I think that it is safe to say that we have all had moments in our lives when we have practiced a fair amount of self-pity, or a why me attitude. Which, to be honest, is somewhat understandable – especially if you are going through a tough time. I think that when we have a few challenging situations occur within close proximity to each other, and it is often pretty easy to look at all of these things causing us stress and go, “why is this happening to me?”, “what did I do to deserve this?” “must be nice for other people who have it easier!”.
Episode 123: Staying Ahead of the Curve by Being Proactive
It is understandable to have these moments when you are going through it, but ask yourself this – what is this thought process solving? If you are so upset with the way things are going, whether that is losing your job, going through a breakup, or having a bit of car trouble, doesn’t it make more sense to figure out how to take control and get ahead of these things rather than kind of drowning in your own sorrows?
I know that we can’t control every detail of the things that go on in our lives, but I do know that we can control our response and our reactions to these things. In many instances, we can even get ahead of something to prevent it from happening entirely or lessening the impact it has on our lives overall. We will all face many situations in our lives that do not necessarily bring out the best in us. When faced with an incredible amount of stress or hardship, we sometimes become a very low version of ourselves. When we fall into this state of being, we are more likely to exhibit unpleasant emotions like anger, fear, stress, and anxiety.
The good news is that there is a way to kind of turn this around, or at least change your perspective on how much control you really have over your life, and the idea is very simple – it is better to be proactive rather than reactive. Once you understand this approach and the power it has, you find that handling, eliminating, and moving past any sort of difficult situation becomes second nature to you. With a little work, you will be able to understand this mindset and apply it to your life in no time.
So what is proactivity?
You have to know what something is before you can apply it to your life, right? It really is as simple as it sounds. We make the decisions in our lives, and we control our behavior in response to the findings of other. This means that we take complete responsibility for our own lives. If you have ever read the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, then you may be familiar with this concept and approach to life as it is the first habit. This position taken in the book is that reactive people allow their environments to affect them, whereas proactive people are driven by values. While their environments can still influence them, they ultimately make decisions based on their own values, rather than the feeling found within the moment.
First, you have to understand the difference between being proactive and being reactive.
The difference between these two mindsets and approaches is, in short, night and day. One leans towards taking accountability and demonstrating responsibility, while the other seeks to place blame and negative emotional attachments to a situation. The main thing to remember is that you have the choice to be one or the other. It is not a situation where being proactive is a personality trait – sure, some people may adhere to the concept more rapidly or show some natural inclination to have developed a proactive approach, but this is a mindset that every single person can learn if they want to.
Being proactive is about taking ownership and accountability for your own actions – this includes your decisions, responses, and anything else in your life that requires your energy despite what anyone else is doing. What this means is that you make a commitment to continuously move forward in the direction that you decided to go towards, rather than just responding to the actions and ideas of others along the way. This is your life, and you only get one to live – so you better be sure that you are the one steering the car, because if you let someone else take the wheel and you get into an accident, guess who still has to take care of all of the damage – that’s right, it’s you.
When you are reactive, you are giving somebody else the power to call the shots in your life! That just doesn’t seem right, does it? When you are proactive, you feel in control of everything that is going on around you despite the fact that there are certainly many situations in which the outcome is not entirely up to you. Those who are proactive commit to learning how to control their own feelings, behaviors, and responses as much as they possibly can. In contrast, those who are reactive basically throw their hands in the air and pout, or scream, or make some sort of decision in which they respond in the form of negative emotions. Now, which sounds like a more pleasant way to approach life?
A good way to start practicing this approach is to stop responding to situations as soon as they happen.
I know that this does not necessarily sound like a proactive action but take a second to hear me out. You know that old saying about Abe Lincoln cutting his logs? He said something along the lines of if you give me six hours to cut down a tree, I will spend four of those hours sharpening my ax. What did old Abe mean by that? It is pretty simple. He was saying that when it comes to approaching something, whether that is a task, a situation, or some kind of confrontation, the best thing that you can do is to be prepared.
If he spends four hours sharpening his ax, he will have to use less effort, time, and energy to cut down the tree because his tools are prepared. You can take this same idea and apply it to your life. Look at the way you handle situations now. When you are stressed out, do you shut down, begin to procrastinate, maybe you lash out at those around you? By taking a proactive approach to understanding your emotions, you are basically giving yourself a lesson on you.
Taking the time and energy required to look back at uncomfortable or unfortunate situations that you have experienced can provide a wealth of knowledge as you move forward. Sure, sometimes it feels really good to be reactive and yell, or scream, or tell someone off – but you aren’t just putting the other person through that pain and those unpleasant feelings, you are putting yourself through it, as well. It is usually not easier to be proactive rather than reactive. This is especially true when you are faced with a problem that gets you fired up and jumpstarts your temper. Even if you know that someone else in the situation is trying to get a rise out of you, like you are completely aware of this, many of us will still react in the way that they expect. This can be because it feels good to release all of those negative emotions, or maybe it is due to wanting to show the other person just how confrontational you may be. Whatever the reason, it almost never serves to help resolve the issue.
This is where it is best to use your proactive approach. When you feel yourself starting to get heated, angry, sad, or frustrated, learn how to recognize those emotions as they begin to arise. Try your best to listen to the other person or read the situation, rather than reacting to it immediately. Then you need to give yourself a beat to process and digest what is occurring. Try to understand why it makes you feel a certain way and determine the best way to respond, rather than simply reacting.
The most essential thing to remember is that proactivity is a choice.
Which I think frustrates people more often than not – it is one of those hard pills to swallow, right? Because you can’t use the excuse of well, I am just not a proactive person. It’s a claim that doesn’t hold any water because people choose to be proactive. In each and every situation, you have the simple choice to act and respond or react in some negative way. If you do not take control of a problem or something that is going to happen in the future, then you are at the mercy of your circumstances. If your choice to sit back and let things happen, then things are going to happen alright – but they are going to happen to you and not for you.
Many of us don’t necessarily like choices because it immediately gives us responsibility, and responsibility give us accountability – which many people read as blame. However, this is a very simplistic and inaccurate view of how to approach life. The best thing about accountability is that if you take it, in any situation, it immediately gives you control. If something went terribly wrong and you take rightful accountability for it, guess what? You have the power to fix it! Isn’t that a beautiful thing? Not everything that goes on in your life will work out perfectly to a “T”, but you will always have the choice to be proactive and figure out how to turn things around.
Focus on the things that you can control.
In his book, Covey talks about our circles of concern and our circles of influence. This really stood out to me because it drives the idea that we really do choose what we let affect us. We have to be careful and selective where we apply our efforts because the simple fact is that, even when we try our hardest, there will still be many situations in which we can’t or simply don’t have any control over. I am certainly not saying to pretend that these situations and these moments don’t exist. What I am saying is that it pays to focus your attention and your energy on the things that matter most to you and that you can control.
We all have a massive range of concerns – this includes everything from our kids, hobbies, careers, even to bigger global issues like domestic politics, foreign policy, global security, climate change. These things are unbelievably out of our own control but still hold a great deal of weight within our lives.
As someone who is proactive, it is up to you to focus your time and energy on the things that you can do something about. Reactive people will focus on all of their concerns and the problems within their own lives, proactive people will look at the situation and think what I can do to make this better? This is such an incredibly applicable approach to the state that the world is in right now. Everything that has occurred over the last year has made all of us feel completely out of control. And it is easy to look at all of the things that we can’t do or to focus on what has been taken away from us, but there are still things within the situation that we can control. We have choices that we can make every day to make our situation better or easier.
Let’s talk a little bit about what you need to focus on in order to become more proactive.
Being proactive, much like being happy or content, is not a destination to be reached – these are ways of life that need to be practiced routinely. You have to make a conscious effort to be proactive – remember, it is a choice. So, what are some of the things that you can work on to become more proactive – the baby steps, if you will.
One of the first things that you will have to practice is letting go. During times of stress or confrontation, we become reactive, mostly due to our emotional response. All of those low-level emotions like anger, fear, and frustration bubble to the surface and start to call the shots. You are going to have to tell them to settle down. Our egos may come out at a certain time to protect us, but they usually have the opposite effect.
Rather than giving in to those emotions, try to make an effort and transcend the knee-jerk reaction. Start asking yourself some questions so that you can recenter. Ask questions like how long will this matter to me, am I taking this a bit more personally than I should, or should I take a step back? This pause gives you a chance to reconcile your feelings with the situation and regroup your thoughts.
Another thing you need to focus on is staying calm- and, boy, is this a practice in and of itself! Here’s a fact, you can’t control others, as much easier as your life would be if you could, it is impossible to facilitate every action of those around you. But, as I have said, you can control you. You have the ability to remove yourself from a situation in order to get your emotions and feelings in check before responding. All you need to do is let the other person in the situation know your status. Just say something, I’d really like to work on this, but I need some time to evaluate the situation before I respond. Once you’ve given your status update, remove yourself from the situation by doing something that you enjoy – yoga, go grab a coffee, go on a walk. Just do something that gives you’re a sense of calm and allows you to regroup.
Another way you can proactively approach conflict, or stressful situations is by viewing it as a learning experience. Rather than looking at all of the ways a specific situation is affecting your life, try focusing on what you can take from the problem. Finding a way to learn from out challenges is a powerful step towards living life with a proactive approach. By thinking about all of the different things that you can learn from a challenging situation, you are moving your focus away from the problem and are instead focusing on your own development and personal growth. This, alone, will help you feel more in control of your emotions and your actions.
This is also a great way to encourage and empower yourself. By taking more control of the situations that you face or recognizing when you need to let certain things go, you are making a choice to liberate yourself from being a reactive person. Reactive people focus on the negative – the things that they can’t control, or the things that are being done to them. Proactive people focus on what and how they can change a situation to create a more positive impact. Once you are feeling confident about your ability to be more proactive, think about all of the different ways that you can contribute more positivity to a problem or challenge situation, and focus on how you can continue to move things forward.
This is when it is a good idea to consider how you respond to the other person in the situation. Rather than placing blame, or reprimanding them, try showing them encouragement and support. Many people react negatively because they feel like they are misunderstood or don’t have enough support. You don’t have to solve the problem for the other person, but by letting them know that you’d rather be in their corner than act as their enemy, it can help to disarm their negative emotions.
Here is what it comes down to…
Life is a series of choices and being proactive is most definitely a choice. You have all of these tools that you can use to stay ahead of these negative, and frankly drowning situations. Why give your energy to those situations or those people that hold you back? You are capable of achieving so many different things and attaining various goals – whether they are personal, professional, spiritual, or something totally different.
Walking around and living your life by simply reacting to what is happening to you is not only a bad way to live, but it doesn’t get you anywhere. You aren’t living, you are existing – just floating by while these things “happen” to you. instead take control, grab the reins, and direct your life and your own course as much as you can. Learn from the mistakes that you have made and will continue to make – that’s where the best lessons are.
As you begin to engage in more proactive behaviors, you will feel much more empowered and positive about your life. You’ll naturally respond in a proactive way, with practice. As you start to see and feel the rewards of this approach, you are going to become addicted and want to use this mindset in every corner of your life. The greatest thing about being proactive is that you can start right now. Figure out what is causing you stress, or anxiety, or anger, and figure out how you are going to take control of those situations. If you can’t, you are allowed to let it go – that is not failing, that is being proactive.