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  • Writer's pictureGayle Scroggs

Science vs. the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Updated: Jun 13

“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.” — Jim Rohn


The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People  by Steven Covey is fast approaching its 35th birthday. How well does his oft-repeated advice hold up against scientific scrutiny and the recommendations of contemporary productivity experts? 


The results of my careful examination will surprise you. You may now skip the click-bait headlines offering fast productivity hacks that leave you perpetually struggling to reach goals and do what works. It turns out that your success depends less on finding shortcuts than on cultivating healthy success routines.


All three—Covey, science, top gurus—emphasize one basic principle:  Forget searching for  hacks. Focus on building habits.


Remember the children’s fable, Three Little Pigs?  The moral of the story still holds: For long-term success, take time to build your own rock-solid foundation. Translated into action steps, which means start cultivating daily best practices based on advice from Covey, research, and experts. I’ve integrated those ideas to create seven pearls of wisdom for effectiveness, which I describe below. You are more likely to be effective and successful when you focus on these seven habits:





Being proactive is about taking responsibility for your life, wrote Covey.


Do you put off working on your most important projects because you lack hard deadlines?  Are you waiting for the panic monster to jolt you into action?  Ask yourself, “Do I really want to relinquish the control of my destiny to others?”  The truth is that no one else is going to fix your troubled relationships, find your ideal job, finish that academic degree, or arrange that dream vacation for you.


As a kid and a student, you probably relied on external structures to hold you accountable. Those have evaporated now that you are an adult. Do you expect your boss or teammates to fill that void?  Or will you step into your adult role as the owner of your time, responsible for inventing your day, your week, your year?  How you use it eventually becomes your life and legacy. 


What really matters to you?


Being proactive means that you set your priorities and then plan your schedule accordingly. Thus, your first task is to narrow your current priorities to no more than five areas of focus, advises Peter Bregman, a top productivity columnist for The Harvard Business Review.


Plan your worktime around the deliverables for those areas, devoting 95% of your schedule to those five areas. That means saying “yes” to the tasks related to your four other major foci and saying “no” to almost everything else.  


That means you’ll need to relegate familiar distractors, e.g., binge-watching streaming shows, checking social media, or going down rabbit holes on Amazon. [For more details, read my earlier article on Bregman’s 18minutes here.]





Covey reminded us to “begin with the end in mind.” 


Yet a good intention is only half the story. As Aldous Huxley wrote, “Hell isn’t merely paved with good intentions, it’s walled and roofed with them.”  Keep the goals of your five foci firmly in mind—and then create the steps to get there. Imagine not just the destination, but the actual path, including obstacles.


You need more than a bucketful of positive affirmations and a tantalizing vision of your goal to finish. Such fantasizing backfires by tricking your brain into thinking you’ve already accomplished your goal and then kills your motivation to work on it.


That’s what NYU psychologist Dr. Gabrielle Oettinger found in studies of simplistic positive thinking. Failing to consider potential roadblocks leads to worse outcomes--whether you are trying to secure a job, find a mate, lose weight, etc. She offers an alternative she calls “WOOP” for short (illustrated here). To succeed, you need to identify your wish (W), your desired outcome (O), the potential obstacles (O), and your plan (P) to overcome them and reach your destination. Research demonstrates WOOP’s effectiveness.


Sure, allow yourself to imagine your glorious success—but then sit down to figure out the path--obstacles and all--between you and the finish line. (Get my free e-book of proven strategies for overcoming dissertation hurdles here. Many of the tips will work for non-academic goals.)




Putting first things first means doing what you know is in your long-term best interest, Covey asserted.


Yet how often have you put off an important task to check email or procrasti-clean or procrasti-bake? Obstacles have an insidious knack for making distractions even more alluring. Since our more primitive brain wants to make things safe and easy for us in the short run, dangerous impulses tend to win out in the absence of good habits.

Dr. Peter Gollwitzer, also of NYU, offers a surprisingly simple and well-proven strategy.  You can stay on track by fending off temptations and distractions if you use “if-then” plans. Here’s how they  work:

  • "If the phone rings while I am working, then I will let voice mail get it."

  • "If I am tempted to start baking brownies while working, then I will drink a glass of water."

  • "If a little voice inside my head starts whispering I’m incompetent and should give up, then I will boot the little devil into outer space, take three deep breaths, and double down on my work!"

  • If anything tries to knock me off course, then I will take one minute to evaluate the situation and then choose to act in my best interest.

By precommitting to doing the right thing, you are more likely to follow through.  Less conscious thought and willpower is needed. Athletes, dieters, scholars, and countless others have found “if-then” planning works wonder--more than doubling the rate of success, according to Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson in Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals.




Covey’s win-win attitude balances consideration for others with courage to be yourself.


As you work on your own goals, do not overlook your interdependence with others. Offer others assistance and affirmation for their agendas while maintain progress on your own projects. Ditto for balancing your personal priorities with those of families and friends.


Eschewing “tit-for-tat” transactions in favor of true generosity works better, explains U Penn’s Dr. Adam Grant in  Give and Take:  A Revolutionary Approach to Success. He documents how good deeds, e.g., introducing others, freely giving resources, and so on, often sow tremendous indirect benefits for the giver.


While virtue is its own reward, it can lead to unexpected benefits. Your generous gesture today may provide tomorrow’s opportunities. Who knows?  Maybe that new hire who pesters you for help today will someday be an important contact when you apply for a new job. Plus, you will feel good about your ability to make a positive difference in the lives of others


“Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones.”  — Ben Franklin


Be sure you understand before you try to get your point across, Covey recommended.


We grow by opening ourselves up to others and to new information. An honest assessment of your skills in professional and personal spheres will identify areas for growth. Feedback from others presents an opportunity to grow, so practice receiving it with grace.


Don’t get defensive or depressed when you make a mistake or receive critical feedback. Keep a bigger perspective. As I tell myself, “A seed is not a defective flower. A flower is not a defective fruit.” Everyone grows at their own pace.


So, jettison any notions that your intelligence or talents are fixed. Instead, embrace the possibilities for endless growth. Read more inspiration on this topic in the now-classic book, Mindset:  The New Psychology of Success. by Stanford’s Dr. Carol Dweck (who, not so coincidentally, was Halvorson’s dissertation chair).





Synergy refers to creative cooperation, a critical component in Covey’s principled approach. Open interaction generates new insights due to intra-group differences.


Various studies demonstrate the value of good relationships for success.  While you may have solo projects, opportunities for synergy still abound. You may discover, for example, that a colleague who knows the least about your field asks the most mind-opening questions. Try explaining your work to your teenager—and then ask what they think. Sometimes you need to be outside the box to think outside the box.


For those doing solo work, e.g., writing, do your taxes, working on your website, consider creating your own collegial group or accountability buddy. If you benefit from simply being in a room with someone else working, you can do this virtually with FocusMate. Simply sign up for an hour slot to work on, where you’ll be paired with someone else who also finds motivation in quiet company. After greeting each other, you shrink the screen showing them and get to work, reconvening 50 minutes later. FocusMate users, me included, report it doubles productivity—plus you meet people from all over the globe.





How much time and energy do you invest in caring for your own greatest asset, namely you? 


Covey’s recommendation for a balanced self-renewal program in the four areas of your life (physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual) gets two thumbs up from positive psychology researchers and practitioners.


Self-care also turns out to influence your ability to self-regulate, the foundation of Habit 3. Without self-control, ever-present distractions--from Internet links to domestic duties­--can easily send you down a rabbit hole from which you may not emerge for hours.


Surprisingly, eating well, exercising regularly, sleeping, and meditating can all boost your ability to stick to your plan, according to willpower expert Kelly McGonigal in The Willpower Instinct. In other words, taking time out for self-care really pays off.


Spending time in nature, exercising, and connecting with others all contribute to your well-being, as I detailed in a previous article. Furthermore, as you weave positive emotions into your day from such activities, you create an upward spiral that enhances productivity and health on multiple dimensions, UNC positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson asserts.



“It’s All About the Practice”


Which of the above success habits would most rev up your progress your most cherished goals? You may wish to print this, post it, and put a check mark next to one or two that you can focus on for now.  Later you can move on to others since trying to cultivate multiple habits simultaneously can backfire by overtaxing your willpower reserves. Chart your progress. I invite you to share your experiences with me. With well-aimed perseverance, you will astonish yourself at your effectiveness.


Developing the above seven habits can be a powerful way to finish your most worthy projects. Note that word “develop.”  A new habit takes time and effort--and these are worth it. Any time you backslide, resist the urge to admit defeat. Just start again. Rely on supportive friends. Consider getting a coach--they specialize in helping make new habits stick.


“It’s all about the practice,” my coaching colleague Steve Coxsey wisely reminded me when I was trying to make a change. Let go of demands for overnight success.


“Good habits are worth being fanatical about,” asserted  John Irving, possibly the only author to win both the National Book Award (The World According to Garp) and an Academy Award (The Cider House Rules). These seven habits, backed by research and experts, rank among the most effective anyone could possess. Moreover, their value will compound over time. In the end, as authors from Aristotle to James Clear have observed, your habits determine your character. Who do you want to become?

©2024 Gayle Scroggs, PhD, PCC


Image Credit: obstacle image is licensed under CC BY-NC; mindset image is licensed under CC BY.

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