We live in a world of limited resources. We have limited time, limited energy, and a limited ability to do the things we want to do. That said, one thing we can all share is a desire to be more effective, to get more out of the limited resources at our disposal. In his best-seller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey shares some tips to allow us to do just that. But before we can commit these principles to our day-to-day lives, we must first realize that we can.
Dead psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl once said, “Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.” And in that quote lies the key to all of Covey’s seven habits, and self improvement in general. Before we can ever improve ourselves we must first shift into a proactive mindset, we must own our responsibility to ourselves and accept that –for better or worse– our life is the product of our choices. We are more than simple animals responding to stimulus, and as such, we have a greater obligation to ourselves.
So how do we become more effective? How do we rise above the potential of our amoeba forefathers?
1. Never stop sharpening the saw.
This is actually the last of Covey’s “7 habits” but I include it as a starting point because I think it is clearly the most important. In the book Covey shares the story of a woodcutter who is furiously hacking away at a tree with a dull axe. The blade needs to be sharpened, but the woodcutter refuses to stop working. Rather than pause to improve the situation, the woodcutter just continues banging against the tree in total futility.
Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.
- Abe Lincoln
Many times we find ourselves on auto-pilot, not 100% sure how we got here, not 100% sure how to proceed.
When all else fails, it can be helpful to reevaluate our process, our tools, our habits. Are we approaching the challenges of our life with a dull axe? Have we taken the time to “sharpen the saw” — to keep our own skills fresh and up-to-date?
Remember- its not “being lazy” to take time to sharpen your saw. Quite the opposite, it results in more productivity, not less.
2. Don’t prioritize your schedule, schedule your priorities.
Most of us try to keep to something resembling a regular schedule. Unfortunately, by the time you’ve finished scheduling all the overtime, grocery shopping, ballet lessons, family meetings and dentist appointments, it can be hard to find the time to go to the bathroom, much less pick up a new hobby. Anytime you start by looking at a full schedule, it will be a daunting proposition to fit in anything new, no matter how exciting or potentially valuable. This is why you must schedule your priorities and not just prioritize your schedule.
Say for example your number one priority this year is to learn how to play the accordion. To do this you must be willing to practice many long hours. You must study music. You might even need to attend lessons or hire a tutor. Start with a blank week. Schedule the time you will need to master your accordion. Now, having placed the most important items on the calendar first, try and wedge in everything else.
In all likelihood you will not have time for everything; some things will get bumped off the schedule. So why bother? Because the things getting bumped off the list are no longer your top priorities.
3. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
This single piece of advice has the power to end millions of arguments, reconcile fans of both Elvis and the Beatles, and potentially, bring peace to the entire world. Think I’m exaggerating? I’m not. Remembering this little tidbit has saved me untold thousands in blood pressure medication.
There is a strange moment at the start of an argument when someone first jumps to an incorrect assumption; the moment when a discussion crosses the line into a fight.
Allow me to illustrate with an example:
A husband comes home to find his wife sitting on the couch. In the kitchen is a pile of dirty dishes. “Why didn’t you do the dishes?” he asks. In response, she scowls and responds: “Why didn’t you do the dishes?”. The husband has made the critical error of an incorrect assumption –that his wife was being lazy– and has now started a fight. What the husband failed to realize is that the wife herself had arrived home only a few minutes before him. She had promised herself a half-hour of relaxation after a hard day at work. After this brief break, she had every intention of cleaning the dishes.
Had the husband sought to understand first, he would have learned that the dishes are indeed under control. Instead, the couple spends the next two hours arguing about a handful of crusty plates neither of them really care about. Don’t be that guy. Before you seek to be understood (and in the process, jump to an incorrect assumption that will likely trigger a fight), make sure you understand.
Want to read the book? Want to support your friends at 3 Things I Learned? You can do both at once when you order “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” via Amazon.com. Got no money for books? Get it at your local library instead.
Looking for more books on communication? Check out “Awesomely Simple” by John Spence or “Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: 10 Secrets Every Father Should Know” by Margaret J. Meeker. This article included references to Stephen R. Covey and hopefully that will impress the nice folks at Google.
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