Sharpening Our Goals


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Set goals that build you up rather than merely exhausting you.

By Lisa Lawmaster Hess

More than twenty years ago, my school district decided to make Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People a required professional development component for all staff members, from custodians, bus drivers and cafeteria staff to classroom teachers, counselors and administrators. I was less than enthusiastic, to say the least. I had a preschooler at home and was not pleased to be giving up time with her for multiple full-day training sessions on a topic I had not chosen. I ended up selecting Saturday sessions so my husband could be home with our daughter and, while I was never thrilled at giving up my Saturdays, I have to say the sessions were perhaps the best staff development I ever attended.

Published in 1989, Covey’s book “inspired a $1.4 billion empire,” according to Forbes, including a book for teens written by his son, Sean, and leadership training sessions embraced by many businesses. The original book has spawned a 25th Anniversary edition as well as a 30th anniversary edition card game.

There’s a reason this book has endured. Covey’s ideas are rooted in character principles and setting priorities (put first things first), as well as cooperating with others (think win-win) while also taking care of oneself (sharpen the saw). HIs concepts are at once thoughtful and practical and, as the continued popularity of his book would indicate, timeless.

Covey’s overall concept involves moving from dependence through independence into interdependence, building first our own skills, then our ability to work with others while simultaneously practicing self-care, a concept Covey advocated long before it became a buzzword. Sharpen the saw, Covey’s seventh habit, advises us to renew ourselves physically, socially, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.

Woven in among the habits are other Covey gems — emotional bank accounts, whereby Covey stresses the importance of nurturing our relationships and, my all-time favorite, his time-management quadrants that nudge us to distinguish between what is screaming for our attention (“urgent”) and what really matters (“important”) and allocate our time accordingly.

Created by Lisa Lawmaster Hess.

Each year, I teach these habits to my students or, more accurately, I have them teach them to each other via small group presentations in my freshman seminar on success. As we explore the notion of success, Covey’s work encourages these students, who were in elementary school when the 25th Anniversary edition of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was published, to go beyond society’s conceptualizations of success and to explore what really matters to them by developing a values-based approach to success that moves beyond fortune and fame.

As the new year begins, it occurs to me that some of these Covey takeaways lend themselves perfectly to starting 2020 out on the right foot. Whether you’re a monthly goal-setter or a New Year’s resolution-maker, it’s a great time to ask some Covey-inspired questions. This year, will we allow ourselves to be at the mercy of the tasks that scream at us, or will we take a step away from those squeaky wheels and focus on the people and things that matter to us? Will we invest in our relationships every day in small ways, building them up so that they sustain us and vice versa? Will we take care of ourselves, building self-care into our routines so that we are physically, mentally and spiritually prepared for whatever the new year brings, and socially sustained by and sustainers for the people who matter to us?

Created by Lisa Lawmaster Hess.

As for me, I plan to dig a little more deeply into Covey, who has much to say beyond the habits we discuss in class. That 30th edition card game has also caught my eye as perhaps the perfect follow-up to my students’ in-class presentations.

Whatever your opinion on Covey, I hope you’ll remember to put sharpen the saw at the top of your list, making sure that you set goals that build you up rather than merely exhausting you. Yes, the work of self-care can be hard, and fitting it into a packed-to-the-gills schedule can seem selfish, but before we can take care of anyone else, we must first take care of ourselves.

Lisa Lawmaster Hess is an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania and a former elementary-school counselor. Her latest book is Know Thyself: The Imperfectionist’s Guide to Sorting Your Stuff.

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