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7 Habits of Highly Effective People Summary for Distance Learners

25th January 2024

Best-selling self-help book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R Covey, looks at how a person can improve themselves and achieve their goals through a ‘principle-centred approach’. Covey argues that these results are sustained because these habits address a person’s character rather than their personality. What are the 7 habits and what’s the difference between character ethics and personality ethics? How can this be applied to students, including distance learners? Read on to gain a 7 habits of highly effective people summary and how this can help you achieve your goals.

Character ethics versus personality ethics

Let’s first look at what Covey meant when he talked about character ethic and personality ethic. Covey noticed that books about self-improvement and achieving success before the First World War centred around ‘character ethics’. These were timeless principles or values such as integrity, honesty, fairness, courage and humility. He noticed there was a shift, post-war, to ‘personality ethics’ which emphasised changes to behaviour, personality and public image. Covey argues that for sustained and true change that impacts lasting success in both a person’s personal, relational, and work life, change needs to happen from the inside out, not outside in. That’s why focusing on one’s character ethics is key. His 7 habits as follows, is focused on building character ethics.

Habit 1: Be proactive

Being proactive is more than taking the initiative but being responsible for one’s action. It’s in opposition to a reactive person whose behaviour reacts to external stimuli rather than proactively adapting their behaviour to work towards a desired outcome. Stephen Covey describes how a proactive person will act within their ‘circle of influence’ meaning they will do something about the things they can affect and influence. Whereas reactive people focus on the ‘circle of concern’. These are factors that they cannot affect, such as the weather, leaving them impotent to act.

For the distance learner, it’s recognising that there are many external factors that could affect their studies, but it’s their reaction to this that matters in many cases. For example, you have a lot of external noise around you, making it difficult to concentrate. Being proactive could be as simple as taking yourself to a quieter study place such as a library or a friend’s empty house. Or it could be speaking to your family about arranging quiet study times for you.

Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind

This habit uses the power of imagination to create a mental image of what you want to achieve in life. Covey suggests crafting a Personal Mission Statement to help with this. It should convey your character, your values and your goals and serves as blueprint to help steer you in the right direction on a day-to-day, decision-by-decision basis.

As a distance learner, it might be easy to say that the end is to obtain a degree in XYZ. But ask yourself is this the whole story? What motivated you to study in the first instance? Was it a career change? In which case, along with studying towards your degree, have you also been looking at other ways to boost your CV to help transition your career change when the time is right? Perhaps it was to get a pay rise. In which case, there will be actions you can take in your workplace to help.

Habit 3: Put first things first

Habit 3 helps us prioritise what is important (identified in habit 2 begin with the end in mind) through ‘independent will’ (understood through habit 1 be proactive) and is the process of personal effective management.

For the distance learner that could be careful time management, to not only make sure you allow sufficient time to study, but also time to relax with family and friends. This ensures the values you hold towards relationships as well as development are met in balance.

Habit 4: Think win-win

A think win-win mentality views human interactions as mutually beneficial through collaborative win-win solutions, rather than competitive. It means developing what Covey called an ‘abundance mentality’, where you recognise that there’s plenty to go around including success.

This mindset is useful for ARU distance learners when collaborating with classmates and fully utilising the support available to them. Did you know there are various opportunities for ARU distance learners to contact classmates to share ideas or form study groups, including online message boards and study forums?

Habit 5: Seek to understand first, before making yourself understood

To understand then be understood means developing the skill of ’empathetic listening’. This means the act of listening, not with the intent to reply but to understand.

This skill could be very helpful for all students when receiving feedback from peers and tutors on their work relating to their study / employment. Potentially meaning you understand the situation or topic better and improve your study or work performance.

Habit 6: Synergize

This concept looks at the benefits of working or developing relationships with a diverse group of people to bring creativity to the fore. It’s closely related to habits 4 and 5. It means being open-minded, really listening to others and contributing authentically towards creative solutions that benefit the whole group.

Working in synergy with your study group and classmates can reap huge benefits. Diversity in ideas and opinions can open your work and knowledge in new areas that you may not have thought of by yourself.

Habit 7: Sharpen the saw

Sharpen the saw is the habit of self-renewal by continually investing and bringing balance to four areas of your life. These areas are physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual.

Distance learners will already be investing in the mental area. However, it’s important that whilst studying and, perhaps working full time as well, you invest and nurture other areas of your life. For example, making sure you eat well and exercise, spend time with family, as well as make time to socialise and ‘let off some steam’.


Whether you’ve already committed to an online degree with ARU or are considering it, Stephen R Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People summary can help you focus on what’s important and inspire you to search your character to find and achieve what success looks like to you.