If you often read self-care or psychological literature, you’ve probably encountered the terms “proaction” and “reaction”.
Some authors speak about these two as types of behavior, while others, like Steven Covey, talk about them in the context of proactive vs reactive personalities.
In this article, we’ll bring this topic closer to you by discussing some of the things that define these two terms, as well as looking into how they differ from each other. By the end of the article, you’ll be able to make your own judgment on what is the right way to act (for you).
Proaction vs Reaction
How often do you feel like your mood and feelings depend on external circumstances?
Does rainy weather put you back to bed or make you feel blue? Do you ruminate your boss’s or your colleagues' criticism for hours, or do you just process it and move on? Do you plan everything in advance or do you act from what’s happening around you?
Reactive behavior is when we consciously or unconsciously let go of control and react to situations relying on our instincts and habits instead of reason and mindfulness.
This pattern is visible in a myriad of situations and is a normal part of our life.
However, if reactivity becomes our modus operandi, we fall victim to our bad habits and let external factors dictate our lives and sometimes act from a place of scarcity. A good analogy would be the difference between playing a character in a script about your life rather than directing it.
The mechanism of reactive behaviors has evolutionary logic — if it hadn’t been for the ease of learning quick reactions, we wouldn’t have been able to learn to automatically stop at a red light, protect ourselves from a potential hit, or remove a hand from a hot plate.
However, going too far and completely submitting yourself to external conditions can have negative outcomes. After all, we are rational human beings, capable of making choices and shaping our own realities.
“Reactive people are often affected by their physical environment. If the weather is good, they feel good. If it isn’t, it affects their attitude and performance. Proactive people carry their own weather with them.” - Steven Covey
This quote by Steven Covey sums up the proaction vs reaction dilemma.
Proactivity is about taking that one step further and acting consciously and with greater responsibility, which, let’s be honest, can be hard sometimes.
It’s easy and flattering to accept that we’re responsible for some great accomplishments in life (although sometimes self-sabotaging behaviors can stop us from doing that). On the other hand, acknowledging that we’re also responsible for some things that went wrong, or for the way we feel in certain situations, can be a pill that’s hard to swallow.
Proactivity incorporates several enlightening concepts:
- Presence in the now;
- Critical thinking;
- The ability to choose.
As famous psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in his famous novel A Man’s Search for Meaning:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
The ability to choose how we see the world around us and how we respond to it is the ultimate resort of human freedom and sanity.
Proaction vs Reaction: How to Become More Proactive?
While reacting means going where the wind blows, proaction is all about being conscious and in control. It means focusing on what you can do or change and letting go of what you can’t.
- We can’t control the weather, but we can control how we feel about it.
- We can’t force someone to behave in a certain manner, but we can choose how we react to their behavior.
- We don’t know what is going to happen with climate change, but we can do everything in our power to reduce our personal carbon footprint.
Imagine yourself taking control. You’re in charge. You decide how you react. What do you embrace and what do you let go?
6 Activities That Promote Proaction vs Reaction
1. Notice and Rethink Your Reactiveness
If you’re not sure how to recognize reactive behavior, try monitoring the little things. How do you react to your boss’s criticism or your partner’s needs? Do you feel like you are often defensive? Try to mull over that feeling and assess why it comes up.
One thing that can come in really handy in this process is keeping a journal, particularly a reflective journal. Use it to write down your feelings in different situations and reflect on them. This will make you more conscious and put you in control.
Try to notice other people in their reactiveness and you’ll see how often and easily it happens. The most important part: try not to judge, keep an open mind, and learn.
2. Mind Your Language
As you start monitoring your own behavior, you will probably notice how your language can be reactive too. Phrases like “I can’t”, “I wish”, “I have to”, “If only…” depict a reactive attitude.
Changing the way we speak can alter the way we think and behave. “I can”, “I will”, “I want to” represent minor changes in the way we talk, but major changes in the way we feel. These phrases depict a proactive attitude.
Besides, the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests that the language we use influences, and maybe even determines the way we think. Our linguistics shape our emotions and cognition. By minding your language you can make a significant change in the way you think, and, if you think more proactively, you’ll behave more proactively as well.
3. Adopt a Growth Mindset
Do you believe that positive change can come with effort, or do you feel like your abilities and personality are a given?
Adopting a growth mindset means believing that our “basic qualities are things we can cultivate through our efforts”.
Instead of ruminating over things you’re dissatisfied with, take a step forward, and engage in the process of change.
A growth mindset is compatible with proactivity, while the opposite, fixed mindset, is stuck in reactivity. As you learn that nothing is carved in stone, and that it’s never too late for change, you’ll progress from reactive towards proactive behavior.
4. Keep a Gratitude Journal
The formula is simple: gratitude helps us instill a positive mindset, and a positive mindset makes us more proactive and, at the same time, mindful, more present in the moment and calm within.
With the gratitude journal, you begin each day focused on your positive expectations, and end it reflecting on the good things. You analyze your behaviour patterns and discover what makes you feel balanced, grounded and joyful.
5. Set Clear and Achievable Goals
To become proactive is to have clear, achievable goals. Our goals are what we wake up for each day, and what we strive for even when it’s hard. They provide us with meaning and an organizational framework.
Learn how to set achievable goals and, whenever you feel like you’re dragging your feet and like you’re about to fall back into “reactive” mode, remember your goals, intentions and purpose: they’re here to give you the strength to keep going.
Reading, learning, and informing yourself on how to set your goals and act on them (even when you don’t feel like it) is all a part of the proactivity package.
6. Practice Mindfulness
Becoming more proactive is often about becoming more conscious and aware, and what better way to practice that than through mindfulness?
Becoming more mindful means watching out for the little things, existing consciously in the moment, here and now. You can be mindful at your work desk, in your kitchen, in your relationships, when you exercise, and even when you do nothing.
Consciousness and presence in the moment will enrich every aspect of your existence and make you a more proactive person.
Here are a few things you can do to practice mindfulness:
- Do breathing exercises;
- Take regular breaks from work;
- Keep a gratitude journal;
- Become an active listener;
- Focus on your sensory experiences (touching, smelling, listening…);
- Dedicate some of your time to activities such as gardening, painting, cooking, or reading.
Reactivity isn’t always a bad thing. After all, it’s our natural instinct to react to stimuli coming from the outside world. But as rational beings, we are designed for so much more than a simple exhibition of learned behavioral patterns and reactions.
Striving for proaction instead of reaction may appear to be a tiny change in the way we speak or think about our habits and day-to-day behavior, but it represents a significant behavioral change for anyone who wants to start exerting firmer control over their life and emotions.
Have you ever heard about the Buddhist parable about the arrow? We’d like to end with it, as we think it encapsulates this challenge perfectly.
One day, Buddha asked his student: “If a person is struck by an arrow, do you think it’s painful?” The student said that it probably is. Then Buddha asked him: “If a person is struck by a second arrow, is that more painful?” The student said that it is for sure. Buddha then told him: “We can’t control whether the first arrow will strike us. However, the pain from the second-arrow strike is our reaction to the first. With the second arrow comes the possibility of choice.”