One of the most impactful books I read in 2017 was Stephen R. Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey’s development & explanation of Habit 1: Be Proactive was worth way more than the price I paid for the book, which happened to be $0.99 at Goodwill. The difference between being proactive and reactive is an idea I wanted to spend an entire blog post on. That is the intent of this post. However, for those who have not read the book or need a refresher, here are the 7 habits:
Habit 1 Be Proactive
Habit 2 Begin with the End in Mind
Habit 3 Put First Things First
Habit 4 Think Win/Win
Habit 5 Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
Habit 6 Synergize
Habit 7 Sharpen the Saw
Here is how Covey defined the word proactive. “It means more than merely taking initiative. It means that as human beings, we are responsible for our own lives. Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions. We can subordinate feelings to values. We have the initiative and the responsibility to make things happen.” Covey then goes on to dissect the word responsibility – “…the ability to choose your response.” Covey admits in the book how hard it can be to accept these ideas on an emotional level since many of us, myself included, have explained our behavior away due to external factors. The truth is we have far more control in our lives than we pretend we do. Victimizing myself is always the easiest way to justify my behavior but it is never the path to growth.
I have found applying this principle at work and in my relationships is challenging but very effective. I findthat I am often a reactive person. I allow my emotions to be controlled by my environment, the behavior of others, or the circumstances that I find myself in. If a group of co-workers and I go out to eat and I suggest the restaurant but find that one of them does not like it and criticizes it, I feel like they are criticizing me. I am allowing that person’s criticism to affect my mood. I then feel I have to defend the restaurant and by doing so I am defending myself. I must decide whether to let my co-workers criticism affect me or to let it go. If I head out the door on my day off from work with fun plans for the day but find my car battery is dead, it is easy for me to allow my circumstances to ruin my day. In that moment I must make the decision whether or not to let the dead battery destroy my day or to take it in stride and figureout how to salvage the rest of the day.
The key words here are “allow” and “decide.” It has been hard for me to come to terms with this, but it is true. Too often I decide and allow feelings, circumstances, conditions, and other people’s attitudes to govern my internal status. On the other hand, the proactive person is someone who is driven by strong internalized values. Proactive people have thought through the values they hold and choose to react based on those values. Here are some examples of values that I have thought through and have been seeking to apply in my own life:
- Maintain a positive attitude. The man who wins is the man who thinks he can.
- Have a growth mindset. My intelligence and abilities are not fixed. I accept feedback to improve myself. I crave feedback.
- Believe the best about people and put them first.
- Accept responsibility. Look out the window to applaud success and in the mirror to accept responsibility for failure.
- Everyone I meet is my superior in some way. Learn that from them.
Everyday as part of my morning ritual I read these statements as well as others in order to remind myself of my values. I have found this to be very effective in reminding myself what I stand for. The truth is that although I value responsibility, putting others first, and hearing feedback, because of my reactive nature I often do not live each moment as if these are values that I hold. The apostle Paul hit the nail on the head when he wrote in Romans 15:15 “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” By reminding myself daily of my values I make use of the concept of accessibility that says that the information you use often is easier to recall. This habit equips me to remember my values when I need them most and I am tempted to be reactive.
Another concept that Covey discusses in relation to proactive and reactive tendencies is the difference between our Circle of Concern and Circle of Influence. This concept has been very helpful for me to understand how to best focus my time, energy, and thoughts. There are many things that each of us as individuals are concerned about like our health, our parents, our spouses, politics, poverty overseas, etc. As you look at these things you could draw a circle, which encompasses these concerns, and call it your Circle of Concern. Once you start to look at the things in your Circle of Concern you begin the realize that there are some things you have no real control over but other things you can take some action on. You could draw an inner circle around the things you can control and call it your Circle of Influence. Proactive people focus their time and effort on things within their control and enlarge their Circle of Influence. Reactive people, on the other hand, focus on what other people think, other people’s weaknesses, the problems they see around them, and many other things they have no control over. This focus results in blaming and victimization and leads to shrinking their Circle of Influence.
It is up to each of us whether we want to be proactive or reactive people. I find it very easy and convenient to blame and accuse other people and circumstances for the problems I face, however, I am trying to cultivate a growth mindset. I hope to develop into someone who does not immediately blame or accuse when faced with a problem but focuses on things that I can actually control. I want to be more proactive.