we tend to be in conversation, and how rarely we really care about truly listening to the other person.
  6. “Synergize.” Well, I’m afraid that’s another of those words. The point is really to work with the different perspectives of others as a positive. But I think Weird Al has spoiled the word for me: www.youtube.com/watch?v=GyV_UG60dD4.
  7. “Sharpen the saw.” I.e. take the time and plan what’s necessary to restore oneself physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Again, kinda obvious, but we do need to be told to actually do this. My experience is that we so often just ‘push through’, getting ever staler, ever slower, slowly less happy. More haste, less speed.

So how good is it? There is some wisdom here, and the fact that we already ‘know’ some of it doesn’t mean it is implemented very often. Sometimes we just need someone to shake us a bit so we actually do it. Many of these ideas don’t have a lot of impact until actually implemented. Something else is, it’s pretty clear Covey was (not being around for the 25th anniversary edition) a Christian, and he didn’t try to hide it to preserve his sales, though he tried to keep his appeal broader than the church alone. The caption of his final chapter is an explicitly Christian quote from Ezra Taft, and it isn’t just window dressing. Covey clearly meant it. So despite the extra padding in this edition, which could get its point across in about half the number of pages (330 + various appendices), in the end I thought it was a worthwhile read, and hopefully will make me think twice about my everyday choices and work habits.

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