I work with most of my clients to support them in becoming more proactive.
Most people spend the majority of their time being reactive. They react to emails, phone calls, the needs of clients, co-workers, friends, children, significant others, family members, deadlines, relationship breakdowns, technical challenges, and whatever life puts in front of their nose. Most reactive activities are “Urgent and Important” or “Urgent and Not Important”. Filling your days with reactive activities leaves little room for proactive activities that are typically “Important but Not Urgent”.
This reactive way of being is habitual for many people. You might even take pride in how quickly and effectively you can react to the many things coming at you, putting out fires left and right.
Being reactive can be an unconscious addiction. In fact, it is very common and a high percentage of people are addicted to being reactive. It’s exciting and challenging to respond to the unpredictable demands that come your way. It gives you a subtle adrenaline rush. You can actually become physically habituated to this bio-chemical rush that energizes you temporarily. This can be a difficult habit to break, but it is well worth the effort. In addition to making you less effective in general, this addiction can burn out your adrenal glands over time and lead to stress-related health problems.
If you don’t make time to be proactive, eventually you will have to make time to be reactive, and your life will eventually be dominated by reactive activities. For example, if you don’t make time for health, eventually you will have to make time to react to being sick, and if you don’t make time to market your business, eventually you will have to scramble to get some clients before you go bankrupt.
While having the ability to react quickly and capably is a useful skill set to have, if you are not also cultivating a proactive skill set, you are not manifesting your full potential.
So what is a proactive skill set? Proactive activities include things like goal setting, strategizing, and planning. Being proactive also means sticking to your plan and not getting easily distracted, executing the actions you have intended.
Being proactive requires resisting the temptation to react to the many demands that life throws at you every day. For example, you could be in the middle of updating your marketing plan (a proactive activity) when a little alert pops up in the corner of your screen telling you, “you’ve got mail!” You tell yourself that you’ll just go and look to see who it’s from. You look and find out it’s from your friend. They’ve sent you a link to a short funny video. You know this isn’t important right now, but you figure you’ll just take a quick moment and watch the video. The video ends with a link to a web page for more information so you click on the link. Fifteen minutes later you are still browsing the Internet. You can’t even remember what it was you were working on before.
Perhaps your discipline is better than that and you wouldn’t allow yourself to be distracted by an amusing video from your friend. However, imagine that the email is from your boss, reminding you of the report that is due tomorrow. Would you drop everything you were doing and start working on the report, or would you continue working on the marketing plan, knowing that you have time scheduled to work on the report later?
The most proactive approach would be to not even check your email at all while you are working on your marketing plan. In fact, in the name of being more proactive, I suggest turning off any pop-up alerts you receive from your email or other software. Work on your email in blocks of time instead of interspersed throughout the entire day. When the phone rings, check the caller ID and decide if you are willing to allow the activity you are currently involved in to be interrupted by that particular person. If not, let it go to voice mail. If the call is from an unknown caller, don’t answer it. Keep the door shut to your office at least part of the day if not the entire day. Train the people who frequently interrupt you to make a list of things to talk to you about, and schedule a meeting with you to go over all of the topics at once.
Take charge. Set new and stronger boundaries with yourself and with others that will allow you to be more proactive. It feels good. The breakthrough in productivity you will experience is even more satisfying than the adrenaline rush of being reactive.
There is an ideal balance between proactivity and reactivity, however this is not an exact science. It is more of an art form and an ongoing balancing act. However, if I had to guess, I would say that you are probably way out of balance on the side of being reactive. In order to correct this, you may need to allow the pendulum to swing dramatically to the other side. It may be helpful to be extremely proactive for a while in order for you to develop that skill set, break old habits, retrain your friends, family and co-workers, and experience the benefits. There may be some negative consequences from this. However, eventually you will adjust and find the ideal middle ground.