by Mike Shea on 1 January 2012
Though 70% typical self help bullshit, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People still contains a few tools that help focus and direct one's actions towards their most important goals. While nearly a polar opposite to Getting Things Done, the tools in 7 Habits work very well with those of GTD. Still, 7 habits is full of cherry-picked personal stories instead of any sort of scientific evidence, a problem with most self-help books. 7 Habits provides a few tools to help leverage your energy but real change takes a lot of effort. Sometimes the only real change comes from a whole new lifestyle.
In Self Help Addiction I mention what I believe to be the greatest problem with self-help books. According to the cover, 15 million people bought 7 Habits. Of those 15 million, how many actually improved or enriched their lives? How many of them read it, nodded, shouted in victory, and then went back to the disorganized unsatisfying life they already had? How many of them said "that's fine for Covey" and went back to eating bins of ice cream?
People love self-help books but few people act on it. Real change requires a lot of willpower and a book isn't going to create it, but Covey really doesn't give a shit. He has his $12.
Like all good self-help books, 7 Habits has a lot of strong truths. Habit one, "be proactive", is one I wrote about before in You Are Responsible. Ultimately, only one person is in control of changing your life — you. You aren't just a puppet of circumstance, you control your destiny and you choose how to react to the world around you. It's a strong lesson that most simply dismiss.
"I can't have any fun, my car broke down."
"You don't understand, I have seventeen kids."
"I can't write a novel, I have stomach cancer."
As we know from another bullshit self-help book, The War of Art, this is "the resistance" talking and the most dangerous thing about the resistance is that it can be perfectly logical and reasonable. No one would ever say "Suck it up, mr. stomach cancer. Go write a book," yet it is still the resistance preventing the writing of this book none the less.
Habit 1, "be proactive", also gets into another philosophy I like a lot — the sphere of concern and the sphere of influence. I touched on this in My Front Lawn is an Inbox. There are things we can influence and things we care about. If we can expand our influence and reduce the sphere of concern to only those things we can influence, we'll be happier people.
In habit 2, "begin with the end in mind", Covey begins with an exercise I found quite valuable. You are present at your own funeral and four people are speaking: your spouse or close family member, your best friend, a close co-worker, and a member of your community (Covey is quick to bring up church but any community will do — I chose the gaming community). Each of them speaks of your character, contributions, and accomplishments. What do they say?
While this might be easily taken as an exercise more in convincing those around you of your value and worth, and also takes a bit of a vain approach to it, this still gleans some interesting results.
For example, do I really care about the money my D&D books make or do I care about helping game masters run better games? This exercise reminded me that chasing the profit isn't what I really care about as much as helping my community.
Habit 3, "put first things first", brings up another valuable tool, the urgency and importance chart. I've seen this chart before I knew where it came from and I always liked it. Do you spend your time worrying about trivial shit? Do you constantly find yourself firefighting? Do you waste your time reading Reddit all day? Are you spending quality time on things of high importance to your life?
I like the chart because it shows you what you should work to eliminate from your life, mostly stuff in the urgent but not important quadrant.
The rest of habit 3 is on personal organization, beginning with your roles and goals down to your daily activities. It's very practical if you happen to be Stephen Covey, but the rest of us can do better with a system like GTD that works with the giant amount of shit flowing into our lives. Still, it's not a bad way to think about things.
This article is already getting to bore me — gods know what it's done to you — so I'm going to skip habits 4, 5, 6, and 7. You can read all about them on the 7 Habits wikipedia page. There is one part of which I am particularly fond.
In habit 5, "first seek to understand, then be understood", Covey describes a conversation he had with one of his cultist followers. The follower kept telling Covey that he couldn't get his boss to change. Covey kept replying that the follower should make a more effective presentation for change. The follower said it was hard. Covey said "live with it". The follower said "I can't live with it." Covey said "than make a more effective presentation". Eventually, the follower never followed through.
So I ask - who actually failed to make an effective presentation? Didn't Covey fail just as badly to influence the follower? "Go do this." "I can't it's hard." "Fine, don't do it, live with it." "But I can't!" This is the purest representation of the failure of self-help books. The books can say all sorts of things but very few will actually do any of it.
Above all, change requires willpower. It requires tremendous energy to change our lives and no $12 book will give it to you. At best, books like 7 Habits give you tools to better leverage what willpower you do have. Some tools, like the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab's 3 Steps to New Habits, have tremendous leverage but are ultimately worthless if there's no energy behind them. Sometimes it takes a complete change in your life.