The Seven Habits — an overview

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” —Aristotle

“Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character; reap a destiny,” so the saying goes. Our habits make us. The good news is that we can change our habits. It takes time and effort, as our habits become strongly ingrained. With continued effort and experiencing new and powerful results, we can become truly the best we could wish to be. Steven Covey says that in order for us to make something a habit in our lives, four key components all need to be present: knowledge (what), skill (how), desire (want), and motivation (why).

On the surface, the seven habits seem simple—the key is in their depth and sustained application in order to truly make them the core of your character. The seven habits all complement each other. They all work together. The first three habits are about independence. Independence means you are your own person; you think for yourself and don’t need any external validation from anyone. This way of being means you are internally driven and independent with your actions, which come from a strong, principle-based core.

The next three habits are based on interdependence. Whereas independence is your relationship with yourself, interdependence is about your relationship with others. These habits are based on essential skills such as teamwork and cooperation to help you be highly effective as a leader, team member, or family member—essentially any relationship where there will be interaction with another person.

Your internal structure and quality of relationship with yourself is key in having the skills to deal with external structures and relationships with others. That is why the seven habits are in a particular order and that order is key to the essence of their success. Covey puts it wonderfully by saying, “The first three habits deal with self-mastery and self-control. They form the deepest part of your character. They constitute the private victory—the victory over self. Private victories must come before public victories. To lead others effectively, you first must learn to lead yourself effectively.”

Habit 7, the final habit, is then perhaps the most important of all and encompasses all of the others. Habit 7 is about the overall quality of you and your continued energy and renewal—of how sharp you are, as you are, after all, your greatest tool, and it's the quality and sharpness of you that will drive the effective execution of all the other habits.

Timeless, universal principles and a strong character ethic are the core of the seven habits. Understanding the concept of principles and character is crucial to understanding this work.

Principles and Paradigms

A principle, according to Covey, is a universal natural law. It is objective and factual, such as integrity, contribution, continued growth, treatment of others, kindness, and fairness. The seven habits are built on principles. Every one of the habits represents a principle, and again according to Covey, “A principle is the actual reality, like the law of gravity—a fundamental natural law, the way things actually are.”

A paradigm is a perspective—it’s a way of looking at something. A paradigm comes from the preconceived images you have in your mind, images that are formed and shaped over time as a result of past experiences. When we look at the world through our eyes and think we are seeing it as it is, we are in fact seeing it through the lense of all our past experiences—we are seeing the world according to our perceptions. 7 Habits is about having paradigm shifts to see things as they actually are, allowing us to live our lives in highly effective ways in line with universal principles.

Character Ethic vs. Personality Ethic

The development of the seven habits began with the study of success and how it evolved, going back almost 200 years. A key finding was that almost all the focus of early literature was on character and principles: attributes such as integrity, courage, compassion, contribution, responsibility, and justice. Then the emphasis shifted in the early 1900s away from character to personality, which focused more on techniques than on principles, or as Covey says, “On how to appear to be rather than on how to actually be.”

Techniques are also important in areas such as management and communication; however, when used instead of, rather than with, the base of a strong character, they are merely techniques, and most people can see through this. On this foundation it is difficult to build trust and meaningful relationships, as people will not be sure of our motives, who we really are, or what we stand for. Our character forms the basis of trust and building effective relationships, and it is for this reason that the seven habits are built on the character ethic.