I am generally very sceptical of the American self-development literature. Most of the books are pushing open doors or simply recycling existing concepts. Some of them are nevertheless nuggets. Either because they propose an innovative approach (e.g., the "self-development" approach), or because they are based on the "self-development" approach: Never Split the Difference), or because they summarise the state of the art in a field (Ex: The charisma myth).
In a previous article, I summarised the two leading books on habits. They enlighten us on the colossal impact of our routines, which constitute 40% of our actions. The authors also give us the keys to change our bad habits and build new ones.
But one question remains after these two readings: what habits should we introduce into our daily lives? This is the question that this series of articles answers. To begin with, I went back to a classic: The 7 habits of highly effective people by Stephen R. Covey. With 30 million copies sold and the most listened to audio book in the United States, this book has largely inspired modern management theories.
In this article, discover Covey's first three habits:
- Be proactive, not reactive
- Defining your personal constitution
- Prioritise with the urgent / important matrix
What does proactivity mean? It has become a classic concept in management literature. The French Academy gives us an effective definition:
"The term proactivity describes a person who takes control of his or her life and refuses to be directed by external events.
For Stephen R. Covey, the first step towards proactivity is to always take full responsibility for a given situation. This means refusing to blame others, circumstances, or to make excuses. We are solely responsible for our failures from which we must learn, but also for our successes.
The second step towards proactivity is emotional maturity. According to Stephen R. Covey, proactivity is also about choosing your reaction to events, good or bad. He quotes Eleanor Roosevelt: "No one can hurt you without your consent".
Faced with a professional setback or a personal failure, the idea is not only to take full responsibility for the situation but also to choose one's emotional reaction. Rather than feeling mechanically bad, or being reactive, it is better to control one's response. This idea is not new. It is the cornerstone of Stoic philosophy, founded in Athens in the early third century BC. It consists of "accepting the moment as it comes, not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or the fear of pain, using one's mind to understand the world and to do one's part in nature's plan, working with others and treating them fairly and justly." Stoic authors such as Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius have had a profound impact on my intellectual development and I can only invite you to read their works.
The third step towards proactivity is to take initiatives to achieve our goals. "I am the sole captain of my ship". You will not become a brilliant musician, a great sportsman, an accomplished executive, by letting yourself be lulled by the course of things. Success means getting out of your comfort zone. In The Black Swan, statistician and former trader Nicholas Taleb explains that our lives are heavily impacted by the unpredictable. It is therefore necessary to create as many situations as possible in which unexpected opportunities can arise. You have to provoke luck, so to speak!
In summary, proactivity consists of holding oneself solely responsible for one's situation, choosing one's emotional state independently of the circumstances, and refusing passivity by taking initiatives to achieve one's objectives.
For Comey, it is important to formalise two elements:
- The principles that should guide our actions (e.g. never lie)
- Our personal and professional goals (e.g. to become a university teacher)
They are the two components of a powerful engine to guide our actions and build our character. It is a compass that shows us north at all times. This section of the book inspired Simon Sinek's famous "Start with the why" (link).
The author proposes a tool for formalising your principles and objectives: writing yourmission statement. This summarises what you want to be (your principles that constitute your character) and do (your objectives, your contributions to the world). I have been doing this for several years now, here is an extract from my personal constitution which I update every year:
If you have trouble defining your personal constitution, Covey suggests the following thought experiment. Close your eyes and imagine your funeral as realistically as possible. Your loved ones speak. What qualities, what accomplishments would you like them to highlight at this time?
Regarding goals, there is a broad scientific consensus(link) that they are important for success and happiness. Without them, it is easy to get carried away by the hustle and bustle of daily life. Goals allow :
- To motivate oneself
- Clearly define the steps and actions to reach the target
- To measure its progress
For Covey, the principle of self-constitution must also be applied at the level of an organisation. This practice marks the difference between leadership and management. Management focuses on the how, on the operational. Leadership, on the other hand, focuses on the macro vision and the why.
The second habit is to formalise your principles and life goals and to refer to them constantly as a compass.
Once we have an unwavering course, how do we achieve our ambitions? For Comey, self-discipline is at the heart of our success. This discipline involves learning to prioritise your tasks, and doing the critical ones first, even if you don't like them.
In The common denominator of success, Albert E. M. Gray studies the common denominators of successful people in their field. His conclusion can be summarised in one sentence:
"Successful people have a habit of doing the unpleasant tasks that those who fail refuse to do. Their displeasure is subordinated by their discipline to their desire to achieve their goal."
For Comey, there are three stages of organisation that lead to different levels of effectiveness
- Level 0, the to-do list
- The to-do list, which incorporates a temporal notion. Each task is assigned a time limit.
- An urgent/important matrix. This is the only way to prioritise correctly
The author invites us to allocate no more than a quarter of our time to urgent and important tasks, and the remaining three quarters to those that are only important. The underlying idea is to manage our stress level and to dedicate most of our time to strategic tasks.
Other good practices suggested by Comey for effective prioritisation:
- Proactively prepare and plan your week to ensure that you dedicate sufficient energy to the projects that are critical to your success.
- At the end of the week, measure retrospectively the time spent on the different work sites. What were the results?
- Delegate. This is difficult at the beginning, but essential in order to grow a team and focus on the tasks where we have the most impact.
I hope you enjoyed the first part of this article. In the next installment, I will detail Comey's other four habits (the last one will surprise you!).
The autobiography, Benjamin Franklin (1791), freely available here through the Nuremberg Project
Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals - Immanuel Kant(link)
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2010) - Nassim Nicholas Taleb(link)
The Neuroscience of Goals and Behavior Change - Elliot T. Berkman - 2019(link)
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