My “productivity” journey really began sometime in 2019 shortly after the Malaysian government declared a nationwide lockdown, called a Movement Control Order (MCO), in March. I went home and struggled (like many) to juggle manage my time and energy well. Since then, I’ve read books and articles, listened to podcasts, watched videos, talked to others to try to build systems and processes to be a good steward of my time.

Most of the content I’ve consumed are focused mostly on methods with a bit of theory. So I was mildly surprised when I (finally) got to reading Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (ISBN: 9781451639612), because it was mostly about principles rather than methods.


From the outset, Stephen Covey frames his work as a contrast to what he calls the “Personality Ethic” towards making one’s life better. For Covey, lasting improvement in all areas of one’s life must begin with one’s character, principles and paradigms, what he calls an “inside-out” process. The first three habits (Be Proactive, Begin With The End In Mind, Put First Things First) are what Covey terms “Private Victory.” Covey argues that everyone has the freedom and ability to change, to decide what their life would be, rather than be acted upon by others.

An analogy he uses to picture how these three habits work together is that of a programmer. Habit 1 affirms that we are the programmers of our lives, habit 2 says that therefore, we can write the programme having decided what we want it to do. I’ll add my third picture: habit 3 then is about deploying the programme to the real world so that it’s actually being used.

Once we have established what our fundamental principles are, set the direction we want to take, the next three habits are related to how we interact with others, what Covey calls “Public Victory.” Habit 4 (Think Win/Win) makes the case that we should strive for collaboration over competition as much as we can. Habit 5 (Seek First to Understand, Then Be Understood) says that thinking collaboratively isn’t enough, we need to communicate better - and communicating begins with active, attentive listening that seeks to understand. If we are reluctant listeners, we can’t expect those interacting with us to be any different. Habit 6 (Synergise) flows naturally from wanting everyone to succeed and having good communication. Synergy is celebrating heterogeneity and leveraging different perspectives and talents to be mutually beneficial.

Habit 7 (Sharpen The Saw) says that true change will take time and if we are serious about it, we must be wiling to train ourselves to be self-aware, self-reflective and disciplined.

Closing thoughts and who should read it

It’s not a difficult book to read, and although his ideas aren’t revolutionary, he packages them in a helpful structure. The anecdotes he shares are powerful and I appreciated his honesty and vulnerability in sharing many personal examples.

It’s a heart-warming and motivating book, good for both group discussions and personal reflection. If we are willing to invest time in figuring out our principles, and working on the seven habits he suggest, I’m positive this book will prove fruitful. It warrants a read for anyone looking beyond quick-fix personal development tips to something deeper and comprehensive.

Although Covey writes to a mass audience, he isn’t shy to mention his Mormon faith, and Christians can see echoes of biblical principles in many parts of the book.

My rating: 3.5/5

Chapter summaries

1. Inside-out - Real and lasting improvement must start from our character/principles/paradigms and grow outwards. 2. The 7 Habits - an overview - Introduces and defines a “habit,” the “maturity continuum” and “effectiveness.” 3. Habit 1: Be proactive - People are free to choose, whether good or bad. This freedom brings responsibility, which can be empowering - for good and for bad. (You are the programmer) 4. Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind - Habit 1 empowers the reader to choose. Habit 2 takes the next step and says that people should choose their future, specially, one’s end. (Write the programme) 5. Habit 3: Put first things first - If Habit 2 is about determining what is important (leadership), Habit 3 is about executing on those things (management). It’s the second creation.
**6. Paradigms of interdependence ** - He introduces the Emotional Bank Account model of looking at relationships, and suggests six major deposits. 7. Habit 4: Think Win/Win - The first section goes through his six paradigms of human interaction. The second section goes through his model of five dimensions of win/win. 8. Habit 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood - He focuses on “empathic listening,” which leads to proper diagnoses before prescription, and finally to avoid starting with “autobiographical responses.” 9. Habit 6: Synergise - After both parties have listened and understood each other (Habit 5), then we can seek to synergise, to combine different perspectives until we reach a Win/Win situation. 10. Habit 7: Sharpen the saw - This habit is about renewed, continual practice of the previous habits, focusing on four dimensions: physical, spiritual, mental, and social/emotional. 11. Inside-out again - He summarises principles he shared throughout the book, urging readers to hold onto the principles and pass them to the next generation.