As of yet, this is the best self-improvement book I’ve ever read. As Covey points out in the introduction, The 7 Habits distinguishes itself from others of its genre through its emphasis on the Character Ethic instead of the Personality Ethic. Years ago, when Covey was studying the development of success literature over time, he made a very interesting observation: books on this topic now tend to focus on skills, the actions we can take to make ourselves likeable (like smiling and making eye contact), instead of on intent. This departure from principles has allowed us to welcome exciting but hollow exchanges. It’s led us to think of people in terms of interactions instead of relationships and, more disturbingly, to believe that that’s okay.

This book doesn’t preach or make claims that it holds the “secrets of success.” I love that. It’s humble because it knows its wisdom is founded in realms so human and natural that they are self-evident. While occasionally the chapters are so extensive they become dry, I appreciated the depth in the long run because it made it that much harder to forget the habits. However, in the event that I did (or that there were people intrigued by, but unwilling, to read the book), I summarized them below:

  1.  Be proactive. Know what you are and aren’t in control of, and focus on the former. Don’t let your emotions, state of being, or level of composure be at the mercy of things you can’t help, such as the behavior of others or luck.  
  2. Begin with the end in mind. Define your goals and visualize them. Use your imagination to see what you can become. Don’t allow your focus/center to be on people, things, or entities—instead, be principle-centered. Have a mission statement. 
  3. Put first things first. Focus your time and energy only on things that are important, whether they are urgent or not. Instead of planning on a daily basis, with merely tasks and to-do lists, define your roles and then your goals within those roles. Remember that you can only handle things efficiently, not people. Engage in “stewardship delegation” by asking for results and laying out parameters, while still allowing people the freedom to use their own methods.
  4. Think Win/Win. Adopt an Abundance Mentality: instead of thinking that everything is a competition, realize that there is enough for everyone to benefit. Strive to find the “third alternative,” a path that is not only beneficial to both parties, but also better than any of the individual options. (That last part is the key difference between compromise and true win/win.) 
  5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Don’t think autobiographically and hear what people say in terms of your own lens; this is often demonstrated by responses such as, “I totally know what you’re going through” or “If I were you, I’d…” Listen empathically, meaning listen for the intent of understanding the meaning and emotion behind someone’s words instead of just planning what you’ll say next. Empathize, don’t sympathize. Remember ethos-pathos-logos when seeking to be understood. 
  6. Synergize. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Work together, collaborate, and harness everyone’s strengths. Approach differences as opportunities for growth instead of as roadblocks, and embrace them. 
  7. Sharpen the saw. Constantly renew the four dimensions of human nature: physical (exercise, nutrition), mental (reading, writing, visualizing), spiritual (value clarification and commitment, meditation), and social/emotional (service, empathy, synergy). All four of these dimensions are interrelated and equally important.

The last tool that I’d like to highlight is the Emotional Bank Account. This was arguably my favorite part of the book, and a discussion of its use served as the transition between the “Private Victory” (being independent, self-sufficient, and secure) and “Public Victory” (effectively interacting with others). It’s a fun and easy way to think of relationships and their health. Personally, it serves as my reminder to constantly be nurturing the ones in my life.

According to this tool, you can think of every relationship as an emotional bank account (EBA). Like a regular bank account, it is kept afloat with regular deposits, which are made whenever you positively contribute to the relationship (such as by being honest, considerate, or loyal). With enough deposits comes the beautiful fruit of trust, which serves as your security when withdrawals must be made. Withdrawals occur when promises are broken, feelings are hurt, or lies are told. A buildup of withdrawals leads to a loss of trust, and in the future, it becomes harder and harder to make deposits.

What I also love about this tool is that it emphasizes how deposits are specific to the relationship, meaning a deposit for one person isn’t necessarily a deposit for someone else. (It’s in the same vein as the “Languages of Love” and relates to how everyone interprets love differently.) Again, the EBA is just a simple way to visualize how relationships should be maintained—it works for me, but it may not be needed by others.

In short, The 7 Habits is great. Especially at this point in my life—one where I want to renew and reinvent myself as much as possible—this book was such a gem because it helped guide me through the inspection of my values, habits, and relationships. His son, Sean Covey, rewrote his work for a younger audience (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens), which I read when I was a senior in high school. I loved that book too, and to be honest, it was much easier (and more fun) to get through, due to its extremely visual layout and casual narration. However, reading the original version hammered in the points much more effectively and forced me to seriously reflect on the content. It’s definitely only necessary to read one of the books, but I would 10/10 recommend either one.