Habit 1: Be Proactive – The First Habit of Highly Effective People

Habit 1: Be Proactive is the foundation of Covey’s 7 habits of highly effective people.  All the other successes are built on first developing this habit as a platform for personal growth and achievement. Here’s how habit 1 works.

What is Habit 1: Be Proactive? This is the first of the 7 habits, written by Stephen Covey in his book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”

Habit 1: Be Proactive, means to change the way you see and react to the world. Covey describes two types of people: Successful people are Proactive. They look at the world positively and work on what they can control in their lives.

They don’t get stressed on things outside of their control, and know that they are responsible for everything that they have and achieve. Reactive people are those that moan about where they are and bounce from one crisis to the next, not taking responsibility for their situation.

Habit 1: Be Proactive is the first of the first 3 foundational habits. These habits focus on self improvement. It involves a simple paradigm shift and enlightens you to see the world positively, and how you respond to circumstances that present themselves to you.

Conflicting Views of the Same World

When I was much younger, I once knew a guy that would always moan about the government.

He’d moan about how they control everything and that it’s their fault the economy is bad and how inflation is something that the government has made up to control the populace.

It’s their fault that he is in the job he is in and the reasons why he’s living in the house he has. Everything is just too expensive, designed to keep the poor man down.

It didn’t matter if inflation was real or not or whether the system that he was talking about was totally made up in his own mind or not. He knew the answer and no one else was going to change his mind at all.

It was the government’s fault that he was in a boring job; he had little opportunity when he was younger, and he had parents that didn’t love him much. He just had to make do with his lot.

A friend of mine in stark contrast, who was also in the same company and position in the business at that time, had a totally different look on life.

He always had a smile. He radiated positive energy no matter what time of the day it was or what was happening. Nothing seemed to get him down.

My friend knew that he couldn’t control government policy. He couldn’t control the state of the economy or whether inflation increased.

He could control however, how well he did whilst he was at school. He also believed how far he could get in his career was down to him and no one else.

It was his responsibility to get things done and to make his life a success.

The two may have been in the same job at the same time, but it was obvious who would be moving up the career ladder, and who would stay in the same position for years to come.

Fast forward almost 20 years later, and the first chap who conceded that things were out of his control, still had the same job, with a similar wage, lived in the same house and was still complaining how he doesn’t earn enough and that life was unfair.

My friend moved on to several companies to a senior manager role, earning 6 figures, and more than 8 times the salary as the other chap.

Now, money is not the pinnacle of happiness, but this serves a point.

Both had different attitudes to life. One realised that he could make things happen; the other reluctantly accepted what happened to him.

This is the crux of habit 1: be proactive.

Two Different Circles of Truth

The guy who moaned about everything? Well, he was what Stephen Covey called a reactive person. They often bump along from external issue to external issue, and at the whim of randomness. Everything is always someone else’s fault.

My friend on the other hand, was proactive. He knew that he first had to change how he saw the world.

When he did this, he realised that he could envisage a better reality for himself and then worked towards those goals that he created, turning his thoughts into reality.

The difference is the paradigm of how they saw things and how they reacted.

Covey highlighted that there are 2 circles at work here:

  • The circle of concern – This paradigm involves mostly reflecting on problems and things that are out of one’s control;
  • The circle of control – This paradigm puts you in charge and allows you to focus on things that you can control in life.

The Problem with the Circle of Concern

Those that are reactive, live much of their lives in the circle of concern. With the circle of concern, you are forever reflecting on, focusing in, and discussing events that you can’t control.

The problem with this approach, is that the more you do it, the greater a habit it becomes.

There’s a saying that the neurons that get fired together, get wired together. In other words, when we repeat the same behaviours, we literally create new neural pathways in our brains to make it more efficient to access that task again.

By following the same script and repeatedly reacting within this circle of control, you wire your brain to continuously and habitually get stuck in this mode of thinking.

You are literally creating new neurons that reinforce this thinking, and hence it’s a vicious circle.

You’ll soon be deeply rooted in seeing the world through this lens and paradigm.

As you repeat this habitual script, you become increasingly frustrated and anxious, filling your life with resentment and worry. At the same time, your circle of influence reduces, and your circle of concern increases, as it becomes the dominant lens which you see the world in.

This heightens your negativity and reinforces your victim state of mind.

The Circle of Control

People that are proactive, operate within this circle. The circle of control is the exact opposite to the circle of concern. In the circle of control, people innately look at factors that they can control and have an impact on in their lives.

They are aware of the external factors but they don’t waste their time thinking about them.

Instead, they take charge of the things they have control over:

  • The questions they ask others;
  • The questions they ask themselves;
  • The goals they set themselves;
  • Being a person that matches their own values;
  • Looking for good opportunities, despite challenges faced;
  • Understanding that failures are only failures if you don’t get back up and keep moving forward;
  • Looking at the world in a positive light;
  • Knowing that they first visualise what they want and then take action to make a thought a reality;
  • Working hard to get what they want.

How to Change Your Habit and be Proactive

Being successful 100% starts with you taking responsibility.

The problem you have if you are naturally a reactive person, is to break the habit of thinking and reacting like a victim. Joseph Murphy wrote a great book about how to use the subconscious mind and change your habits. It’s an old but classic book and well worth the read.

This will take a lot of time and considerable effort to do.

It starts with being mindful. Mindfulness means that you must be present in what you’re doing during the day.

When you become present and know what your mind is focusing on and thinking about, you’ll understand what it’s saying.

Often, we repeat the same thoughts and questions in our brains. We do this on autopilot – often oblivious to them. These questions build on top of one another, until we become emotionally charged over those thoughts (for good or bad).

What we continuously say to ourselves is what we need to fix to build habit 1: be proactive.

Step 1: Notice How you React

Over the next few days, actively be in the moment. Notice how you react to certain situations. 

  • Which moments cause you the biggest negative reactions? 
  • What about scenarios where you react positively and proactively?
  • How do you talk to your team? Do you normally challenge them and fail to accept negativity? Or do you snap at them and talk down to them?

Note how you react during the day. There will naturally be times when you are not present. Your mind wanders off onto other things and you’re on autopilot. When you can, check in to see how you are feeling and what you say.

If it is hard for you to remember, try to set a personal alarm on your phone every hour or 30 minutes, to remind you to be present at that moment and to notice how you are reacting and what you’re saying to yourself.

Step 2: Record your thoughts

As you go, write down what you find out about yourself.

  • How often are you reacting negatively? 
  • What things put you in a bad mood?
  • How are you talking to other people?
  • What moments make you happier and calmer?
  • What lessons have you learned as you dial into how you are reacting each day?

Step 3: Draw Your Own Circles

  • Now draw two circles, namely the circle of concern and circle of control. 
  • Take your journal, and write down as many things that you can think of, which fall into the circle of control. Do  the same for your circle of concern;
  • When completed, identify where you largely sit – which circle do you spend most of your time in? 

Are you mostly complaining and agitating over things out of your control? Or do you typically focus on things that you can control?

It’s important to be honest and objective with yourself here. It may feel uncomfortable, but in order to improve, you have to understand what to improve, first.

Step 4: Practice More Mindfulness

Keep practicing mindfulness and being in the moment. Make it a habit. 

  • Maintain your hourly or half hourly reminder and keep bringing your mind back to the present;
  • Ask what you are currently focusing on right now. When you do, ask yourself, am I being reactive (where i’m blaming everything and everyone else)? Or am i being proactive (doing what i can do and being positive);
  • Focus on reframing conversations, so you can always remain upbeat and ensure your team is too. You need to set a new precedent here, so correct your team if you hear negativity and defeatism.

If you hear yourself do the same. Stop, change the tone of the conversation and take a mental note to not talk negatively like that again.

The more you do this and correct you and your team as you go, the more you’ll develop a habit of being proactive and positive.

Here are some examples of reactive conversations you may be having in your head or with others that need correcting.

The Reactive WayThe Proactive Alternative
Why bother, it will only failNothing can fail, as long as I/we learn from it and go again
What else can I do about it?Let’s find a way to improve, even if it is just that little bit better than yesterday
I can’t do itI don’t know how to do it yet
She is useless and doesn’t listenI need to improve how I communicate to her. I should find another way to get through to her
What’s the point of trying any wayLet’s look for the reason why this is happening
It’s just the way I amI can improve and do better at anything I put my hand to
I don’t know what to doLet’s find the next step forward, no matter how small it seems
The project failed because we didn’t get enough supportThe project failed because I didn’t mobile the right resource. Next time, I will ensure I’ll get all resource on board before I start

Habit 1: Be Proactive consist of changing the words you say to yourself and others, so you can take charge of the situation. This table shows the difference between being reactive and a victim, to proactive alternatives and being in control.

Step 5: Re-evaluate what is Important to You

When you change your language from reactive to proactive, it forces you to take stock and think about what is really important to you; what values you really believe in.

For instance, If you don’t like your work and want to travel the world, instead of saying:

“I wish I could go travelling. Instead, I must go to work to pay the bills.”

Change it to:

I choose to work right now, because money is more important to me than travelling.

By taking responsibility and accepting that you are exactly where you are because of the choices and decisions you have made, you can choose to be something else, or do something else.

Never blame anyone else or any other external event. The moment you do this, is the moment that you choose to be powerless over the results.

When your control, you can then ask questions to see if what you are doing matches your true values. (More on values in Habit 2)

  • Is this the job for me?
  • Is travelling really what I should be doing?
  • What is it that really resonates with me?
  • Do I want to change my job instead?

There are no right or wrong answers – merely answers that you need to ask when you find the words that you constantly repeat to yourself and others.

Step 6: Meditate and Visualise

For me, meditation is a godsend. When implemented correctly, it helps you recondition your mind and calm it, too, staying present more often.

Spending time to reflect, relax and focus on visualising positivity every day, can really turn your mind from reactive thinking to proactive, where you are in charge of your life. You can change direction and make decisions that work for you.

Once you have detangled what you say and how you think every day, make it a habit to meditate and recondition your neurological system.

My best bit of advice is follow the work by Dr. Joe Dispenza. He’s helped millions of people transform their thinking in relation to being proactive. Get started by reading his book, Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself.

Additional Resources to help you Develop Habit 1: Be Proactive

Emotional Intelligence: A part of being proactive is to understand you and how your emotions affect others. Your reactions to situations can have an impact on those around you, even if you don’t know it.

The concept of emotional intelligence helps you understand yourself so you can identify the triggers that make you react negatively. When you do, you can control them and manage yourself and others in a more effective, respectful and calm way.

To get you started, check out our emotional intelligence guide.

Communication Reframing: When you hear others being the victim, reframe their conversation in a positive way. Something like, “I understand it’s a challenge, but let’s come up with some ideas to move forward.” 

In this instance, we’ve confirmed what they have said and converted it to positive action.

Use our reframing guide to help you develop this skill.