The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey, is one of the best-known business books of all time, and one of the best known “list” book titles.

Listicles are articles structured by numbers (five steps, three essentials, 101 things to do). They are hugely popular for obvious reasons (and some less obvious ones).

Of course, a list breaks a big task into a bunch of small ones. We would all like to be highly effective (big goal) and we are thrilled to think all we have to do is master seven habits (small steps) to get there

But there are three other subtleties that make Covey’s book title so compelling.

  1. The words “highly effective people” convince us that Covey is an expert. What if Covey had called his book: Seven Habits That Will Make You Highly Effective. The first question that enters our mind is “Who says?” With Covey’s title, we already know who says: highly-effective people themselves! We know that Covey has spoken to them. Convincing.

  2. The word “habits” issues a challenge to us. How often have we told ourselves that we need to change our habits to succeed? Most of us have done so often. So Covey’s title is a call to action, a call to arms. It’s not the seven steps highly effective people take, it’s the habits they adopt. And even though there are only seven of them, we are already thinking to ourselves, could we change enough to become highly effective?

  3. The word “The” is the voice of authority. If Covey had called his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, we would have less confidence in his authority. Why? Because there might be 49 habits we have to master, and this book only tells us about seven of them. The subtle addition of “The 7 Habits” tells us that these are the only habits we must master and that Covey knows this, and so, therefore, we believe in his authority. From everything that the highly effective people have told him, Covey has made a call that these seven habits are the essential ones.

Should you use a listicle for your book or article title?

Yes, by all means, use listicles. But do not rely on lists alone to carry your headline. A list is just another way of meeting the essentials elements of every how-to headline:

How to get (big result – such as being highly effective) despite (biggest obstacle – such as not knowing which habits to cultivate).

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