Sharpening the 7th Habit: Further Thoughts on Stephen Covey’s Habits of Effectiveness

Last month in this space, I marked the unfortunate passing of Stephen Covey by recalling the circumstances surrounding my first reading of his classic book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People some twenty years ago, and by reviewing a few of its key principles – the ones that I have made a conscious effort to live by to this day.  Here they are again:

  • work on changing yourself first, before you attempt to influence others to change
  • know the difference between reacting to a situation automatically in terms of your emotions and responding to that same situation deliberately in terms of your values and your understanding of what is most needed in that situation; then train yourself to respond to events rather than react to them
  • understand the distinction between urgent tasks and important tasks; then arrange your daily schedule to give priority to what is truly important rather than to what is merely urgent
  • allot sufficient time in your weekly schedule for continuous personal renewal on four key dimensions – physical fitness, intellectual stimulation, social involvement, and spiritual practice.

Shortly after I published that post, my friend and fellow blogger Colin Blundell wrote a fascinating account of his experience conducting workshops on the 7 Habits in the 1990’s, which you can read at http://colinblundell.wordpress.com/2012/08/19/stephen-coveys-seven-habits-gurdjieff-nlp-and-the-enneagram/.  One of the concerns Colin addresses in his post is the notion of how we might learn principles such as the four items highlighted above in such a way that they become new and lasting attributes of ourselves – what Colin refers to as “making things stick in the mind”.

Reflecting on Colin’s thoughts about this process – so critical for anyone involved in the work of personal growth – it occurred to me that Covey’s answer to the question of how we make learning “stick in the mind” is embedded in his 7th habit, “sharpening the saw”, which he defines as “continuous personal renewal” (see the fourth highlight above).

I always wished that Covey would one day provide us with a book-length treatment of this seventh habit alone.  I believe that he saw “sharpening the saw” as the most important habit for us to cultivate, and understood that if we failed to do so, the other six would eventually wither and fade away.

In the absence of that wished-for book which Covey never wrote, let’s take a closer look at what he did write in his chapter on Habit 7, “Sharpen the Saw”, from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People ….

Habit 7 is … renewing the four dimensions of your nature – physical, spiritual, mental, and social/emotional.

Most philosophies of life deal … with these four dimensions.  Philosopher Herb Shepherd describes the healthy balanced life around four values: perspective (spiritual), autonomy (mental), connectedness (social), and tone (physical).  Sound motivation and organizational theory embrace these four dimensions or motivations – the economic (physical); how people are treated (social); how people are developed and used (mental); and the service, the job, the contribution the organization gives (spiritual).

“Sharpen the saw” … means expressing all four motivations.  It means exercising all four dimensions of our nature, regularly and consistently in wise and balanced ways.

This is the single most powerful investment we can ever make in life – investment in ourselves, in the only instrument we have with which to deal with life and to contribute.  We are the instruments of our own performance, and to be effective, we need to recognize the importance of taking time regularly to sharpen the saw in all four ways.

After these opening paragraphs, Covey fills out the remainder of this chapter with in-depth explorations of each of the four dimensions – insightful and valuable reading (or reading once again, if you’ve read the book in the past).  Also worth your time would be a glance at Colin’s blog post cited above, to get his unique perspective on how these four dimensions interrelate with each other.

And regardless of whether you do or don’t follow up on these reading recommendations, by all means do not be fooled into thinking that merely learning about these dimensions will suffice for sharpening your own saw.  At the end of his chapter, Covey stresses that learning alone is not enough – we must “learn, commit, and do” in all four dimensions.

Nor is once enough.  He describes constant personal renewal as a continuous “upward spiral” that has no limit, no end.  Much like the practice of mindfulness meditation, continuous personal renewal is a process we engage in for its own sake, rather than for the sake of some extraneous egocentric goal – the attainment of which would mark the completion of the process.

As I did in my last post, I again leave the closing of this post to Covey himself.  No words of my own could capture the insistent eloquence of these paragraphs with which he concluded his chapter on Habit 7 ….

Renewal is the principle – and the process – that empowers us to move on an upward spiral of growth and change, of continuous improvement.

Once we are self-aware, we must choose purposes and principles to live by.  {…}  And there is no shortcut in developing them.  {…}  We must show diligence in the process of renewal.

Moving along the upward spiral requires us to learn, commit, and do on increasingly higher planes.  We deceive ourselves if we think any one of these is sufficient.  To keep progressing, we must learn, commit, and do – learn, commit, and do – and learn, commit, and do again.  

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About Tom Cummings

A life-long news and current events junkie, an occasional political activist and volunteer, and for the past five years a practitioner of daily meditation and a student of Buddhist philosophy, I write this blog to explore what I see as the inherent tensions and contradictions between practicing mindfulness - so rooted in the Buddhist virtues of compassion, generosity, and non-attachment to self - and being an engaged citizen in today's world - where the very opposite traits are all too often the ones that prevail.
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