If you’re like most freelancers, you don’t read a lot of corporate business books. I mean, what’s the point? You don’t work in a cubicle, report to a manager or wrestle with office politics.
Me neither. And that’s why, until recently, I’d never read Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I thought it was a corporate business book.
But I was short-sighted. While Covey’s book is a fixture on many “best business book” lists, its usefulness isn’t limited to corporate climbers. The book’s tenets apply to anyone who wants to be more effective—including entrepreneurs and freelancers.
What makes you effective?
According to Covey, effective people solve problems easily, maximize opportunities, communicate more openly and think more imaginatively. By default they lead happier, richer, more satisfying lives.
You don’t, however, become effective by fixating on productivity, time management or other external factors. Covey believes effectiveness starts from within by identifying values important to you and developing habits that support them.
Even if you don’t work for The Man, chances are you’ll find The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People useful. But before you commit to a full read, check out my crib notes.
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People at-a-glance
Below you’ll find summaries of each of Covey’s Seven Habits, along with my favorite takeaways and opinions on the Habit’s relevance to freelancers:
Habit 1: Be Proactive
Summary: To be effective, you need to take responsibility for your life rather than blame others for your reactions and actions. No matter what your situation, you have the power to choose your response. And your response—to the economy, your unhappy childhood, whatever—shapes your life far more than circumstances.
My favorite takeaway: Circle of Concern/Circle of Influence. Covey describes a “Circle of Concern” that includes all the things that concern or worry you. Within the circle exists a smaller circle: Your “Circle of Influence.” The smaller circle encompasses things you control, including—eye opener—your response to what you don’t control. As you focus more on what you can control—and less on what you can’t—your “Circle of Influence” grows.
Relevance to freelancers: As freelancers, we often feel like things “just happen” to us—the Recession, the decline of industries on which we depend, the way we “fall into” certain kinds of niches and projects. Habit #1 helps us identify our responsibility for work and career choices.
Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind
Summary: Envision your goals first and work backwards to achieve them. No superficial exercise, Habit 2 asks you to look inside yourself and identify the things you value most deeply: the relationships, principles and achievements you want to be remembered for at the end of your life.
My favorite takeaway: “All things are created twice.” Your imagination plays a huge role in your ability to achieve goals. To make your dreams a reality you need to consciously—and regularly—envision them.
Relevance to freelancers: When you run your own business, you often get caught up in operational tasks and to-do lists and lose sight of bigger dreams and aims. Freelancers need to set aside time to set goals, think imaginatively and dream.
Habit 3: Put First Things First
Summary: Plan your week in advance. Set aside time for professional and personal tasks that move you toward goals and strengthen relationships.
My favorite takeaway: Important versus urgent: Your attention will always be pulled to important and urgent matters. When push comes to shove, give priority to the important—things that reflect your values—rather than the urgent.
Relevance to freelancers: As freelancers we can easily lose sight of the big picture. How many of us have business plans or write 5-year—or even 1-year—goals? How well do we weigh priorities? If you—like a lot of us—constantly make clients’ emergencies your own, you may need to work on Habit 3.
Habit 4: Think Win-Win
Summary: Instead of fighting to “have it your way,” strive for mutually beneficial solutions or agreements in your relationships. When both parties “win,” relationships deepen, productivity increases and creative ideas flow.
My favorite takeaway: Win-Win or No Deal.
Relevance to freelancers: Ever get a bad feeling before starting a project? Maybe you disagree strongly with your client about project details and objectives. But you take the job anyway—and spend days, weeks or even months stewing and seething until the project is complete. There’s another option. Thinking “Win-Win or No Deal” frees you to communicate and negotiate the project in entirely new ways.
Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, then to be Understood
Summary: Listen actively and empathetically. Allow yourself to be drawn into other people’s feelings and points-of-view in conversation, rather than constantly trying to hammer home your thoughts and opinions.
My favorite takeaway: Empathetic listening is not a mechanical technique but rather flows from a genuine desire to frame conversations from the other person’s vantage.
Relevance to freelancers: Habit 5 works hand-in-hand with “Win-Win or No Deal” and can dramatically ease the stress of project negotiation, pricing, networking and other situations that require productive conversations.
Habit 6: Synergize
Summary: You achieve far more when you combine your strengths with others rather than try to manage it all yourself.
My favorite takeaway: Other people’s differences are a strength to you, rather than a threat.
Relevance to freelancers: Most freelance work is solitary and can easily lead to social and professional isolation. Freelancers need to finds ways to meet, partner with others and socialize—beyond online social communities!
Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw
Summary: To sustain healthy life habits, you need to regularly renew yourself with reflection, recreation and intellectual stimulation.
My favorite takeaway: You are your greatest asset. Make an effort to care for yourself physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally.
Relevance to freelancers: Workaholism and hazy professional-personal boundaries hallmark freelance life. All of us need to work on Habit 7.
A few holes in the Seven Habits
There’s a lot to like about The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. But even while I nodded, took notes and promised I’d revisit chapters, I found some holes in the book. While I’d like to believe the premise of Habit 1—an apologia for Free Will—I have my doubts. Viktor Frankl notwithstanding, are all victimized people able to make choices? What about the mentally ill?
On a less philosophical note, I admit I was annoyed by the book’s use of acronyms and jargon. To be fair, it was published in 1989 when, perhaps, words like “proactive” and “synergize” weren’t so generic and overused. But I also have trouble with Covey’s “P/PC” formula. The initials stand for “productivity” and “productivity capacity.” But Covey uses “P/PC” to describe many more amorphous, fluid and less manufacture-oriented situations and conditions. In each instance I had to stop and translate “P/PC” into words and concepts that made more sense to me.
Do freelancers have any business reading “business books?”
Does The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People sound useful to you? Have you found any other so-called “business books” helpful? Fill me in.