7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Be Proactive

This is the third on my series of articles which draw upon the book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.  

Habit Number 1: Be Proactive

Winning the internal victory.

In 1943 Austrian-Jewish psychiatrist, Dr Viktor Frankl, was taken from his wife and parents and brought to Auschwitz concentration camp. He spent much of the next 3 years under conditions of forced labour, starvation and the threat of death and violence.  Despite this he considered that he had more freedom than his captors. He attributed his survival, in part, to his mental attitude.

How did he find the right state of mind to survive?

Between Stimulus and Response

Frankl, after leaving the concentration camp, popularised the theory of logotherapy. Logotherapy maintains that human beings are driven by finding meaning in their lives. The survivors of the camps were often not the strongest and the toughest, but the ones who had something to survive for.

Frankl had been trained in psychological tradition of behaviourism which held that humans, as biological beings, are conditioned by certain stimulus and to react with a certain response. Frankl and the logotherapists challenged this simple model. They stated that between stimulus and response humans have a choice, and choice leads to freedom.

We have freedom to use our conscience, our imagination, our self-awareness and our independent will. When we use these mental powers, we create become the authors of our lives.

Stephen Covey, author of “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” calls this freedom “proactivity”. Proactivity means being a first mover. To set out for action before the environment and other people provoke you to act.

And proactivity is the opposite is reactivity.

Act, or be Acted on

Reactivity means limiting our responses to the what the world or the people around us provoke us to be. Reactive is anyone who says “he made me do it” or “I can’t help it”.

People with a reactive mindset believe that they can’t choose their responses. They are trapped into their patterns, their habits. Therefore they are fated to be how others make them. Not to live their own lives, but to live the lives they are scripted.

Covey describes the reactive mindset at deterministic. He says that there are three levels of deterministic thinking which encourage passivity in the face of personal circumstances. Genetic determinism: my grandparents (or genome) made me this way. Psychic determinism: my parents (or upbringing) made me this way. Environmental determinism: My boss (or anyone today who has power over you) made me this way.

Covey encourages people to be on guard for deterministic thinking and talking. He encourages people to believe “I am the author of my own life” regardless of genetic, psychic and environmental luck.

Circle of Concern vs Circle of Influence

One of the main methods that Covey recommends for building one’s proactivity is focussing on one’s circle of influence.

He recommends first determining what is in your circle of concern. The circle of concern is anything that affects you personally: work, school, children. Many things, perhaps most things, in our circle of concern are not directly changeable by our own power.

We cannot change the decisions of large governments and companies. We cannot influence the weather. We can’t force other people to always act how we would want them to.

But within our circle of concern lies our circle of influence. The circle of influence is what you have control over. You can vote for a government, or choose not to purchase from a company. You can pack an umbrella. You can use communication skills to try to influence another person.

Covey advises that the more time we spend thinking about our circle of influence, and acting accordingly, the larger the circle of influence grows. Then the more powerfully proactive you become.

So, by changing your deterministic thinking and language, and focusing your attention and actions on your circle of influence, you can build the habit of proactivity. You become an actor, not a puppet. A script writer, not a script. You gain freedom.

But freedom is scary: how do you know that you are choosing wisely? In the next habit, Covey addresses the issue of how to make good choices.

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