The 7 habits of highly effective artists


Dear Artist,

Recently, a subscriber wrote to ask about a letter he called, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Artists. Sounding familiar, I took to the Painter’s Keys search bar tool, but came up short. A quick pass at Google gave me a seminar aimed at 3D computer graphics animators, and so I wondered, might it be time to take a closer look at the “habits?”


“Anguish (Angoisse)” c. 1878
oil on canvas by
August Friedrich Albrecht Schenck (1828-1901)

First published in 1989, Stephen R. Covey’s best-selling self-help manifesto The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People triumphs character over personality in the achievement of goals. Covey, a Mormon missionary and professor of business and management at Brigham Young and Utah State universities believed that true “effectiveness” is a balance between achieving results and caring about what produces those results. In other words, the ethics of process and the love put into it are as important as the end feat. In art, most of us will live out our lives entrenched in the nuances of this path of discovery.

Covey’s 7 habits are divided into 3 parts: Independence, interdependence and improvement. Here they are, with adaptations.

Schenck, August Friedrich Albrecht; Donkey Surprised by a Wolf; Museums Sheffield

“Donkey Surprised by a Wolf”
oil painting by Albrecht Schenck
Photo credit: Museums Sheffield


1. Make something. Art is an solo calling and demands the proactive approach of a self-sufficient, self-starter willing to explore and work — through practice — towards mastery. A network of helpers, collaborators, promoters and prize-givers can’t proselytize your genius without first having something of yours finished to share with others.

2. Plan your work and work your plan. Having recently celebrated a birthday, I’ve given the upcoming year a strapline of “Stick to your vision.” When confused by moments of doubt or swayed by setbacks or emergencies, I refer to my strapline and rework my plan. “You are the programmer,” wrote Covey.

3. Put first things first. “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” Effective artists avoid mistaking the urgent for the important. Decide on the “important” — and keep it at the fore.


“Playing in the snow”
oil on canvas, 60 x 90 cm
by Albrecht Schenck


4. Win-win. “I teach people how to treat me by what I will allow,” wrote Covey. In the never-ending hardscrabble of the art-climb, bring joy to your collaborators and supporters without compromising your own vision. A creative director friend recently admitted that it had taken him 20 years to finally, consistently resign the bottom 20% of his clients. Keeping an endless tether on the late and non-payers, chronic cancellers, poor communicators or just those with divergent visions can dishearten and stall progress for everyone. It takes courage to stay and courage to go.

5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Go back to your materials. Do you know what you’re doing? Next, rewrite a short artist statement, expressed in simple-as-possible language. “Trust is the glue of life,” wrote Covey. “It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.”

6. Synergize. What can you achieve with others, creatively and professionally, that you cannot achieve on your own?


7. Sharpen your tools. Are you getting better? Are you becoming more you?


“A Shepherd with his Flock in a Snowstorm”
oil painting by Albrecht Schenck



PS: “Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.” (Stephen R. Covey)

Esoterica: Covey’s 8th habit, “Find your voice and inspire others to find theirs,” was added in 2004 and expands on his theory that interdependence is more valuable than independence. He also names a few baddies to keep at bay, like complaining, comparing and competing. In art, I’ve found that one’s voice becomes clearer and louder by returning to Habit number 1. “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,” wrote Covey. “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage — pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically — to say “no” to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger “yes” burning inside.”


Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Live out of your imagination, not your history.” (Stephen R. Covey)



  1. Working independently, one must have good rules and backbone if they want to win USUALLY – since some do better de-structure, somehow. But most of us need to do what we do well , and often and reliably keep commitments to succeed.

    I love it that I can self-direct in my work – recently a grieving had me simply opt to cut it all back for a bit, and now I am finding the main again. It is so empowering to me , older and needing that feeling that my life is still mine.

    Thanks for this


  2. Excellent principles to follow. It’s a hard road – sometimes branches off. But I for one, keep trying to get back on that road!

    Thanks Sara

  3. Is there any background info on Schenck regarding his extremely limited palette?
    Covey’s thoughts are appropriate and helpful. Thanks, Sara.

  4. Amazing post Sara. Perfect on a Friday before amazing summer weather in Vancouver, when I finally will have focused time to paint but my friends are calling me to play. I have to prioritize what is more important. I will check out the Stephen Covey’s book – so many wonderful quotes.

  5. I am not so sure about any of this. Business “speak”. Goal oreintated, achievey never give up stuff. Creativity is a meandering kind of process where not knowing and giving things up are a necessary part of how it works. Objective non judgemental engagements and enquiries, opening up and being aware of the unexpected, the unlikely, the mysterious unaccountable for turn a project can take. Be open and objective in your awareness, listen to your body and play like a mad woman! Give up as often as you can. It is the hardest thing to do, we are hard wired for the opposite…hold on, get and keep. I don’t know Stephen Covey but I think I may just disagree with every word he has to say……..still. I do enjoy these posts.

    • Exactly, Catherine. Habits are very bad for creativity. There ARE rules, but they’re different for each of us, and they keep changing. As soon as you settle on a list of rules, you’re finished. If only it were that easy! If only there were seven steps that would lead me to discover my next image! As you say, you just have to say open, objective and ready for that “mysterious unaccountable turn.” I treat each painting as it were my first and hope it’s not my last.

  6. The core principles of Covey were helpful as a manager of big projects. To succeed as an artist, practice, a plan and communication are different but learning to manage our artist self is still a project worthy of a plan. Covey did make you write it down. I think I will write it down again. You provide very good mentorship Sara. Thank you.

    • Covey training was beaten into me at seminars for years and those principles were fairly applicable and successful to managing people toward goals, but in art where independent creativity, light and feeling matter as much as methodology, it seems constrictive to the way I think today outside of the business world.

  7. What would google+, facebook, twitter and other limited character social media accounts do with the name: August Friedrich Albrecht Schenck? Would his reputation suffer if it was arbitrarily 15 characters long?

    The art world is different from the strictly business world, but I am not sure that is being taken into consideration by our increasingly computer/engineering oriented world where many of us may be replaced by robots in the future. The younger generation has less opportunity and exposure to the down time needed to become interested in creative artistic endeavors thus making it more difficult to cultivate productive creative habits. I think it is always a fine line between routine or just doing the work and creating the time and space for the creative inspiration to make itself known.

  8. Pingback: Kim Manley Ort | Contemplation | Why Do You Do What You Do

  9. Wonderful art by Albrecht Schenck. “Anguish” caused me to cry also and I was glad to see I’m not the only one effected in that way.
    Thank you Sara.

  10. Mark Summers on

    Another GREAT resource on the subject is a piece titled The Hatchet Man’s Playbook. Can’t recommend highly enough.

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