How To Be Proactive in Work and Life

8 months ago   •   5 min read

By Zero Machina

It’s vital to cultivate proactivity if you want to succeed at work and life.

In his book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen R. Covey refers to proactivity as a foundational habit. Being proactive means that, instead of focusing on things outside of your control, you focus on what you can control and influence.

Do you like to take action and be proactive, or do you prefer to wait and react to things as they happen? It can be confusing to know the difference between the two.

Read on to learn more about what proactivity is, why it matters, the challenges that interfere with it, and how to be proactive at work and in life.

Proactivity vs. Reactivity

Covey explains that proactivity is about taking responsibility for one’s life and being “response-able.”

Proactive people don’t blame their behavior on “circumstances, conditions, or conditioning.” Instead, they understand that they are in control more often than not, and can choose their behavior.

Unlike proactive people, reactive people are frequently affected by their environment. They might blame circumstances on the weather or someone else’s behavior.

Proactive vs Reactive Language

According to Covey, there is also a difference in the way proactive and reactive people speak. Proactive people use phrases like “I can,” I will,” and “I prefer.”

Reactive people, on the other hand, use phrases like “I can’t,” “I have to,” and “if only.” They believe they don’t have a choice and aren’t responsible for what they say or do.

Proactive vs Reactive Focus

Proactive and reactive people focus on different things.

Proactive people focus on what Covey calls their “Circle of Influence.” This circle includes things that are within a person’s control—their personal actions, habits, mindset, and communicative influence on social dynamics.

Reactive people focus on what Covey calls their “Circle of Concern.” This circle includes things they have little or no control over—the weather, international crises, etc.

Here's Stephen Covey explaining these two circles:

Why Does Proactivity Matter?

When you develop a habit of proactivity, you create many opportunities for yourself at work and in other areas of your life. The following are some of the top reasons to work toward being more proactive.

Feel More Empowered

Reactive people typically feel disempowered.

When you blame other people or situations for your problems, you’re taking power away from yourself. You’re telling yourself that you’re helpless and don’t have any control over your life. However, when you make an effort to take action and be proactive, you’ll feel more empowered. You empower yourself and increase your self-confidence.

As a result, proactive people experience higher levels of self-confidence.

Avoid or Reduce the Severity of Obstacles

When you’re proactive and aim to control the controllable variables in your life–your Circle of Influence—you will often find that you can avoid obstacles, or at least reduce their severity.

You may have to put in more work to do this initially. However, you’ll save yourself a lot of work further down the line.

Improve Leadership

Proactive people make much better leaders compared to reactive people.

Proactive people can pause and respond appropriately in stressful situations. They take responsibility for their actions and, in doing so, achieve their goals. This puts them in a position to empower others.

Reduce Stress

Reactive people tend to live in a state of constant stress because they’re always responding to things that are happening around them. They have little to no control over their lives and feel like they’re constantly playing catch-up.

Proactive people are more likely to avoid this type of stress because they’re in control of their lives. They can plan ahead and don’t feel the need to constantly react to things that are happening around them.

Create Opportunities for Advancement

Proactive people are always looking for ways to improve their current situation. They take initiative and are always on the lookout for new opportunities.

Reactive people, on the other hand, are less likely to create opportunities for themselves. They fixate on things outside of their control, and this limits their ability to improve their current situation.

By developing a habit of proactivity, you show that you can handle more responsibility, be a good leader, and achieve your goals.

Why Is It So Hard to Be Proactive?

Even if you know the benefits of proactivity, it can be tough to embody.

When things go wrong or when we're not moving in the direction we want to move, it's tempting to blame external people, events, or circumstances outside of our control.

Proactivity is tough because it requires conscious effort. And humans are wired to preserve energy and effort. It's easy to blame a work problem on someone else's shortcomings - from that perspective, it's not our responsibility. And our ego loves abdicating responsibility.

It takes courage and effort to let go of the need to blame and, instead, focus on finding a solution. In the long run, being reactive doesn't get us closer to our goals. 

The only way to accomplish success is by being proactive.

How to Be Proactive at Work and in Life

If you want to be more proactive, it will take some effort on your part. But it can be rewarding both professionally and personally.

Here are some specific steps to take if you want to be proactive at work or in life:

1. Establish Your Circles

One of the first steps to becoming more proactive is to gain awareness of your two circles - your circle of influence and concern.

Remember, the Circle of Influence includes the things you can control. The Circle of Concern includes the things you cannot control. Take some time to figure out who or what is in each of these circles. 

This is an insightful exercise, revealing that you have more control over your life than you thought.

2. Change the Way You Speak

Make a concentrated effort to change the way you speak. 

Use empowering language like "I can" and "I choose to do this." Avoid using phrases like "I can't" or "I have to do this." This might feel awkward at first - but with practice, it gets easier. 

Eventually, you'll find that your attitude changes alongside your empowering language.

3. Take Action

Reactive people tend to spend a lot of time ruminating and stressing over issues beyond their control. 

Proactive people, on the other hand, take action and do what they can to control their situation. It prevents crises from occurring. And it moves you closer to your goals (instead of wasting time ruminating). 

Even if you can only do something small today, it's better than doing nothing.

Read 🚀 The "One Thing" Focusing Question: Prioritize Your Tasks

4. Aim for Organization

Being disorganized increases your chances of constantly being in reactive mode, scrambling from task to task with no room to pause.

If you aren't keeping track of your calendar or organizing your files, you'll likely waste a lot of time each day searching for documents, trying to figure out where you're supposed to be, and trying to remember whom you're supposed to be meeting.

This is why it's important to prioritize organization if you want to be more proactive.

5. Practice Pausing and Reflecting

Proactive people take advantage of, in Viktor Frankl's words, the "space between a stimulus and their response." 

They pause, consider the situation, and respond thoughtfully. This saves them from saying or doing things they later regret. Proactive people also make room in their lives for reflection. They strive to be self-aware, identify their shortcomings, and reflect on their life situation.

This empowers you to create solutions and improve your weaknesses.

Start Being More Proactive Today

If you want to be more proactive, it's important to understand that it will take effort. By taking specific steps to change the way you think and speak, you can begin to proactively control your life. With time and practice, being proactive will become second nature.

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