Stephen R. Covey was born in 1932 in Salt Lake City, Utah; he has his undergraduate degree (in business administration) from the University of Utah, an MBA from the Harvard Business School, and a Doctorate in Religious Education from Brigham Young University. (Covey is a practicing Mormon). He is currently a professor in the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University. Covey is perhaps best known for his 1989 bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: to date the book has sold more than fifteen million copies worldwide. It seems worthwhile to ask, therefore, what does this book have to say which has gained it such broad popularity?
The biggest clue lies in the title. Covey believes that behavior can be defined as a set of habits, essentially, but he likewise presents his own lessons in the form of "7 Habits" which he promises will increase one's own effectiveness. In some sense, this is very similar to the teachings of other self-development gurus: the way in which Wayne Dyer has borrowed the scientific notion (first proposed by Richard Dawkins) of the "meme" to explain how certain habits of thought can be adopted accidentally but then repeated on auto-pilot, as it were, so does Covey in this book propose a practical ethics in the form of simple behavioral changes. If bad habits can be adopted, why can't good habits be likewise adopted? This seems to be the basic selling point of Covey's method. In particular this overall worldview seems particularly relevant to issues of health and wellness generally, and stress management in particular, in that it focuses on implementable solutions to issues of behavior. However, Covey's own purpose is larger overall: he is offering a program of self-improvement, which he claims has followed his exhaustive reading of 200 years' worth of American self-help literature to find out what sorts of wisdom it offered, and his goal is to increase the reader's "effectiveness" in whichever category he or she chooses to pursue it. Whether work or play, any activity which relies in some measure on the workings of habit within the human personality -- which entails more or less anything that is not completely spontaneous -- can be altered according to Covey's scheme in this book.
The book is intended to be "user-friendly," as its emphasis on altering personal and mental habits would seem to suggest, and so nothing is easier than giving a summary of the book's key components. It breaks down into the "7 Habits" advertised in the title, and so I have to address each of these rules in order, while trying to give a sense of how it relates to Covey's overall argument. But I'd like to note that, in the introduction, Covey introduces a term which is pivotal to his worldview and which we need to take a moment to understand. That term is "paradigm shift" and, as Covey explains in his "Part One: Paradigms and Principles," he has taken this terminology from Thomas Kuhn, the noted philosopher and historian of science, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn noted that the dawn of a major scientific discovery required people to adjust their existing worldviews to the new facts: the new "paradigm" was like a new explanation for the nature of things, as well as being in itself a complete set of rules and principles and laws that are entailed (often completely overturning the existing order of such things). Covey gives the example of the change in astronomy at the time of Copernicus, who first proposed that the earth rotates around the sun, rather than vice versa. Copernicus did not propose this new idea and suddenly overnight all of Europe changed their minds about the way the world worked, based on the obvious evidence of the visible sky, which seems to depict the sun revolving around the earth, the way that Aristotle and Ptolemy had described it back in the classical world: the shift from the Ptolemaic "paradigm" to the Copernican "paradigm." Covey himself would like his habits to represent a sort of paradigm shift by concentrating on the "Character Ethic" rather than the "Personality Ethic" -- his term for stressing the fundamentals of one's own mental paradigm, rather than offering fashionable quick fixes which do not alter the underlying paradigm in any significant way. That is why, in order to alter behavior by altering habit, one must select those habits which represent, as Covey puts it in his introductory section, "the paradigms from which our attitudes and behaviors flow."
Therefore the first habit is accordingly radical in its attempt to alter behavior: "Be Proactive." In this section, Covey emphasizes that human behavior can be changed, but it requires active participation to accomplish. It is, he notes, the opposite of "reactive," a state of mind which is passive in which things are merely done to the individual: proactivity in Covey's words requires "taking the initiative" (not to be confused, as he notes, with "being pushy, obnoxious, or aggressive") and it is even reflected in habits of language. Passive verbs indicate a passive mindset, whereas active verbs indicate proactivity. There is a certain ethical component in what Covey says here, but he is careful to equate being "responsible" with being "response-able" -- in other words, what we would ordinarily define as mature ethical behavior is here made a practically valuable goal as well, when Covey emphasizes that this ethical behavior would merely seem to stem from an investment in one's life and a willingness to view all events as something which can prompt an active response. This is, as Covey notes, the most important habit to ingrain, since one cannot effectively change one's own habits without an investment in, and attention to, one's own life.
The next habit is more of a procedural rule for activity: "Begin With The End In Mind." What Covey means by this is that one needs to understand one's larger ultimate values and goals in order to act effectively in their fulfillment, and he does this by beginning with the famous "memento mori" motif: he asks the reader to envision, three years from the present date, his or her own funeral, in order to take stock of those ultimate values and goals. This of course relates to any conceivable area in which the reader wishes to make improvement, because it is procedural in nature: as Covey puts it "if the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster." In other words, the overall destination -- within the context not only of the journey, but also the overall journey of life itself -- needs to be identified. Covey terms this a "center" and invites the reader to identify what kind of "centeredness" his or her life has -- spouse, family, money, work, possession, pleasure, friends, enemies, church or self -- which is the source of the individual's basic self-definition.
Habit three enjoins us similarly to "Put First Things First," which asks the reader to consider questions of time management and prioritization. This is perhaps the most important chapter from the standpoint of stress management, as it asks the reader to consider ranking activities based not on the urgent meeting of a deadline but on their overall intrinsic importance. As Covey puts it in this chapter, comparing the rules to computer software, "If Habit 1 says 'You're the programmer,' and Habit 2 says 'write the program,' then Habit 3 says 'run the program,' 'live the program'." In other words, the first tasks to be accomplished are those which must be accomplished at the outset with the goal of the overall paradigm shift in mind. But the third habit ends the first section of the book, leaving habits one through three as a kind of triad related to the reader's own internal mental behavior. From this, Covey states he will turn to the subject of interpersonal relations.
Part three of the book presents the next three habits, which Covey defines as relating to "paradigms of interdependence," or relations with others (in any realm, personal or professional). These are easily summarized. Habit four is "Think Win-Win," which emphasizes the idea of striving for solutions which satisfy or benefit both parties. As Covey puts it, almost spiritually, "it's not your way or my way: it's a better way, a higher way." He also emphasizes the fundamental dignity and value that one professes by treating others in this way. This is expanded in rule five, "Seek First To Understand, Then To Be Understood," which is really -- as he notes -- just an injunction to build the habit of instinctive empathy. This also entails good listening skills and not allowing one's own personal experiences to cloud one's understanding of another person's behavior (on that person's terms, in order to maximize the understanding). And rule six is merely "Synergize," which is Covey's term for "creative co-operation,"…