I originally posted the following short article to hk.rec.books on March 16, 1997. I made some minor revisions and republished it here. However, as it reflects my view in a particular stage of life, I did not revise the main ideas presented then. Instead, I included a new paragraph at the end as an update.
Book Details: Stephen R. Covey (1990) Fireside edition. ISBN: 0671708635.
Contrary to what I thought at first, in my opinion it was a book useful for people doing any jobs. I am pretty sure that those people at the management level and leaders in various organizations were the intended audience. However, I think the ideas introduced in the book can actually be adapted to be used by most other people. The "principle-centered" thinking style emphasized by the writer is not intrinsically restricted to any particular setting. The ideas are quite (though not absolutely) independent of the values and principles a person holds. Once you are sure of your own principle, the habits the author presented may help you to live effectively in accord with your own principle.
For example, it talks about bearing in minds our own ends when we live. By ends I think the author meant your own major missions or goals, even if it is to be a good househusband, housewife, father, mother, son, artist, etc. He suggested the readers to live everyday towards these goals. Certainly, this does not preclude taking a rest, which is also critical to living toward a goal.
What I like most is the emphasis on effectiveness, in contrast to efficiency. Reading 20 books in one week may not help you to learn something you desire any more than reading a handful of good books in one month. Something we almost always know when someone told us, but we often forget about this distinction when we are pressed by the many deadlines and projects and assignments.
Another idea I highly appreciate is the emphasis on inter-personal relationship. Although I think the book was aimed for business people, the author emphasized sincere relationship, genuine empathy, understanding without attempt to manipulate, and some other humanistic styles that you might not find in many other "self-improvement books" that tell you how to get what you want at the expense of others.
My View on 2005-02-25
Though the book has been published for over 10 years, I still think the book is worthy to read. I learned that a 15th Anniversary Edition was published last year. However, I virtually did not read any other book by Stephen R. Covey except this one, so I have no idea whether the author updated or revised his thoughts and suggestions. There are some ideas not mentioned above but I still bear in mind and try to practice them.
In the section on the first habit, Be Proactive, the author said that we should focus our energy on the circle of influence. Interestingly, it is not unusual that people spend much time on something out of their control. Moreover, using the concept of stimulus-response which I thought he borrowed from behavioralism, he said that as people with free will, we are not determined by stimulus. This does not mean that we are completely free of the influence from external stimuli. This is obviously not the case. However, to a certain extent we can influence how we react. This has an important implication to the now hot concept Emotional Intelligence. In emotional control, sometimes we focus incorrectly on how to control the emotion itself. Actually, we can readily find that this is extremely difficult. However, we can shift our focus to controlling our reactions to the emotion. Put it simply, I may feel anger to somebody. I may find it very difficult to get rid of this emotion quickly. However, it would be relatively easier to control my reaction to this inner emotion. This is an example of applying the concept of the circle of influence.
Another habit I am still trying to practise is to Put First Thing First. Similar concepts could also be found in many other books, especially those on time management. Put it simply, there are two dimensions for most tasks, urgent or not, and important or not. The author suggested the readers to put more resources on the important tasks, not the urgent tasks. Certainly, this is not a simple A-or-B decision. However, people like me who need to work on several different projects in parallel may be easily driven by those urgent tasks which are actually not that important. Reactive dominates proactive. Reminding myself of putting first thing first can help me to become more conscious of the need to evaluate the importance of each task and prioritize them accordingly. In my experiences, there are actually a lot of so-called urgent but relative less important tasks at work. They need to be done, but not to be done with that much effort.
It is interesting to note that, two of the terms the author mentioned are now believed to be buzzwords by some writers. They are win-win and synergy. Personally, I agree that these two terms are used by some people as buzzwords. However, the ideas themselves do have important values when used properly. Win-win may sound like an ideal, but I believe it is simply because we forgot that it takes two to tango. The failure of win-win may be the consequence of single-sided win-win, or the win-win concept being used to "lure" others to yield. Win-win works best, and may even work only, when both parties take this approach. The case for synergy is similar. It is never simply 1+1=3. A facilitating environment and the appropriate mindset are required for all parties involved.
The book is certainly not perfect. Nevertheless, as a source of insights, I still find the book useful today. More importantly, I found that the ideas proposed by the author are quite practical. Practical in the sense that they can be practiced in real life situation. The book may seem to be a big one. However, we know that this kind of books are usually full of examples and elaborations to interest the readers. Once the readers finished the book, the essential ideas to be recalled and reviewed occasionally are not that many.