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: 7 January 2022 — added a link to an article on habits and goals

I recently understood one reason the system Stephen Covey describes in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People 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 to 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. (More info on my budget tracking.) 

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. I think Covey’s method, to spend time on Sunday making a plan for the week ahead, is spot-on.

I initially found Covey’s method 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” things 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.

Covey’s book is based on talks he 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 this brief synopsis (PDF) and read it before or as you read the book. The synopsis is incomplete, but it helps clarify some parts of the book that are obscure. However, the synopsis 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 blank bound book (like a composition book or a Moleskine notebook) and do the exercises in that rather than writing in the Workbook.

Also, Carl in comments notes that The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens is a better written book.. That book also has associated workbooks. The “teen” books are by Sean Covey.  /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.)

Weekly planning using individual weekly planning worksheets instead of a book format is another approach. I don’t know of a weekly planning pad of worksheets, 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.

In fact, if you want to try Covey’s method to see whether it will work for you, I recommend using the weekly planning worksheets you print yourself. The layout is good, they’re free, and for the 9-week (or 6-week) test described below, they seem the optimal solution.

There’s also WeekPlan.net, 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, but for some the on-line format might work best. It’s free, so you can give it a try if you want. The developer has a good introductory video, in which he explains that the point is not the total number of tasks you complete, but rather completing those tasks that align with your priorities — thus the importance of the mission statement, which helps keep your priorities in mind.

The mission statement, vital to this planning, is described in the  synopsis already mentioned. Again, the synopsis is certainly no substitute for the book itself. The idea is to read the synopsis along with (or prior to) reading the book.

Update: The book Atomic Habits, by James Clear, would seem, from the description in a detailed review, to work well in conjunction with Covey’s method. From the review:

[Chapter 2] Based on a 3-layer concentric circle behavior change model—divided into outcome change, process change, and identity change—James explains that we should pay attention to our inner identity by focusing on beliefs, assumptions, and values. “Many people begin the process of changing their habits by focusing on what they want to achieve. This leads us to outcome-based habits. The alternative is to build identity-based habits. With this approach, we start by focusing on who we wish to become.” The strongest changes, then, happen from inside out, starting from our identity, passing through the process, and ultimately changing the outcome.

The sounds exactly like Covey’s mission statement and setting goals by role. Based on this review of Clear’s book, along with other reviews, I think it would be a good companion to implementing Covey’s 7 habits. /update

I didn’t have my old copy of the book—victim of a book purge—but you can find inexpensive secondhand copies—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 the method 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 early in the month so that later in the month you have too much to do and not enough time to do it. A week, in 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 than 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 synopsis 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 a format similar to the two worksheets shown below. That format has a column at the left whose focus is specifically Quadrant II — things that are important but not urgent. In that column, you list for the coming week actions to Sharpen the Saw and also your current goal for each of your various roles. The worksheet is completed following a clockwise sequence:

1 – Sharpening the Saw
2 – Roles/Goals
3 – Today’s Priority Actions
4 – Appointments/Commitments

1. Sharpening the Saw

First, in each category list actions for the coming week — actions that will improve a) your fitness and physical well-being, b) your knowledge and skills, c) your social relationships, and d) your spiritual strength and purpose. Don’t overdo it. You’re in this for the long haul, and the benefits will accumulate over time if you work steadily at it. One or at most two actions in each category is enough (though an action might involve repetition — for example, under Physical, you might enter “run 4 mornings for a total of 35 Cooper points.”

2. Roles/Goals

List your various roles — spouse, parent, manager, employee, volunteer, and so on. Then, for each role, list a particular goal that will be your focus during the coming week.

3. Today’s Priority Actions

At this point, you have a list of actions under Sharpen the Saw, and a list of goals under Roles/Goals. This step is where you decide on which days you’ll take various actions. First, take actions listed under “Sharpen the Saw” and decide on which day(s) you will take each action. Enter the actionals in “Today’s Priority Actions” for the appropriate day(s). 

Then consider each of the entries under Roles/Goals and decide on one or two actions you will take toward achieving each goal. List each such action under a particular day in the “Today’s Priority Actions” section. 

It’s important not to overload any one day. If you assign too many actions to any one day, you will find you cannot complete them all, and that’s disheartening. For any week, one or perhaps two actions per role and one action for each category of Sharpening the Saw is probably enough to keep you advancing toward your goals. Slow and steady wins the race.

It may take some time to work out how to organize and distribute the various actions in this section so that no day is too heavily loaded. Important point: Favor assigning actions to days early in the week. By doing that, when something comes up that prevents you from accomplishing an action on its assigned day, you can reschedule it for later in the week and still get it done 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.”)

It’s worth noting that every action in this section will be a Quadrant II action: both important and non-urgent.

4. Appointments/Commitments

Once “Today’s Priority Actions” is arranged to your satisfaction — and it includes all the actions you plan to accomplish in the coming week for your roles and for Sharpening the Saw — make specific daily appointments to accomplish those actions. Assign each to the specific time when you will accomplish the action. Doing that represents making a commitment to yourself, and you should develop the habit of keeping your commitments.

Favor setting appointments early in the day so that if something interferes with the appointment, you might have time to do it later that day — or, worst case, you reschedule the appointment for later the same week.

You’ll notice that this process is very like making a budget: defining your priorities and setting out how you’ll meet them, only in this case you are budgeting time and not money. (See this post on making a plan for money.) In either case, you generally have to rework things a bit so that your plan fits with the constraints you have (the amount of time or money you have to work with).

I never found a weekly planner book with the exact format of the worksheets below, but you can print a copy of one of these PDFs each week and use it for your Sunday planning session. Download the format you prefer and print copies as needed. 

One approach to learning/testing 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 synopsis linked below), accept Habit 1, adopt Habit 2 by writing a draft of your mission statement (something you will often revisit to modify and refine), and get ready to practice Habit 3 by printing out 9 weekly planning worksheets.  (You should, of course, practice Habit 0 every week.)

Two things to note: First, you practice Habits 1, 2, and 3 on your own, at your own initiative. These habits don’t require any sort of permission (or contribution) from others. The foundation developed through those three habits is what you will need to acquire for Habits 4, 5, and 6.  Second, the reason for a 9-week trial period is because it requires about that much time for the practice to become a habit. The whole idea is to develop new habits that will help you achieve your life goals — the things you include in your mission statement. Even though your goals and values will almost certainly evolve over time, the habits you establish during the 9-week trial will continue to serve you well even as your goals change.

Preparation for the trial run

The first step is to prepare a version of your mission statement. When you go to write your mission statement (described in Habit 2), an earlier post will be interesting and, I think, helpful. That post includes a video of a TEDx talk (by a Stanford professor who teaches design courses) on designing one’s own life. This is useful to consider as you work on your mission statement, which can be viewed as a design statement for your life.

Then, with Habits 1 and 2 established — and with your mission statement and list of your roles and goals — begin to practice Habit 3 by spending some time each Sunday making a plan for the coming week. (Covey’s book includes various exercises. You should do those as well.)

But before you begin the 9-week trial run, take some time to think about your goals and expectations for this experiment. Then I strongly recommend that you use Futureme.org 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 description of your hopes and fears regarding your use of the method. Schedule the email to be sent to you at the end of your 9-week trial run. (FutureMe.org’s default is a delivery date a year from the date of the letter, so when you change the default delivery date, you might have to change the year as well as the month and day.)

The email will be interesting and informative, particularly if you keep a journal of your efforts during the trial period.  In particular, in your journal take stock of your progress after each of three phases:

  1. beginning — first 3 weeks: learning. This period 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.)
  2. middle — second 3 weeks: hitting your stride. This period 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.
  3. end — final 3 weeks: accomplishment. In this period you 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 instead commit yourself to a 6-week trial period, with three 2-week phases. I recommend not doing anything shorter because it takes some 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 serious 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 provide the benefit of greater knowledge, which is why experience is so valuable), 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, or in the enthusiastic energy we often feel about a new interest).

It’s a good idea to continue the effort until the noise subsides, so that you get a sense of the real character of the experience over time (thus the common suggestion for a longer rather than shorter courtship: “marry in haste, repent at leisure”). The effort involved in 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 and what was novel has become familiar.

The two planning templates above are basically the same, with minor differences in format. Pick the one you prefer. Read the synopsis along with Covey’s book. (I strongly recommend that you not attempt to use the synopsis by itself. It leaves out too much that the book includes.)

Update 2021-09-17: Two additional thoughts.

First, I 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, where I also use repeating “Tasks.” I find I’m now using Google Calendar tasks more than macOS Reminders. Windows also offers a reminder function. These reminders are worth using. See also this list of productivity software, which includes a variety of free or low-cost reminder apps.

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

13 Nov 2021 – Here are some related posts:

Hiring a Star
The Yessable Proposition
12 Pointers

Habit 0 (formerly known as Habit 7)

23 Nov 2021 – It just occurred to me: Habit 7 (Sharpening the Saw) should actually have been called Habit 0. Stephen Covey was not a programmer, or he would have realized that. For one thing, Habit 0 is the actual starting point and foundation for all that follows — and that’s why the book discusses Habit 7 first, not last. Without Habit 7, the book is nothing, because your study of the method is Habit 7 in action.

Habit 0 is the right name, and Habit 0 is the ultimate Quadrant II activity: taking care of things whose urgency is very low and importance is very high. 

The power of habits

This post is relevant and worth reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 March 2017 at 10:16 am

Posted in Books, Daily life

4 Responses

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  1. I am a big fan of the 7 Habits books. Actually, I found The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens to be a better written book and give it to each of my patients. I wanted to find other books which expand on each of the 7 Habits such as Awaken the Giant Within (extremely fluffy but motivating) by Tony Robins for Habit 1 and Getting Things Done by David Allen for Habits 2 and 3. I was wondering if you had recommendations of such books for each Habit? Thanks! Carl

    PS: Your wet shaving blog years ago was my Shaving Bible as I began my journey! Thanks for that too!

    Like

    carl

    25 November 2021 at 9:40 am

  2. Thank you for your kind words. I had not heard of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens, but I will take a look. Thanks for pointing that out. My immediate thought is that it was probably deliberately written as a book to be read rather than an adaptation of presentations to be seen (which makes for some rough reading).

    It’s unfortunate that Tony Robins has such a toxic personal reputation. I have not gone near his books. I am familiar with David Allen, and I agree he’s just the ticket for Habit 3. Covey contributes by ensuring that Habit 3 is pointed in the right direction, as it were, and also extends the focus to the interpersonal/interdependence with Habits 4-6. And I really do wish he had called Habit 7 the more appropriate name of Habit 0. The fact that he begins the book with Habit 7 should have clued him in to the foundational aspect of that habit, which places it prior to Habit 1, a position Habit 0 neatly occupies.

    Your idea of some reading suggestions per habit is intriguing. I had not thought of that, and I love the idea. One problem I foreseen is that many books are not so Habit-specific but relate to several of the Habits — GTD is an exception in that regard. But I definitely will be thinking about it.

    I’m proud that for a good number of men I was able to introduce them to the idea of enjoying their shave and help in their achieving that. It makes such a difference when one can make a daily chore a pleasurable interlude. I continued to pound that particular drum with a couple of articles in Medium: “Learning a New Skill Is a Struggle — Find Pleasure in It” and “Make Repeated Tasks Enjoyable,” both of which are firmly rooted in Epicurus (and in the preface to the 7th edition of the Guide, I formally recognize my debt to him.

    Like

    Leisureguy

    25 November 2021 at 10:28 am

  3. Thanks!

    Like

    carl

    26 November 2021 at 2:11 pm

  4. You’re welcome. I updated the Synopsis just today — twice (thus the 11/27 date: that was the second update). Not a big change, just noting that Habit 7 is more properly numbered Habit 0.

    Like

    Leisureguy

    26 November 2021 at 2:26 pm


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