Books to dip in and out of for success

I have been writing predominantly about the management of other people and have for the most part neglected the equally important issue of managing oneself. Today, I begin rectifying that.

There are two main popular approaches. The first and older one is espoused by Stephen Covey in his seminal book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The book is a little dense but imparts great value, and I highly recommend reading it – perhaps on an annual basis.

The main thesis of the book is that people had turned towards the “fast buck”, which is based on show and manipulation rather than building a foundation of character. It intentionally does not talk about goals, which is why it is not titled The 7 Habits of Very Rich People, a title that would probably sell.

The habits, briefly, are: 1. Be Proactive, 2. Begin with the End in Mind, 3. Put First Things First, 4. Think Win/Win, 5. Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood, 6. Synergise and 7. Continual Improvement.

The first three habits make plenty of sense. Don’t sit in your office waiting for instruction, understand your goals and prioritise. These make complete sense.

Where the 7 Habits begins to fall short is on the next three habits, which detail how to interact with others. The advice given is great when you are dealing with decent people. But when dealing with a predator or narcissist these habits can get you into serious trouble. The 7 Habits does not deal with this issue thoroughly, and instead is based on the idea that people are all basically good. You don’t need much evil to make your life a living hell.

The second major issue that I have with The 7 Habits is that it is long on philosophy and short on tangible plans. Even Covey, the author, recognised this and expanded the third habit, Put First Things First, into its own book to remedy this. But do you really want to read a book 90 per cent of which is originally from The 7 Habits? More about this later.

The other approach is the popular book Getting Things Done, popularly known as GTD, by David Allen. GTD addresses personal management from the opposite end of The 7 Habits. The philosophy is that anything that comes into your world, such as email, voicemail, a letter, etc, should be handled in one of three ways: 1. Action it, 2. Delegate it or 3. File it.

There is then an extremely detailed set of instructions. For action, if you can do it in less than two minutes, then do it, otherwise you “action it”. This is done by putting it into a context, such as online or calls, and then when you are in that context you execute it, eg you do all your calls that are in your call context.

This was initially helpful to me until I realised that this is not how I work. Let’s say I have several projects named A, B, C. If I make a call for project A I rarely then decide to make all calls for project B. When I’m in a project I don’t want to switch to an­other project just because it might have calls or emails etc.

The second problem of GTD is that it is nearly useless when looking at things at the project or even project portfolio level.

I picked these two books to start with for a simple reason – individually they have fatal flaws as a complete personal management system. But combined they can be quite powerful.

Habits 1 to 3 of The 7 Habits give you the foundation for developing your goals and projects. The second step would be what GTD espouses but dropping contexts and working within projects for large blocks of time. Habit 7 is of course always useful.

I strongly recommend both books, but experiment and keep what works for you and disregard the rest.

Sabah Al Binali is an active investor and entrepreneurial leader with a track record of growing companies in the Mena region. You can read more of his thoughts at

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