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Management Guru Stephen Covey Knew Goals are Vital to Success

"The main thing, is to keep the main thing the main thing" - S. R. Covey

I'm not sure if Stephen R. Covey had any clue about what a success his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, would be when he published it in 1990, but even several years after his death, it's still the bible of leadership and modern management. When I read the book, here's what I learned:

1. Do the funeral test.
2. Learn how to say no.
3. Practice active listening.

Do the funeral test. 

This is the habit Covey calls "Begin with the end in mind." He issues a warning that plowing away and getting a massive amount of tasks done in a preferably short time (i.e. being efficient) is only useful when you're plowing in the right direction.

The classic analogy here is the ladder you're climbing furiously, only to find out it's leaned against the wrong wall when reaching the top. Only if you're clear about your major, long-term goals can you align each and every single one of your decisions with them.

The by far best way to become VERY clear about those goals is to do the funeral test. I first heard about this from Tai Lopez and assume he's gotten it from the book.

Ask yourself these 3 questions:

1. What do I want people to say about me at my funeral?
2. As what sort of person do I want to be remembered?
3. For what do I want to be remembered?

Depending on your number of relationships (family, friends, clients, partners, customers), you can also ask yourself how many people you'd like to be there to mourn your death.

As Steve Jobs said:
"All external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure--these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important."

Truthfully answering those questions will make you realize that out-of-the-suitcase, business class lifestyle isn't really you, or that all you ever wanted to do was dance.

So to find your true goals, be bold and ask them.

Lesson 2: Learn how to say no.

Knowing exactly where you want to go makes it easy to find out what's important to you and what's not. When you know your final goal, you'll at least have an inclination for each to-do as to how important it actually is.

You'll often find that the important things aren't urgent and vice versa. This in some cases means that there might be things, which don't deserve to be done at all.

Note: A great tool to learn more about the difference between urgent and important is the Eisenhower Matrix.

That also means you're gonna have to learn how to say no. It's not easy, especially if money's involved.

Sometimes tempting rewards will be dangled right in front of you, which is when it's time to pull out the funeral test again to see whether those rewards deserve to be chased.

I've tried to learn from Derek Sivers in this regard, who says, it's either a hell yeah, or a no.

He's always incredibly focused on a few things, but those things create all the meaning he needs in his life.

Lesson 3: Practice active listening.

The good thing about saying no to a lot of things is being able to spend a lot more time actually listening to others.

Active listening is part of our "Coaching 101" on, and it is a 3-pronged approach to communication:

1. You're listening to understand the person you're listening to, not primarily to give advice or respond.
2. You make sure you understand by repeating back to them what they said and mirroring their emotions.
3. You help them structure their own thought process.

This was one of the major lessons I learned during my first 6 months as a coach: A good coach is determined much more by the quality of his questions, than by the quality of his answers.

Covey calls this "Seek first to understand, then to be understood" and it is a call to practice active listening and empathy.

Just like you get suspicious of your doctor when he prescribes you hefty antibiotics after hearing you cough just once, we don't tend to trust people, who we think don't really understand us.

So make an effort to listen to understand, instead of listening to respond.

A good way to start this practice is by simply talking less.

About the author:

For my work as a coach, I draw on 30 years in business, working with large corporates and pure startups, in Australia and all over the world including Asia. I've created companies, helped startups grow and I've helped people make the crucial decisions about their career direction.


Greg Twemlow is also the founder and director of SEVENmile Venture Lab, a for-purpose enterprise supporting the entrepreneurial community on Sydney’s northern beaches.

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