In First Things First, Stephen R Covey asked the question (sic) “How can we implement the choice to be congruent in life – to have greater personal integrity?”

How often do you sit there, trying to decide whether or not to do something that you know will be good for you, but which you know will be hard? How often do you find yourself rationalising the easier option? I know I do that. I repeatedly commit to doing some exercise every morning, but when the alarm goes off I enter into analysis mode: what’s the temperature/weather like? Can I get away with not doing it, today? Is it more likely that I can exercise later?

Anything to avoid exercising now.

Covey’s solution to this lack of integrity is to consider and apply a three-step, self-analysing process.

First, Ask with Intent. To quote Covey, this is to “ask our conscience, not out of curiosity, but out of a commitment to act based on the wisdom of the heart.” You see he knew, as do I and as do you, that there is often only one, true, conscience-derived answer to the question we are asking of ourselves. And it is all too frequently the answer that we don’t want to hear. The Hard Choice. So, when you truly ask your conscience for guidance, it will always tell you what you, yourself have instructed it to tell you. The answer you don’t want. The one that will serve you best of all.

But finding the answer to the question you are asking of yourself may require deeper thought, which Covey admits. So further questions may be asked, in addition to or in lieu of the first. They are:

“Is this in my Circle of Influence?” Can you actually take action, or are other influences going to affect your decision? It happens. You can’t ride a bike in a snowstorm. Do you even have a bike?

“Is it in my Centre of Focus?” This question, which relates to the tinier circle at the centre of your Circle of Influence and which was only written about in First Things First, can be answered with your mission in mind. Is it the best thing to be doing or is there something better that will move you closer to your Primary Objective?

If the answer to those questions is No, or even Yes No, then your integrity is intact if you choose the more objective-focused action instead of the one you don’t want to take. But only the true answer works that way – any other answer is procrastination.

In any case, the second process is Listen Without Excuse. Maybe following this advice answers those mini-questions already mentioned above, but what Covey means is that you don’t ask the question, only to start the excuse-making so often associated with taking the easy way out. As he puts it, “If we choose the first option, we feel peaceful. If we feel the second option, we feel disharmony and tension.”

This may seem counter-intuitive, in the moment. If we take the easy option, the stress of acting on the harder option goes away – for all of a few moments. Then we feel the guilt. Taking the first option creates immediate tension – which may go away once we start acting on the Hard Choice, and which certainly dissipates when we complete what it was we were trying to avoid.

The last element of the process reads Act with Courage. Covey writes not of acts of extreme bravery, but courageous acts taken in the gap between stimulus and response. In this context, it means acting on the better (harder) choice made between the ‘I don’t want to’ stimulus and the ‘I wish I had’ response that gets you nowhere. It means acting in the knowledge that acting on the Hard Choice is routinely more self-serving (in a good way) than delaying or failing to take that action.

In a sense, the whole chapter in First Things First, which is entitled “Integrity in the Moment of Choice, represents the key to the difference between failing in your objectives, and succeeding. It reflects the advice provided with less depth, but equal accuracy, in any personal development book you read. It identifies the key difference between a life of mediocrity and one that is values-driven, principle-centred and truly successful.

If I was to summarise this article in a few words, I could only repeat my interpretation of it, as already stated within these paragraphs. I suggest that when you ask yourself if you are going to Act with Integrity in the moment, and in doing so behave in compliance with your own conscience, then it is:

Make the Hard Choice.

(Which, coincidentally, is in keeping with the First Resolution. )