How to Read the ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ So That It Holds Up

Illustration: Tara Anand

This story started as a takedown. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a cornerstone of the business self-help canon, a genre given to saccharine platitudes and lampoonable poster slogans, neither of which bodes well for cultural relevance. It was published in 1989, a time so different from now that the big-shouldered businessmen who read it first might as well have been wearing powdered wigs and pantaloons.

And yet, The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People persists. As I write this, the book is one of the top 15 bestselling books on Amazon. Not in Amazon’s self-improvement category. On Amazon. Over the past 31 years, the book has sold more than 40 million copies. It has spawned a global leadership training company, FranklinCovey, with associates covering 150 countries. In May, Simon & Schuster released an updated 30th anniversary edition. CNET named it one of the best personal finance books for 2020. Business Insider just published an article of reminiscences by the author’s son.

But a self-help book written by a White man in 1989 couldn’t possibly apply to a year like 2020, could it? Surely it is full of outmoded “me first” principles out of step with the needs of the modern reader, right?

My editor thought that might be the case: that The 7 Habits might be a juggernaut incompatible with our times but too big to fail. In this colossal, radical, revolutionary year, many of us see ourselves not only as strivers and achievers, but also as members of a community, a system, a country going through massive change that calls into question the very idea of “individual success.” A book based on such an outdated concept couldn’t help but fail spectacularly.

But what began for me as an investigation into why a 30-year-old self-improvement book was still on bestseller lists turned into a story on how to read any classic piece of self-improvement: as both history book and instruction manual. Because — and you might be surprised to read this — The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is well-suited to addressing the complicated postmodern problems we currently face. Connecting to people who are different from us, considering the plights and circumstances of others, creating change that lifts everyone, and stepping up when a moment calls for action — check, check, check, and check.

For all its hokey or out-of-touch moments, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People can still make you effective in ways that are meaningful in 2020. You just have to read it a little differently than everyone used to.

Consider what success means

It’s uncomfortable, at a time when we are all publicly wrestling with structural privilege — who enjoys it, and who does not — to encounter a book premised on the idea that a lot of people stand in their own way. From the moment he announces Habit #1: Be Proactive, Covey encourages people to be independent, not to consider themselves hapless victims, and to rise above the challenges in their lives.

This rings hollow in our current moment. Maybe a lack of self-actualization was the main obstacle standing in the way of success for the college-educated businessmen Covey met in the course of his studies, who had every other circumstance stacked in their favor. But for other people, it could be predatory student loans, or health issues, or structural racism, or family obligations. It would be nice if the book acknowledged that people begin from different places, that some face more insurmountable obstacles than others, that systems can function as shackles, and that the same life challenge can bounce off one person and demolish another.

That said, Covey’s overarching theory was that success flows to those with strong character. He believed that if you adhere to eternal ideals such as integrity, humility, fidelity, courage, and justice, you will achieve more than those who allow themselves to be pushed around by circumstance. I think that remains true, so long as you examine what Covey means by achievement.

It may not be possible to bootstrap one’s way into a CEO position, or even a stable and sustainable home life, in 2020, but believing in your own power to affect change is always a positive development — no matter how daunting the challenges a person faces. Success in this respect can be as small as creating a space inside yourself that is impervious to the various injustices visited upon you.

Covey even gets there in the book, with moving meditations about a friend who remained courageous as she died of cancer, and a Holocaust survivor who wrested back the tiniest modicum of control while he was imprisoned by the Nazis. Covey may have been privileged, but he believed agency mattered to everyone. It does.

Focus on habits 2, 3, and 5

Part of the reason 7 Habits is successful is that it’s not really a business book. Covey clearly intended his work to guide child rearing, relationships, business connections, and spiritual and ethical value propositions. The book grew out of research on morality and behavior he performed while earning an MBA at Harvard, and later, a doctorate in religious education from Brigham Young. In that research, Covey hit philosophical gold with his second, third, and fifth habits. Each is both timeless and tailor-made for the aggravations of our time.

Habit #2, Begin with the End in Mind, begins by having the reader imagine herself at her funeral. She is to figure out how she wants to be remembered and work backward from there. It’s a smart idea: the most genuine way to uncover your real values, instead of being dragged along by culture wars, the opinions of others, or false lodestars such as money, fame, or success. It’s also a good question to ask yourself when you find yourself doomscrolling or staring at the 26 browser tabs you have open at once.

But be aware: In your pursuit of those values you uncovered, some daily actions are more effective than others, and the world will try to force you to focus on the wrong ones.

Does this sound familiar? As I was reading Covey’s book, I had no fewer than 26 tabs open in Google Chrome. These included a Twitter feed full of angry screeds, several inroads into the never-ending deluge of bad news, a whole bunch of Washington Post comment threads (why do I do this to myself?), and my email inbox, three times, in three separate tabs.

Also: A tab for a Father’s Day gift I was planning to buy, a link to donate to a charity, the beginnings of a story I should have been writing to educate fearful consumers about Covid-19 vaccine testing, and the start of a message to a friend whose boyfriend recently lost a family member. Which set of actions would push me toward being the kind of person I’d like to hear eulogized?

Covey’s solution is Habit #3, Put First Things First. Identify those activities that “would make a tremendous positive difference in your life.” Then set weekly agendas incorporating them so that they actually get done.

And then there’s Habit #5, Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood. Covey explains this one through a series of conversations in which people repeatedly misinterpret each other. Those who are good at this habit, Covey says, first learn to truly listen to people — to what they mean, rather than what they think they mean. Then they learn to present their own thoughts in a way that the other person, coming from a completely different mindset, might find compelling.

This seems remarkably useful now, particularly on social media, where people don’t just neglect to understand others’ arguments, but use those arguments to score their own points. Multiply that across the entire internet and you have our currently constipated style of debate. Covey is essentially making a case for the good-faith argument: that if we’re engaging with others on a subject, we should proceed with the understanding that we all want to end up agreeing, even if we’re not sure what that agreement will look like.

Skip habits 6 and 7

Not because they’re not important, but because they’ve been so thoroughly subsumed by modern culture that you’re almost certainly already aware (and probably tired) of them.

Synergy (Habit #6), for example, has become such a deeply corporate buzzword that it’s painful to read while many corporations are failing to protect their workers. Ostensibly, it means working so seamlessly with others that you’re able to synthesize uniquely ingenious compromises. Parts of this chapter read like that trust exercise where everyone has to sit on each other’s laps at the same time. Covey writes a description of a meeting that is so pornographic it is indistinguishable from 50 Shades of Grey:

The release of creative energy was incredible. Excitement replaced boredom. People became very open to each other’s influence and generated new insights and options… Differences were valued and transcended. A new common vision began to form.

Gross.

Habit #7, meanwhile, is to Sharpen the Saw, which stems from a drawn-out metaphor about correct living being similar to cutting down your tree in the right forest, etc. What Covey means is that a person must perform regular upkeep in every area of her life — physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual — in order to remain effective. This is just self-care, and at this point every newsletter, company, and Instagram influencer has gotten in on the trend. You already know all this. Skip it.

Read some of it like you’d read an old magazine

For all its interpersonal wisdom, 7 Habits is sprinkled with outdated science. For example, Covey repeatedly employs a conceptual split between left- and right-brained people to explain differences in logical versus creative or holistic thinking. In places, he uses it to advance sexist tropes that women are less logical than men. Unfortunately for Covey and fortunately for us reading him from the future, left brain/right brain stuff has been dismissed as hokum since the early 2010s.

There are other bits that are grievously out of date. In one section, Covey employs an example of a marital argument that is clearly just a grade A misogynist berating his long-suffering wife. I hope she read the 7 Habits herself and divorced him.

Why not, in internet parlance, throw the whole man away on the basis of these missteps? Because that upsetting feeling a modern reader gets upon encountering an outdated anecdote or term should be invigorating. It’s a visible reminder that culture changes — in this case, in a positive direction. Besides, someone in your life is almost certainly still operating according to an outdated map. Interact accordingly.

Supplement it with these brand-new habits

The 30th anniversary edition of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was released on May 19, just a couple months after the world changed irreversibly. It was too late to respond to our new world with new habits. Allow me.

Habit #8, Calling Bullshit, might not have mattered back in 1989 but is a huge asset in a world in which truth is becoming harder and harder to differentiate from fiction.

Habit #9, Offering Grace to Those Who Aren’t as Far Along This Path as You Are, is useful because highly effective people don’t waste their time piling on to those who are wrong but trying their best.

Habit #10, Thinking Critically About Any Self-Improvement Approach, No Matter How Effective It Is. It’s not as catchy as “Synergy,” but I think it works.

Jacqui is the former articles editor at Popular Mechanics. Her work has appeared in Wired, Esquire, Men’s Health, and Best American Science and Nature Writing.

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