Covey’s Second Habit: Beginning with the end in mind

In a previous post I discussed the first of Stephen R. Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: being proactive.

The second habit explored by Covey is the idea of “Beginning with the end in mind.” Covey suggests that as we work proactively in our personal and professional lives, we must have a clear vision of what we are aiming to achieve. One might automatically think of goal-setting, but it goes further than that.

Covey tells us that,  “”Begin with the end in mind” is based on the principle that all things are created twice. There’s a mental or first creation, and a physical or second creation, to all things.” So, the creation of something starts first with our ideas and goals, and is then manifested in the physical creation of a tangible object, or the achievement of something potentially intangible. Covey gives the example of building a house. The first creation comes in the plans, the second creation in the physical construction of the building. Similarly, as a teacher there might be a vision for the establishment of, let’s say, a program targeted at improving students’ literacy skills. The first creation comes in the vision of how it would work, the second creation would be in the program’s development and implementation. We start by deciding on a specific target.

Covey says that when we understand these two creations and assume responsibility for the manifestation of both, we act within and extend our Circle of Influence. If this self-awareness is missing, then we are are at risk of allowing other people and circumstances outside our Circle of Influence to shape our lives by default. Essentially, we allow ourselves to be acted upon for the achievement of others’ personal and professional goals.

Another distinction made in this discussion is the difference between leadership and management. Leadership is the vision, the first creation, defining the aim. Management is how a person or organisation goes about achieving the second creation. Leadership has to come first otherwise the process of management will lack direction.

“To begin with the end in mind means to approach my role…with my values and directions clear.” According to Covey, this means that effective decision-making is principle-centred. He discusses that at the centre of our personal or professional lives may be many things that are important to us- spouse, family, money, work, possession, pleasure, friends, enemies, church, self – but these may skew our process of making effective decisions. “Whatever is at the centre of our life will be the source of our security, guidance, wisdom and power.” So, if our work is the centre of our life then it will affect our sense of identity and worth (security), our direction in life (guidance), our perspective on life (wisdom), and our capacity to act (power) potentially at the expense of other aspects of our lives. If we aim to make principles our centre, then we are able to act proactively rather than reactively, and can make more effective decisions about the things that are important to us, knowing that the choices come from a solid foundation.

In order to effectively begin with the end in mind, Covey refers to left brain (logic)/right brain (emotion, creativity) psychology. He suggests that by drawing upon the power of the imaginative, creative right brain we able to engage in the powerful technique of visualisation. Research by Dr. Charles Garfield has found that “almost all of the world-class athletes and other peak performers are visualizers. They see it; they feel it; they experience it before they actually do it.” In other words, they begin with the end in mind.

Covey recommends creating a personal mission statement – essentially a set of goals, but based on the principles or values that are at the centre of our lives. Visualisation is posited as a helpful strategy for creating this. He also refers to an executive who wrote his mission statement using the idea of roles and goals. Identifying our roles can help to ensure that we do not focus too much on one aspect of our lives at the expense of others. Once the roles are defined, we can visualise long-term goals for each of them based on our personal values. The acronym S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-Bound) is often referred to in discussions of goal-setting. Covey also highlights that “an effective goal focuses primarily on results rather than activity.”

Essentially, the idea of beginning with the end in mind lends purpose and direction to our personal and professional lives. It allows us to see where we are, where we want to be, and how we can get there. By working proactively with a defined end in mind, we are able to give ourselves agency in determining the trajectory of our lives, rather than allowing our lives to be defined by the people or circumstances surrounding us.

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