The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Part One)

I remember seeing this book go viral more than a decade and half ago when I was an undergraduate, in center displays of the bookshops I frequented. Admittedly, I was curious about what this was about, yet at the same time I had the very rebellious view of the world that any book that is not on science, engineering, technology, biography, philosophy or classics would be unworthy of my time of exploring at that time. I also held a very simplistic view of management and personal growth. Anyone would be able to succeed in his/her chosen endeavours and find enduring happiness, as long as he/she is reasonably intelligent, hard working from dawn to dusk, having a decent character, being good to others and following good principles. All these management and personal development books are a waste of time. That was my view till I read Jim Collins’ Built to Last and Good to Great at the Central Library in Imperial College London in 2006. I distinctly remember sitting in-between the shelves with my back against the radiator to keep me warm throughout a few days in the cold early spring. I could not stop reading Jim Collins’ two astoundingly amazing books despite my other inner voice nagging me to start preparing for the exams on computer science subjects. Ever since then, I have been more inclusive in my choice of books but yet still I did not want to pick up The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Why? Have you ever felt like not wanting to do what everybody else was doing? If yes, you would understand. That was my bias against this book. It was too popular for me to read. I preferred to read books that have endured the test of time and still being hailed as great books.

My effort of avoiding this book persisted till December 2nd, 2016. I resigned from my role at AMD Research. In my last meeting as an employee there, I asked my wonderful colleague and mentor Mike Ignatowski whether there is a book or books that had inspired him most. Mike recommended this book. My respect towards Mike and trust on his judgement lead me to drop my long-held prejudice and start reading it the following week so many years later. In fact, the front cover marks this copy as the 25th Anniversary Edition.

Have I finished reading it? No. I read the first half of it on private victory over last two months, along with reading other books mentioned in previous posts. I did not want to rush the process as it is a book more about practising, less about reading from front to back. On one hand, the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a book that you never complete the reading process until you have mastered those habits. On the other hand, it is a lifelong struggle to practice and perfect yourself in following, adapting and re-developing those principles in your own world. Back and forth, multiple times, I took the very slow approach to digest and examine and consciously adjust my own behavior, attitude, inner-map and thoughts during these two months.

The first three habits covered in the private victory part are: be proactive, begin with the end in mind, put first things first. It would not be an exaggeration to say that 10 out of 10 people who know me a little would agree that I take lots of initiatives, hence I thought I am proactive by nature. With that as the baseline, I found the examples in the book enlighten me in other ways about being proactive. “Proactivity means more than merely taking initiatives. It means that as human beings, we are responsible for our own lives. Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions. We can subordinate our feelings to values. We have the initiative and the responsibility to make things happen.” Being proactive needs not to be pushy nor demanding. The opposite of proactive is reactive. Do you remember a time when you feel annoyed because the driver of the car ahead of you seems to be fiddling with his/her phone and not noticing the traffic light has turned to green? Queuing in Paris Baguette and wonder why there are so many staff and yet manage to be so slow at checking you out, think how many minutes of your life have been wasted in that queue? why is a cafe even named Paris Baguette without proper french baguette, annoyingly? That is reactive. I caught myself out on those two occasions with reactive thoughts while reading this book. Remember, Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.

I learned part of the 2nd and 3rd habits from people around me. In the farming village that I grew up, everyone begins with the end in mind when it comes down to farming. Villagers discuss about how many kilograms of wheat, soybeans, or sesames etc one mu of land (1 mu ~ 666.7 square meters ) could produce at the harvest time. People plan growing crops before the spring comes, prepare the soil in advance, sow seeds, water the fields, remove the grass between the crops periodically and so on. We children learn from them naturally that we must study well if we want to do well in the school exams at the end of the term. It is a painstaking process but with guaranteed outcome given enough effort.  

To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you are going so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction. It is based on effective personal leadership. Ask first what are the things you want to accomplish (leadership), ask next how you can best accomplish certain things (management). Stephen Covey suggested in the book that the most effective way to practice habit 2 is to develop a personal mission statement, focusing on what you want to be (character) and to do (contributions and achievements) and on the values or principles upon which being and doing are based. I am working on my own script on the principles that form my inner compass. It is an never-ending self-adjusting cycle of thought (first creation), action (second creation), and reflection. Major life events also force us to re-evaluate our priorities and re-calibrate our compass. In my limited experience a very painful crisis has the silver lining of making one a better person, given an open mindset and willingness to embrace new challenges and keep the end in mind.

The third habit is Put First Things First. I first heard about this and Covey’s famous time management matrix (shown to the right) in Graduate School in Imperial College London during a time management workshop. To us, back then it was an exercise of filling each quadrant with professional and personal activities with detailed breakdown of the amount time spent on each, analysing existing time allocation behavior, finding the disparity of how each of us plans/wants to effectively use the fixed amount of time of every day and how we actually unconsciously do. One of the outcomes of that exercise to me was the realisation that I cannot always afford to follow my curiosity. I found nearly all topics ever mentioned or linked to from the paper that I was reading fascinating. Then I would go off to read the papers it cited, from there the ones each of those references cited. If some concept was not well explained or understood by me from the science papers, I would search articles or discussions in the web and find books in the libraries on that topic to read and get absorbed in it till the confusion lifted off my head. I do not want to denounce my strong drive of learning more. With sufficient amount of time and space given, this tendency lead me to read and think much more broadly and what you end up learning in the process comes back to you very helpfully at sometimes the least expected moment. However, often we find there are other important matters to deal with, particularly when we enter the workforce, progress upwards on the career ladder and lead a team. It takes a lot practice to know what is important & urgent, to be able to say no to urgent but unimportant items or to delegate. It takes self-discipline to restrict our humanly habits of doing popular or pleasant but not important nor urgent activities.

To be continued as Part Two in a couple months time…