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?