The 7 Habits: Be Proactive, Not Reactive

Like most American boys, I played baseball in the summers. And as cliché as it may sound, I took away some important life lessons from my days on the diamond. One that has stuck with me and that I think about often even today is the adage on how to field ground balls:

Play the ball before it plays you.

I remember my coach repeating this mantra as we fielded grounders. “Play the ball before it plays you! Play the ball before it plays you!”

When a kid is first learning to field a ground ball, his natural inclination is to stand still until the ball rolls to him. But baseballs do funny things once they hit grass and dirt. They change direction; they slow down. What they don’t do is go right into your glove. If a player passively waits for the ball to come to him, nine times out of ten, he’s going to come up empty-handed.

“Play the ball before it plays you” is a cue to players to attack the ball and take the initiative on the grounder. It’s a call to be proactive and not reactive with your fielding. Good fielders make plays happen; bad fielders just wait and let the ball determine the play.

Following “play the ball before it plays you” made me a better fielder. Whenever I attacked a grounder, things usually turned out better compared to when I just waited for the ball to roll to my feet.

It wasn’t until I read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey when I was a freshman in high school that I realized that “play the ball before it plays you” also serves as an excellent maxim for life.

Be Proactive; Not Reactive

In his classic book, writer and businessman Stephen Covey laid out seven habits he believed led to a flourishing life. I remember when I read it as a 15-year-old kid I was blown away by his insights. I’ve been re-reading the book as a 35-year-old man, and twenty years later Covey still inspires me. Talk about staying power.

I’ve been enjoying my re-read of the book so much, I’ve decided to do a monthly series, summarizing, expanding, and riffing on each of the seven habits.

We start today with the first habit Covey delves into in the book, which lays the foundation for all the others: Be Proactive.

Being proactive is a posture you take towards the world. It requires an individual to accept responsibility for his situation (no matter how dire) and take the initiative to make things better. Instead of letting their conditions and circumstances be the driving force of their decisions, proactive people allow their values to determine the choices they make. Proactive people act rather than being acted upon.

Proactive people play the ball before it plays them.

Even when circumstances limit choices, a proactive person will find where he can still exercise his agency.

Covey uses existential psychiatrist Viktor Frankl as a supreme example of being proactive even when it seems you’ve been stripped of every last bit of your autonomy. As a Jew living in Austria during WWII, he and his family were put into concentration camps where they were subjected to systemized, soul-crushing cruelty. Except for him and his sister, everyone in Frankl’s family was either directly executed in the gas chambers or eventually died from the camp’s punishing conditions.

But it was in these horrific circumstances that Frankl had a life-changing epiphany. Despite losing all his basic freedoms, there was one freedom the guards could never take away from him: how he would respond to his circumstances.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response,” wrote Frankl in his seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning. The stimuli Frankl encountered daily were death, deprivation, cruelty. The seemingly inevitable response to such stimuli would be to give up and lose hope. But there in the concentration camp, Frankl realized that stimulus and response weren’t welded together. There was a gap. There was a choice.

Frankl consequently chose a different response than the default. He chose hope. He chose to help his fellow prisoners. He chose to not hate his captors. He chose to find meaning in his suffering.

Frankl’s life represents a vivid archetype of what it means to be a proactive person.

Reactive people experience stimulus and response as “welded” together.

The opposite of a proactive person is a reactive person. Reactive people let their circumstances and conditions control them. Reactive people think that stimulus and response are inextricably connected. They don’t see the gap between the two, and believe that one determines the other. So if the weather is foul, a reactive person will be in a foul mood, too. When a reactive person gets negative feedback, they become defensive and bitter. When a reactive person finds himself on the short end of the stick, he gripes about it instead of finding ways to get more stick.

Reactive people don’t act; they’re acted upon.

Reactive people let the ball of life play them rather than playing the ball.

Circles of Concern and Influence

Re-reading Covey’s chapter on being proactive convicted me because it allowed me to see that I have a lot of work to do on being a less reactive man. Intellectually I know that the foul moods I experience from time to time and the worries I experience on a day-to-day basis are the result of being reactive and not proactive to life’s challenges, and yet I still find myself resorting to reactive language whenever I encounter a problem:

“There’s nothing I can do about this . . .”

“I’ve got a morose personality. It’s just the way I am . . .”

“Well, the reason I’m having this problem is that [insert name] is so thoughtless . . .”

Often I see stimulus and response as welded together. I fail to acknowledge the space that exists for me to choose how I’m going to respond.

But Covey has a mental model to help individuals who tend to be reactive start thinking and acting more proactively. It’s called the Circles of Concern and Influence.

Imagine a circle, and within that circle, you put all of your concerns: your health, job prospects, kids, finances, etc. Anything and everything that causes you to worry or keeps you up at night. Even the little stuff. This is your Circle of Concern.

Now imagine a circle within that Circle of Concern. Inside that circle, you put the concerns that you have some or complete influence on. Yes, your financial situation may tie your stomach in knots, but there are things you can do about it like cutting back on spending or asking for a raise. This is your Circle of Influence.

Some things won’t make it to your Circle of Influence and will remain just in your Circle of Concern. You can’t influence the weather, you can’t influence your luck, you can’t tell your body to not get cancer, and you don’t have much control over other people’s decisions.

According to Covey, what separates reactive people from proactive people is which circle they spend the most time, attention, and energy in. Reactive people pay more attention to the items that are just in their Circle of Concern — the stuff they have little or no control over. The results of this are psychologically debilitating; as Covey observes, this “focus results in blaming and accusing attitudes, reactive language, and increased feelings of victimization.”

When you focus on your Circle of Concern, your Circle of Influence shrinks.

Not only does focusing solely on your Circle of Concern make you feel like garbage, the resulting sense of helplessness actually makes your Circle of Influence shrink. You waste so much energy and time worrying about things that you can’t control, that you become paralyzed and fail to act on the things you can.

Proactive people, on the other hand, spend more time focusing on their Circle of Influence. When you focus on things you have control over, you see that your actions affect the world, which is empowering. That feeling of empowerment impels you to take more action, which causes you to feel more empowered, which causes you to take more action.

When you focus on your Circle of Influence, it expands.

Focusing on your Circle of Influence creates a virtuous cycle of action that not only leads to positive change on the items originally in that Circle, but broadens what can be encompassed within it. As you take more action, you gain more competency. And increased competency allows you to have more influence on the world around you. Things that were formerly just in your Circle of Concern will be now be added to your Circle of Influence. Focusing on your Circle of Influence increases your Circle of Influence.

The Circles of Concern and Influence offers a powerful mental model because it captures in a simple diagram a truth that Stoic philosophers wrote about thousands of years ago and cognitive psychologists have tested in labs and clinics for the past few decades.

For the Stoics, life was governed by a Dichotomy of Control. There are things you have no control over (Circle of Concern), and things you have some or complete control over (Circle of Influence). To live a good, tranquil, and flourishing life, the Stoic adherent strives to accept the reality of the former, while focusing his attention on the latter.

Modern cognitive psychologists have confirmed what the Stoics and Dr. Covey preached. When we focus on things over which we don’t have any control, it stresses us out. A bit of stress during uncertain times can act as a positive way to prepare your mind and body for performance. But if you’re stressed out about uncertainty all the time, then not-so-good changes start to happen in your brain that create a vicious cycle of reactive anxiety. Chronic stress can cause your amygdala — the alarm system of your brain — to get larger, which in turn causes you to be more sensitive and reactive to your environment, making you more vulnerable to anxiety, anger, and fear. What’s more, chronic stress can blunt executive function, which makes it harder for you to accurately judge between actual and phony threats. To top it off, chronic stress blunts dopamine production, which our brains need to stay motivated to take action.

So in a literal way, focusing on your Circle of Concern causes it to expand and your Circle of Influence to shrink. The stress that comes from spending your energy and attention on your Circle of Concern primes your brain to see more problems than solutions, reduces your ability to figure out what is and isn’t in your control, and blunts motivation to take action on the things you do have influence over. It’s a vicious cycle.

How to Be More Proactive

As someone who tends to focus on his Circle of Concern, let me say it’s hard work to overcome that tendency and focus on the Circle of Influence. A large part of it is likely due to genetics. I’m a little neurotic and morose by nature. So are other people in my family. We’re worrywarts who often feel melancholy and think in worst case scenarios.

While I can’t do much to change the temperament I was born with, that doesn’t mean I have no control over how I react to the world around me; there’s still a space between the stimuli and the response. It may take more work for me to see that gap and be proactive than it does for someone less neurotic, but it can be done.

Here are a few things that have helped me take a more proactive posture towards life:

Figure out what’s in your Circles of Concern and Influence. Sit down and make a list of all the things that worry you. Mentally purge all your anxiety on paper for a good 30 minutes. This list represents your Circle of Concern.

Take a break and come back to your list. One by one ask yourself “Do I have some influence over it?” The influence can be small. It may be “send an email requesting advice about X concern.” You might not get a response, but it’s an action you can take to influence the outcome. If you can influence the outcome of something (in even a small way), put it on your Circle of Influence list. If you’re having trouble putting items on this list, ask a friend for their input. If you tend to focus on the negative, it can be helpful to have someone with a more proactive outlook on life show you how you do have control over things in your Circle of Concern.

What this exercise will hopefully show you is that you have more control over your life than you think you do.

Watch your language. One thing Covey suggests doing to take a more proactive and less reactive posture towards life is to watch your language for reactive or proactive phrases. How you speak guides how you see the world. If most of your language is reactive, you’re likely going be more reactive. If it’s proactive, you’ll be more proactive.

Some reactive phrases to look out for:

  • There’s nothing I can do.
  • That’s just the way I am.
  • He makes me so mad.
  • They won’t allow that.
  • I have to do that.
  • I can’t.
  • I must.
  • If only.

Whenever you catch yourself using one of these reactive phrases, replace it with a proactive one:

  • Let’s look at our alternatives.
  • I can choose a different approach.
  • I control how I respond to this.
  • I choose.
  • I prefer.
  • I will.

What Covey is suggesting here is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy. This particular practice is similar to an exercise in modifying your “explanatory style” that we wrote about in our series on resilience. It takes some work, but changing your words helps change your mindset.

Meditate. This has been a game changer for me during the past year. I follow a series of guided meditations from The Foundations of Wellbeing and try to do it every day. When I’m on top of my meditation, I’m just a lot calmer and positive. It allows me to better see the gap between stimulus and response. Instead of seeing limitations, I focus on things I can do to solve my problems and move forward. I become more proactive. When I fall off the meditation wagon, I become more reactive. The difference is night and day. Kate knows without my saying when I have and haven’t been meditating. If I haven’t, I get more pissy and moody; when I have, she says my whole aura and energy completely transform in a dramatic, palpable way.

Here’s a guide to how to get started with meditation.

Take action (no matter how small). Most of the suggestions I’ve given so far have been about changing your mindset. But the most powerful thing you can do to adopt a more proactive posture is to just take action. As you take action, you’ll begin to show yourself that you can have an influence on the world, which kickstarts a virtuous cycle of proactivity.

Look at your Circle of Influence. What’s an action you can take to move one of its items in a positive direction? Your actions don’t have to be big. In fact, they shouldn’t be big. Whenever you face a problem, break it down into the smallest parts possible and tackle each part one by one. It makes the problem less daunting and more concrete.

Those are some things that have worked for me. Maybe they’ll work for you, too.

Play the ball before it plays you.

Act; don’t be acted upon.

Be proactive; not reactive.


Concepts and figures from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

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