Begin with the End in Mind

Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is one of my favorite books. It’s full of useful (and sometimes unconventional, which is even better!) advice. Today I’m going to take Habit 2 – “Begin with the end in mind” – and apply it to writing.

Covey’s book explains that thinking about the final result – even if it’s years away – can help you plan effectively, communicate clearly, and increase your chances of getting exactly what you want. For example, if you reflect on the kind of person you want your child to grow up to be, you’re likely to make more effective parenting decisions.

Good advice! But we’re going somewhere different today. A recent conversation got me started thinking about thinking – more specifically, thinking about the main point you’re making. It sounds simple, but when you start listening to conversations, you realize how often we get bogged down in side trips and detours.

I often drop in at a nearby donut shop for a snack and conversation with other regular visitors. On one recent afternoon, a customer said that she was unusually tired – she and a friend had driven to the airport at 1 AM to watch a flight take off.

Of course we wanted to know what was so special about the flight. She hesitated, searching for an answer. “It was the military,” she finally said.

Were they deploying to Afghanistan or some other far-off destination? More searching for an answer. Finally: “They were going to Washington.”

It took more prodding to get the whole story. Here in Florida, a program called Honor Flights is taking veterans to Washington DC to see the World War II, Korean, and Vietnam memorials. Many citizens – including my donut shop friend – drive to the airport for the departure and arrival to applaud the veterans.

My friend’s confusion may have been the result of fatigue – or it may be that she never developed the conversational habit of zipping past the details to start with her main point. If you listen carefully to everyday conversations, you may discover (as I have) that it’s a common problem.

Another example: early one morning a teaching colleague called me. “Hi, Jean,” she said. “I have an 8:30 class, and I can’t be there this morning.”

“I’d love to help,” I said, “but I have an 8:30 class too.”

“Oh, I know that,” she said. “I was going to ask Donna if she could take the class, and I was hoping you had her phone number.”

I did, and Donna was able to teach the class. But afterward I reflected that this colleague always took a rambling road to reach the point she wanted to make. She already knew I couldn’t take her class – that’s why she knew I’d be up at the ungodly hour of 6:30 to answer the phone. But her phone call started as if that’s what she wanted me to do.

Back to writing. Most people (including me) start a writing project from our own point of view, which means that a fact or detail gets us started. Then we gradually work our way to the main point, result, or end.

Meanwhile our readers (if they stick around that long!) are wondering where the heck we’re going with this.

The wandering-and-roaming practice is especially common with students. I suspect one reason is they haven’t had enough practice shaping and presenting ideas. In many classrooms, it’s the teacher who does most of the talking – even though the students are the ones who need to develop their thinking and speaking skills.

So: I encourage you to keep Covey’s Habit 2 in mind when you’re writing (and talking): Begin with the end in mind. Listen to yourself and to others in conversation. I hope you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the thoughtful, carefully organized ideas you hear.

But don’t be surprised if you discover that your communication skills need some work – and of course that’s true of both speaking and writing.

                         Stephen Covey 

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