In this busy holiday season and at the end of one year and start of a new one, many of us start thinking (again) about trying to be better about getting things done.

And it seems like we have more and more to do every year. That idea was one I was turning over in my mind when I stumbled upon a n old copy of Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. This book was quite popular when it was first published in 1989. It was a bestseller and I know I read or at least skimmed this copy.

I’m not big on “self-help” books, which is a genre of books that I often think would make a good, long magazine article and that’s about it.  Of course, this particular book has reportedly sold over 25 million copies worldwide in over 40 languages, so I may not have the best point of view on the genre since at least a few million of those readers must have thought the advice made them more effective in their personal and/or professional lives.

I got the copy back in a time when I had two little kids (4 & 6) and I was feeling pretty overwhelmed with things. I was thinking about all I had to do and all that I wanted to do. And those two lists did not seem to play well together.

What I do recall of the book (and what has stuck in the cultural zeitgeist) is his idea that before you even try to adopt his seven habits, you’ll need to make what Stephen Covey calls a “paradigm shift.” For him, that is a change in your  perception and your interpretation of how the world works. Big changes, not easily accomplished.

His idea is that you need to change how you perceive and act regarding things like productivity, time management and positive thinking. You need to be more proactive – acting with initiative rather than reacting to situations.

One metaphor he uses stuck with me and I used in the classroom and in some presentations back then. He talks about “big rocks” and “small rocks.”  Imagine you are trying to fill a jar with these two sizes of rocks. If you put the little rocks in first, the big rocks won’t fit. But if you put the big rocks in first, the small rocks will fill in around them.

The end of the year is a time when we often wonder how we will fit everything in that we need to do. Covey’s rocks metaphor makes the point that you should fill your life with the important things first.

Good advice, but again, hard to put into practice.

You can find excerpted versions of the seven habits online, though I’m sure Covey (who died in 2012) would have said that you needed the details from the book to really make them your practice.

But, for example, the first three habits are all about moving from dependence to independence (i.e., self-mastery) by being proactive.

You can take the initiative in life by realizing that your decisions (and how they align with life’s principles) are the primary determining factor for effectiveness in your life. Take responsibility for your choices and the consequences that follow.

His second habit is to begin with the end in mind. This is about clarifying your values and life goals.

Habit 3 is to put First Things First. Think of habit two as the mental creation and three as the physical creation.

Independence doesn’t mean you don’t have to work with others, and  “interdependence” is the next part of his path which includes finding mutually beneficial solutions or agreements in your relationships. Using what he calls “empathic listening” towards people encourages them to reciprocate.

Some of the habits became popular buzzwords in the workplace,  such as habit 6 – “synergize” – a word which has come to mean combining the strengths of people to achieve goals that no one person could have done alone. And you may have encountered a version of #7 in an evaluation or assessment: “continuous improvement.” Covey also calls this “sharpening the saw” as you strive to balance and renew your resources, energy, and health to create a sustainable, long-term, effective lifestyle.

In the final section, the author turns to some more common self-improvement techniques including exercise for physical renewal, and prayer, meditation, yoga, and good reading for your mental renewal. Finally, there is service to society for your spiritual renewal.

Covey later added an 8th Habit to deal with living in the “New Knowledge Worker Age.”

So, while making or just thinking about your new year’s resolutions, you might want to consider what the big rocks are that you want to fit in first. Maybe instead of a TO DO list, we need a ranked list of all those rocks, and we need to see which are smaller and might be better to be held aside until the big ones have been put into place.

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