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How to Recognize the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People So You Can Avoid Being Like Them

I peel my eyes open at 6:56AM, roll over towards my nightstand and reach for my phone. If you’ve been alive and even remotely interested in being an ‘effective person’ in the last couple of decades, your alarm bells should already be going off that this is certainly not a habit of a highly effective person. DING DING DING! PUT DOWN THE PHONE! Your day should start with a wheatgrass smoothie, a gratitude list, and eight minutes shower yoga before you even consider browsing on your phone! Shame on you. Your feet haven’t even hit the floor yet and already the day is back on its heels. INEFFECTIVE.

As a functioning and working adult person who uses the Internet, I am deluged sans my consent with tips and articles suggesting how I can be more effective, by demonstrating how superior folks operate on the daily. On the surface, it feels like good advice wrapped in a shame sandwich, but upon the most miniscule of reflection, this offering has all the altruism of a yoga video claiming to be for ‘inflexible people’, featuring an instructor that proceeds to fold her body into an origami swan. The message being, “You suck now, but if you do this work, maybe you’ll suck less. But you’ll never suck as little as do.”

INEFFECTIVE.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like to AFFECT just as much as the next functioning and working adult. I like to feel I am having a positive impact on the little world I inhabit. And that’s what ‘effectiveness’ is, right?

Ef|fec|tive|ness noun “The degree to which something is successful in producing a desired result; success.” — Internet Dictionary

Who doesn’t want to produce desired results? Who doesn’t want success? I wager we all do. But our versions of success are all different. How can seven habits lead to an infinite variety of successes? Your idea of success might be world domination and mine might be imagining spending my senior years doing community theater and beekeeping. You know, for example. Ahem.

Let’s quickly review the legendary Seven Habits of Highly Effective People inked into the scroll of life by author Stephen R. Covey.

1. Be proactive

2. Begin with the end in mind

3. First things first

4. Think win-win

5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood

6. Synergies

7. Sharpen the saw

How could I possibly have a bone to pick with these? They all sound entirely pragmatic and simple as I stand here doing deep knee bends while sipping my free-range smoothie (except for Synergies — even in my effectiveness walkabout I still know bullshit corporate jargon when I hear it. EJECT.)

The problem comes in when I picture dealing with a person who is operating with these tenets while engaging with me. Let’s examine.

Be proactive — To paraphrase, this is defined as taking the initiative to improve situations, recognizing where your influence is and constantly working to expand it; taking action before problems arise as to not be reactive. In short, this is that person where you are talking to them about an issue you are having and they immediately try to fix it for you rather than listening and empathizing with you. They are flexing their own wisdom and experience under the guise of solving problems. Pro tip, nobody likes this. This person is exhausting to be around, talks a lot, and no doubt will grace you with tales of how they themselves have conquered your brand of problem. No.

Begin with the end in mind — To paraphrase, this is defined as envisioning your future and constantly engaging in behaviors that are in service of that vision. In short, don’t live for now — today is about getting towards that golden someday, whenever and whatever that is. Do you really think this person is actually listening to your story about how your parakeet got out of its cage and effectively hid from you in your one-bedroom apartment for three weeks? They’re not.

First things first — This is about categorizing your life into quadrants of urgency and teaches how to prioritize urgent matters first and ‘frivolous distractions’ last. Do you really think this person will be game to attend that underground Improv show you heard about from your super cool dog walker? They won’t.

Think win-win — Sure, this sounds great. Everyone’s a winner. But for everyone to be a winner, that means every interaction is a game or a negotiation. This is a person who will be studying your body language while you speak a la The Pickup Artist and practicing their hostage negotiation techniques they learned from the Chris Voss MasterClass. (Okay, I might need to rethink this one. I loved that class, and the Pickup Artist is actually pretty interesting from a human psychology standpoint. Next.)

Seek first to understand then be understood — This teaches to use empathetic listening to create an atmosphere of caring. I have no beefs with this one. Do this.

Synergies — Defined as combining the strengths of people through teamwork to achieve goals that couldn’t be done alone. Sounds great. And like jargon. See above.

Sharpen the saw — Defined as engaging in behaviors that serve to balance and renew your own mental and physical resources, like prayer, exercise, etc. That all sounds great but take heed of the name here — sharpen the saw — pretty violent imagery, no? Does this evoke the spirits of the preceding notions of empathy, joint winning, teamwork, etc.? No. A saw works alone. It’s sharp and has teeth and its job is to cut things like chaotic hedges and bones on the battlefield. Highly effective? Most certainly. Is this the person you want to be hanging out with? On the battlefield, perhaps, but I doubt they’ll be too concerned about your broken heart or interested in that new indie artist you heard last week. Too busy sharpening that blade.

Which brings me back to the word ‘effectiveness’. American culture has a love affair with busyness, independence, and cutthroat success, and we endow stardom and presidencies on those who embody those qualities with the utmost allegiance. The early bird gets the worm. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Manifest destiny! Go west! KEEP GOING!! To be asked what your plans are this weekend is a test of worth — what progress events do you have lined up? Are you hustling? Are you improving? Are you making money? Are you chasing glory?

Are you being effective?

I have certainly experienced the pressure to fabricate some ‘plans’ to create the guise of busyness, because an honest answer of ‘sitting on my ass and reading’ feels like surrender. I’ve given up on the American Dream of becoming wealthy and famous and going viral, becoming the envy of all the other suckers who are ashamed to admit they also love to read and relax and check their phones before getting out of bed. We have a word for that. LAZINESS. <Ptooey! Ptooey! Be gone, evil spirits!>

Laziness. The pathetic and slothy nemesis of effectiveness. The cartoon devil on the shoulder of the Stars and Stripes. A slap in the face to all the pioneers and railroad barons and influencers who made this country what it is today: the planet’s greatest superpower that doesn’t even crack the top 10 in the World Happiness Index. We’re number 14! USA!

Is our obsession with effectiveness working? Are we being more effective? At what, exactly? Is our effectiveness serving us, or some CEO we met once at that 2014 Annual Meeting? Are we positively affecting people in our orbits, or are we being very effective at keeping them at bay so we can be more effective without them?

Ultimately, the seven habits have one thing in common — self-obsession. Even #5, using empathetic listening, has the ulterior motive of creating an atmosphere that allows the other to better understand and listen to us. Like so many aspects of the American Dream, it is mostly about the self and the glory of going it alone. What if, rather than the obsessive pursuit of self-betterment, we focused on other people for a while, with no secret ambition? What would a world look like that permitted taking our feet off the gas and being less effective?

At the very least, underground Improv shows would be standing room only.

Would reducing our self-obsession actually make us less effective? One of the most effective methods I’ve found as a coach to help nudge folks out of bouts of anxiety or depression is to encourage them to volunteer helping other people. Focus on others instead of yourself. Less in, more out. There seems to be a point at which introspection and self-work produce diminishing returns. A snake eating its own tail. Give the ego a break and remind it that there is a whole world out there of potential community and alternate perspectives — neither of which can be taken in while flying solo.

So next time you’re having a meal with someone who just doesn’t seem to be fully present, or is aggressively trying to solve your problems, consider that they might be working really hard on being more effective. Or maybe you are. In either case, there’s this great new indie artist you should listen to.

A skeleton made of the bones of a Coach, Writer, Hypnotherapist, and Improviser, dressed in a skin suit of comedy.

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