Taking care of you, Covey style
By Lisa Lawmaster Hess
Although he doesn’t exactly couch it in such terms, Stephen Covey has a lot to say about self-care. His book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, became a mega-hit, still enduring more than 30 years after its initial publication and seven years after his death. Businesses, school districts, and individuals soaked up his concepts and developed a shared philosophy that included a vocabulary with words like principles-based, paradigm shift, and emotional bank account.
Though Covey’s concepts were embraced by businesses and institutions, much of the book is about who we are, what matters to us, and who we want to become. His seventh habit, which encircles all the rest, is sharpen the saw — a charge to take care of ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Closely related to this is the personal bank account, a concept he introduces at the outset of his private victory, which is encompassed by habits one, two, and three.
Wait a second. Saws? Accounts? Victories? What does this have to do with anything?
Quite a lot, actually. In many ways, Covey reminds us that if we want to take care of others — our families, our students, those in need — we must first take care of ourselves. To do this, we must balance what we do for ourselves and what we demand of ourselves (personal bank account). To be effective in our dealings with others, we must first consider how we look at the world (our paradigms) and how we respond to the world around us (Habit 1, be proactive), as well as where we want to go (Habit 2, begin with the end in mind) and what matters most to us (Habit 3, put first things first).
Let’s take these one at a time and see how they add up to winning the private victory.
Habit 1: Be proactive. As teachers, we think of being proactive as being prepared, but that’s only part of the story. While thinking ahead is, indeed, being proactive, so, too is taking responsibility for our actions and making deliberate choices when faced with new situations. How often has someone caught you off-guard, eliciting a knee-jerk response that left you agreeing to do something you didn’t really want to do? That knee-jerk response is a reactive response — the exact opposite of proactive.
If we can learn to pause before we respond (speak, act, and/or commit), we gain time to think about what we want, what we need, and how this new information fits into what we are already doing and committed to doing. If we can model this momentary pause for our students and teach them to think before responding, we can help them reduce impulsivity and improve their academic and social interactions. What’s one area of your life in which you’d like to be more proactive?
Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind. When we plan a trip, we consider our starting point and our destination so we can map out the best route. Beginning with the end in mind is much the same — before we can begin, we need to know where we are going. Often, our destinations are abstract — a task we want to complete, a goal we want to reach — and we don’t draw literal maps but are instead content to mentally plan our route. Other times, though, we benefit from writing down our goals and mapping out our paths. We do this with classroom goals and objectives all the time, yet this same process can trip us up when the goals we seek to achieve are our own. On those occasions, we may feel selfish taking the time or spending the money to get to whatever it is we are seeking, whether it’s a day at the spa or a graduate degree.
Students, too, benefit from thinking about the goals they want to achieve, whether it’s making the soccer team or going to their dream college. Helping them to identify and clarify these goals is the first step in helping them to achieve them. Assisting them in determining concrete steps to get from point A to point B makes it more likely they’ll reach their destination. What’s one dream you’ve always had? Can you trace a path from where you are now to your desired goal? Or, on a smaller scale, what’s something you wanted to accomplish in your classroom this year? Can you trace a realistic path from here to there?
Habit 3: Put first things first. What matters most to you? Is this where you spend most of your time and attention? If so, you are probably putting first things first. When we teach our kids to do their work before they go to recess, eat their dinner before they eat their dessert, or clean their rooms before they go to a party, we’re teaching them to put first things first (learning, nutrition, and responsibility, in these examples) in a very basic sense.
But sometimes, we inadvertently teach them to put the desires of their hearts on hold as well. After all, what kid would rather work than play, eat broccoli instead of chocolate cake, or clean in solitude instead of hanging out with friends? As adults, we have the freedom to choose, yet we sometimes still find ourselves on a steady diet of work, broccoli, and cleaning with no time for the play, sweet stuff, and socializing we both need and desire. Remembering what comes first in our lives — God, family and friends top the list for many of us — helps us remember to put down the mop and the broccoli and take the occasional day to go to the park with our kids and maybe even grab an ice cream cone afterward. In your own life, what three things matter most? Are they getting the lion’s share of your time, or table scraps?
Combined, these three habits — be proactive, begin with the end in mind, and put first things first — make up what Covey calls the Private Victory. As we get better at setting our priorities, aiming for our goals, and keeping our eyes on the prizes (goals and priorities), we take the first steps toward living a life that’s true to who we are. When we do this, we successfully make deposits into our emotional bank account, keeping a positive balance by doing what matters instead of meandering through our days following someone else’s lead.
When we feel our balance slipping into the red, it’s time to sharpen the saw (habit 7) — to stop and consider what we need to do to get ourselves back on track physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually so we can bring our balance back into the black. The saw metaphor is a good one, reminding us how much more difficult it is to perform a task with a subpar tool. Just as we waste enormous amounts of energy trying to cut with a dull blade, so too do we waste a lot of energy trying to power forward when we’re running out of gas.
Winning the private victory isn’t a one-and-done proposition but, rather, something we need to work at every day. Successfully practicing these habits sets us up to live a life where we not only spend our time and energy on things that matter, but recharge regularly as well. Just as we need to keep an eye on the gas gauge in our car, so too do we need to keep an eye on our personal energy gauge to know when it’s time to sharpen the saw. And, when we see that time has arrived, it’s important to begin with the end (physical, mental, and spiritual health) in mind and proactively put first things (our own well-being) first. Only then can we be prepared for the public victory.
More on that next month.
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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