Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Covey’s 7 habits

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Most recent update: 19 October 2021 — additional information included.

I recently understood one reason the system Covey describes works so well. Perhaps as a result of evolutionary pressures, we are highly sensitized to urgent situations (whether important, like that bear coming toward us, or unimportant, like an itch we can’t quite reach), whereas situations that lack urgency are easily postponed and ignored from one day to the next even when they are important (for example, making a will). 

Covey sets out a protocol that (among other things) ensures that you identify what is important (in terms of your own life and your own goals) and then has you put into your schedule each week steps toward goals that are important but not urgent, thus making sure important things are accomplished even when they lack urgency.

There’s more to the approach than that, but that is one key benefit: a way to overcome a blind spot in our daily routines. — One additional thought on the magic of the short-term (and thus immediate/urgent) time horizon of one week: I found it very difficult to stay within my monthly budget on groceries and the like, so I changed my routine to focus on staying  within my weekly budget. That turned out be relatively easy. And, I discovered, if I stay within budget each week, at the end of the month I am within budget for the month. It seems that a week is a chunk of time we can get a grip on, but a month? or a year? Those get away from us — not so urgent, they pass by — at first gradually and then suddenly — so we drift easily from having lots of time to having not enough time. Perhaps that’s related to the capacity of our short-term memory (7 chunks of data, plus or minus 2). We can keep a week in mind because it’s 7 chunks of time, and that’s within our capacity. (More info on my budget tracking.) 

I’ve applied at various times the method Stephen Covey describes in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic. I initially found it helpful at a time when I was suffering  a terrific case of worker burnout. The cause, I eventually (and with some help) realized, was that I had started “owning” thing over which I had no control—for example, decisions made by corporate, several levels above me. This led to the feeling of helplessness, which definitely leads to burnout (see Martin Seligman’s excellent Learned Optimism for more on how that works). In reading Covey’s book, I learned how to separate things that I could not influence from things that I could, and once I focused my attention and energy on the latter, I started feeling better as I regained locus of control.

The book is based on talks Covey gave on 7 habits that he found were common to a variety of highly effective people. The ideas in the book are indeed valuable, but transcribing a talk given with charts and slides can make for occasional difficult reading. Download the brief outline (PDF) at the bottom of this post and read it before or as you read the book. The outline is incomplete, but it helps clarify some parts of the book that are obscure. However, the outline is in no way a replacement for the book, and I strongly recommend that you read the book itself.

UPDATE: I just stumbled across The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Personal Workbook, and in looking at it, I think it would be helpful in applying and adapting the habits to your personal situation. The spiral-bound version is the most expensive, but probably the easiest to use since the exercises have you writing in the workbook However, you could also get a bound book (like a composition book or a Moleskine notebook) and do the exercises in that rather than writing in the Workbook. /update

Franklin (of Franklin Planners) acquired the Covey organization some time back, with the name changed to FranklinCovey, but the site seems to be called Franklin Planner.

Since I’m going to start again, I wanted to get a good weekly planner. A new gig seems to have started at Franklin, 5 Choices, and their 5 Choices Weekly Planner looks like a reasonably good format for the weekly planning the Covey approach uses. (You identify some specific important but non-urgent tasks associated with your goals for your major roles, and then you make a specific appointment in the coming week to accomplish each task.) Two drawbacks, though: it’s $42 (the weekly planner covers a year in total), and the current offering doesn’t start for several months as I write this.

So I looked around — you can really use any weekly planner, but it’s nice if the design accommodates the kind of planning Covey describes in his book — and I found The Simple Elephant: good design and you can start it at any point since you provide the date information. Despite the Amazon entry saying that it’s a day planner, it is in fact a weekly planner, and it includes the kind of goal tracking that Covey’s method requires, though its format doesn’t match exactly the 7 Habits planning categories. (At the link you can see the various page layouts.)

A weekly planner with individual planning sheets is another format. I don’t know of a commercial planning pad of that sort, so I recommend printing weekly planning sheets using one of the PDFs you can download at the bottom of this post. Take a look at both and see which you like. Each PDF was “printed” from a spreadsheet, and you can also download and mofify the spreadsheet if you want to tinker with the format. (Links are given below.)

In fact, if you want to try Covey’s method to see whether it will work for you, I recommend using the weekly planning sheets you print yourself from one of those two PDFs. They’re a good format and they’re free, and for the three-month test of the method described below, they seem the optimal solution.

There’s also, specifically designed around Covey’s book, but I found the online format awkward to use. Handwriting seems to me the most effective approach for this kind of planning, so while the Excel workbook looks nice, it seems impractical. Their PDF would work, though.

I’ve updated an outline summary for the 7 Habits book that you can download using the link at the bottom of this post. The outline is certainly no substitute for the book itself, but I think it’s helpful because, as I said, Covey’s book is sometimes a little difficult to follow. (The book is based on transcripts from his talks, and without intonation and gestures some passages don’t work so well.) The idea is to read the outline along with or prior to reading the book.

I didn’t have my old copy of the book—victim of a book purge—but at the link above are inexpensive secondhand editions—quite inexpensive, in fact. To replace the purged copy, I ordered a hardbound copy of the book in “very good” condition for $3.65 including postage. (I recommend getting a book in “Good” or “Very Good” condition; “Fair” is generally pretty bad, and “Acceptable” usually is not.)

If you try using Covey’s method, I’d be interested in reading a comment about your experience. I think it has quite a few strong points—for example, the weekly plan, with scheduled appointments to work on items that are important but not urgent, so that you make progress on those every week. A month’s plan would be too long—it would lack urgency, so it would be too easy to put stuff off. A week, practice, seems about right: some urgency, but also time enough for a make-up if you miss an appointment..

UPDATE: A recent article in the Nonzero Newsletter has two valuable ideas. One is the attribution fallacy: that we tend to attribute to character or personality things that may well be better attributed to situation and circumstance — and we do that to avoid revising our opinion of a person’s character or personality. If someone we like or see as an ally does something bad, we attribute that to circumstances rather as a sign of their character; and if someone we see as unfriendly or an enemy does something good, again we attribute that to circumstances rather than as a sign that our judgment of their character might be incomplete or even wrong. (These are examples of resisting a paradigm shift in our view of the person. It’s easier just to stay with the opinion we already formed than to reconsider that opinion in the light of new information.)

The article also discusses the useful tool of “cognitive empathy.” Unlike emotional empathy, in which you put yourself in another’s place to understand their feelings, with cognitive empathy you put yourself in another’s place to see how they think about and understand some issue or event from their point of view. Read the article. It fits with some of what Covey describes — for example, Habit 5: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” /update

UPDATE: The Kokuyo Jibun Techo 3-in-1 Planner looks quite interesting, but I’ve not used it. /update

The Eisenhower Matrix and the Baller To-Do List

In discussing Habit 3, Covey uses a quadrant system to classify tasks. (I describe this in the brief outline you can download from the link at the end of the post.) The four quadrants are:

Quadrant I: Urgent and Important
Quadrant II: Non-Urgent and Important
Quadrant III: Urgent and Unimportant
Quadrant IV: Non-urgent and Unimportant

(This quadrant system was developed and used by Dwight D. Eisenhower, so that it is sometimes referred to as the “Eisenhower Matrix.”)

You must spend time doing Quadrant I tasks, but spending time doing Quadrant II tasks will diminish the time you have to spend in doing Quadrant I tasks. So, where do you you get time to do Quadrant II tasks? You can’t drop Quadrant I tasks (both urgent and important), so the time must be found by (a) eliminating Quadrant IV tasks and (b) clamping down on Quadrant III tasks. There’s more about this in the outline (and, of course, much more in the book).

The web-based Baller To-Do List offers a free and easy way to sort your to-dos by quadrant. The nomenclature is different, but the idea is the same. You enter each to-do into one of four quadrants:

High Impact, Low Urgency (Quadrant II: Important and Not Urgent)
High Impact, High Urgency (Quadrant I: Important and Urgent)
Low Impact, Low Urgency (Quadrant IV: Unimportant and Not Urgent)
Low Impact, High Urgency (Quadrant III: Unimportant and Urgent)

The web app is easy to use and could help with Covey’s method. Indeed, it seems directly derived from Covey, but doubtless Covey derived his own quadrant categories from others — perhaps from Eisenhower.

Weekly planning worksheet

In looking for a planner, I was searching for one with the format shown below. I never found a book with that format, but you can print a copy of the PDF each week for your Sunday planning session. The “most important actions allocated daily” are where you list important but not urgent tasks, spreading them out through the week. You then schedule them as appointments in the section below (“time-sensitive daily commitments”). I found it advisable to schedule “most important actions” toward the beginning of the week so that if something interferes, you can reschedule them later in the week and still accomplish the task within the week. Tom Gilb, in Software Engineering Management, offered the one-word (and excellent) advice: “Early!” (See “Best One-Word Rule I’ve Found.”)

Download the weekly planning worksheet PDF (see below) and print it as needed, or download the original spreadsheet file in any of several formats (at the link, go to File > Download > [choose format] ) to modify it as you wish by importing it into Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel or Mac Numbers. If you just want to print the weekly planning template, click the link below this image to download and/or print the PDF.

And below you’ll also find a link for another, slightly different weekly planning template. That’s from this page, which has the template in Excel format, so that with this one, too, you can modify the template if you want by downloading the Excel worksheet and importing it into the spreadsheet program you use — Google Sheets, Mac Numbers, or Windows Excel.

One approach to learning this method

Important: If this method is new to you and you want to give it a try, I highly recommend that you commit to using the method for 9 weeks — just over a couple of months. Read the book (and also the outline summary linked below), write a draft of your mission statement (something you will often revisit to modify and refine), print out 9 weekly planning sheets, and start making a weekly plan each Sunday, along with doing other little exercises suggested in the book.

Before you begin the 9-week experiment, take some time to think about your goals and expectations for this experiment. Then I strongly recommend that you use to write an email to yourself to be delivered 9 weeks later.

In that email, write what you hope to learn and to accomplish, what difficulties you think you might encounter, and in general, a list of your hopes and fears regarding your use of the method. Schedule the email to be sent to you at the end of your three-month trial run. (Warning:’s default is a delivery date a year from the date of the letter, so when you change the delivery date, you might well have to change the year as well as the month and day.) It will be useful to take stock of your progress after each of three phases: beginning (first 3 weeks: learning), middle (second 3 weeks: hitting your stride); and end (final 3 weeks: seeing what the method can really deliver).

The first 3 weeks will be awkward and confusing, and you will frequently find yourself reverting to old habits and forgetting to apply the method, so expect some frustration. (See my post “Finding pleasure in the discomfort of learning new skills” for how to minimize frustration.)

The second 3 weeks will go better because you’ll start to get the hang of the weekly effort — first the planning, and then the doing. The new approach will start to become familiar and on its way to being a habit — an effective habit.

The third 3 weeks will solidify your gains and habits, so that you really know what you’re doing and how to do it. Moreover, at this point you will have observed some actual accomplishments and achievements from your weekly appointments doing important but non-urgent tasks. And I’m sure the Futureme letter you get at the end will be illuminating. The gap between expectations and experience is often great.

If a commitment of 9 weeks seems too daunting, you could commit yourself to a 6-week trial with two-week phases, but I would not recommend anything shorter — it takes a certain amount of time and experience to learn to use the method effectively and to see what it can deliver. We’re talking about a way to achieve your life goals; surely that deserves some commitment and a fair trial.

In the initial stages of any new venture, one encounters a lot of “noise” — on the negative side, from mistakes one hasn’t learned to avoid, from missteps made in ignorance (which thus result in greater knowledge), and so on; and on the positive side from the halo effect of a new venture (as in the rosy glow of new love, before any problems are encountered).

It’s a good idea to continue the effort until the noise abates, so that you get a sense of the real character of the experience (thus the common suggestion for a longer rather than shorter courtship: “marry in haste, repent at leisure”). This effort of an extended trial can pay off handsomely, so it’s worth investing enough time to see what it’s really like, after the noise has gone.

Another-weekly-plan-PDF-template: Download

Update 2021-09-17: Two additional thoughts.

First, I have increasingly found Reminder, an app that comes with a Mac operating system (iOS or macOS), to be extremely useful in this context. Reminder enables me to park a task outside my brain and feel secure that it will be brought to my attention on the appropriate day and time. I use it for repeating tasks and reminders (birthdays, anniversaries, quarterly blood draws) because it has an easy “repeat” function (like Calendar), but I also use it for one-off tasks to do at some future time. If you starting using it, you’ll find many ways in which it can help. Similar reminder functions are available in Google Calendar and in Windows. They’re worth using.

Second, Five Books has a good discussion of five time management/productivity books. 

Written by Leisureguy

27 March 2017 at 10:16 am

Posted in Books, Daily life

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