7 Habits for Highly Effective Journalists

Headlines following the recent passing of Stephen R. Covey have mostly included reference to the management and self-help guru’s immensely successful book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

The reference is with good reason: the book was on The New York Times best seller list for more than five years, and it’s sold over 25 million copies to date. As I reflected on the best way to manage my own career, I couldn’t help but think about how Covey’s book probably had good insight in its pages for me, too — a journalist who fights the demands of an always-on news cycle, yes, but also a person. A normal human being.

Journalists are people, too. Here are some takeaways for how Covey’s seven habits can apply to our field, along with some practical tools and strategies to begin making them your habits, too.

(An upfront notice: Many of these tools are intentionally very low-tech. In most cases, more complex tools exist than the ones I mentioned. The best place to always start, however, is the basics: smart use of the simple stuff.)

Be Proactive

Your decisions are the primary factor in your success. Recognize and take responsibility.

Why digital journalists need the habit: You’re largely the product of your own choices, and there are many choices to be made in an online world of both tools and time-sucks. If you want to be effective, you have to recognize the need to actively take the steps to get there.

Tool suggestion: Your follower and following lists, for example, which show what news you’re paying attention to and your audience: who’s paying attention. Specific metric tools exist for Twitter and other engagement platforms (not to mention things like Klout), but self-diagnosis may be stronger.

Strategy: Determine your “Circle of Concern,” the things you’re interested and care about, and your “Circle of Influence,” the things you can really do. Be self-aware, and always build your content around that intersection. If they don’t line up with where you want to be, make actual changes. (Maybe slowly tweet about the topic you care more about, for instance.)

Begin with the End in Mind

Envision the ideal characteristics of who you want to be and what you ultimately want to do. Let that guide all your action.

Why digital journalists need the habit: If you’re in the journalism business, you probably have a purposeful reason for being there. It’s likely some variant of a desire to share truth with others and help better people’s lives or the greater society. When it’s so easy to comment on anything and get caught up in pageviews, however, it’s best to start any content production by keeping in mind the end you’d like to achieve.

Tool: A pen and paper, on which you can write why you’re in the business, and a graphics design program as simple as Sketch & Paint, with which you can use to make pretty a version for your desktop background.

Strategy: When you’re struggling with what angle to take, or what tool to best convey a story, go back to the basics: what’s the most important thing driving the work you do? Keep that answer in place so you can see it regularly, like on your desktop background, and work backwards to decide how your current project aligns in content, platform type, length and distribution method. In interviewing, it’s always good to ask “why.” It does equal good to routinely ask the same of yourself.

Put First Things First

Evaluate what’s important. Prioritize it and plan around it.

Why digital journalists need the habit: In journalism it’s tough to subdue the urge to be “always on” and always aware. That said, you can only do so much. As Clay Christensen, a friend of Covey, put it in his own book, How Will You Measure Your Life?, individuals are always faced with a question of resource allocation. If you were to list everything you do during the day (at work and at home), would the percentages align with what you think is most important?

Tool: GTimelog, which assists in manually tracking time you allot to certain tasks. Tools like StayFocusd automatically track time and can lock you out of sites on which you spend too much time, but I quite enjoy this one because it’s hands-on. GTimelog can be used for work and for capturing how much time you spend on Facebook — and it forces you to actively, personally keep track.

Strategy: Keep track of how you’re spending you’re time and review it regularly. Does it line up with your goals? If not, be more of a stickler about priorities, for yourself and others. Organize your daily tasks around your priorities and be disciplined. If you only want to spend two hours on email so you have more time to write and report, develop a time to handle it and keep that schedule. Let everyone know it.

Think Win-Win

Understand that the best solutions often involve mutual benefit. Mindfully aid the work of others.

Why digital journalists need the habit: Competition is important in the marketplace of journalism — you want your company to succeed. Cooperation, however, is important in the workplace of journalism. In the long run, if you do everything to assist the individual endeavors of your co-workers, you “win,” too.

Tool: A company Twitter list, for instance, with which you can keep an eye on the work and lives of your partners at a company and gain ideas about how you can help them out, and in doing so, everyone else at your outlet, too.

Strategy: Retweet or otherwise share content that might appeal to your readers. Share “behind the scenes” info – maybe with a hashtag like #nprlife –which creates a buzz around your outlet. Generally recognize that any action you take to better the success of another journalist in your company, even small things like tweets, will never hurt you. It can only help.

Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

Allow yourself to be genuine in receiving information from others, which will allow others to genuinely receive information from you.

Why digital journalists need the habit: The need for speed is a present problem for journalists. It’s easy to irresponsibly or accidentally make conclusions and assume motives for events and people you’re covering, and it’s just about as easy to hit the publish button about them. But in covering live news, like that of the #theatershooting, you’re doing a better service if you fully listen and evaluate where someone is coming from before moving forward. It takes time, but less time than correcting mistakes or issuing apologies.

Tool: A separate text editor like Text Wrangler, with which you can compose tweets or posts away from publishing temptation or other distraction.

Strategy: Before any action, practice full empathetic listening with your sources, commenters and basically everyone. Have you gathered enough info to make a significant contribution? Or, are you taking par in process journalism? Do your best to slow down and subdue the “need for speed,” which is largely perceived.


Combine to solve problems and learn together. Build upon the contributions of others, working towards a greater goal.

Why digital journalists need the habit: You can learn by yourself, but you can also learn from others. Moreover, you can create cool things with others or inspire them to do so. Online journalism is full of possibilities, and any group activity helps orient the field to win/win.

Tool: #wjchat, or any other group of individuals with a mutually-shared interest or goal, who you can bounce off ideas and learn from.

Strategy: Find a community somewhere and don’t just observe. Participate, recognizing that by taking an active role or by making regular contributions you’re progressing conversation and helping the business as a whole. Better yet, what motivates you individually is probably close to what motivates the rest of your peers, and it’s good to have that reinforcement (one beyond that desktop background.)

Sharpen the Saw

Balance your activity to maintain your energy and general well-being. Let order fortify your productivity.

Why digital journalists need the habit: Your life isn’t just the journalism you do, and taking active steps to improve your life in other areas allows you to be more productive in your job. Like balancing responsibilities in your job itself, making continuous improvements in your own physical, spiritual, mental and social/emotional dimensions is important and prevents against burn-out.

Tool: Calendar reminders, like those in Google Calendar, which can remind you of meetings but can also help with other areas of life, like exercising. Take a look at Budge.

Strategy: Use workplace processes at home, too. If you need reminders and to-do lists at the office, they will likely help in all dimensions of your life. (And, of course, the same is probably true for applying the other habits.)