Thinking proactively increases effectiveness

Recently I spoke to a friend of mine (let’s say her fictitious name is Jane) who’s currently doing her PhD in engineering immediately after graduating from undergraduate. We were talking about future plans and she told me she felt nervous and scared when thinking about the future. Jane said the job market was scary and she had no idea how to go about getting a job after graduation.

I was surprised that an intelligent and qualified person such as herself felt she didn’t have many options. In this article, I’ll use her example to demonstrate that there is really nothing to fear about the future as long as we are proactive in our approach to life and all her mysteries.

First let’s clarify the two terms:

Reactive: acting in response to a situation

Proactive: creating or controlling a situation by causing something to happen

Being proactive doesn’t infer being prepared for every. single. situation. that life might throw at someone. It means that a person has prepared for the few critical outcomes that truly have an impact on said person’s life. A person applying the Pareto Principle to focus on the actions that affect the ~20% of outcomes that affect ~80% of their life will be living proactively.

People are reactive as a result of learned helplessness. A lifetime of microscopic and macroscopic failures resulting in behavioural conditioning led to drastically reduced capabilities of:

  • Recognizing opportunities
  • Regaining control
  • Gaining momentum

The three capabilities listed above are the main differences separating those who are proactive and those who are reactive.

Recognizing Opportunities

Every problem is an opportunity in disguise. In Jane’s case, her ‘problem’ of securing a job after graduation can be viewed as an ‘opportunity’ for her to build skills up so that jobs will come after her instead.

Reframing a situation as an opportunity allows one to work towards resolving the ‘problem’ in an innovative manner.

If Jane views her job hunt as an opportunity to build the skills she needs to be an amazing employee. This leads her to research what employers are looking for when hiring highly qualified candidates. Jane then can set up informational interviews with leaders of her industry to discover the ‘problems’ they face.

Jane discovers from her online research and informational interviews:

  • Employers feel new PhD engineering graduates struggle with:
    • clearly communicating their ideas
    • over-complicating presentations with technical jargon

Jane finds that she exhibits the issues and works towards improving her skills by:

  • joining a public speaking group to improve her presentation and communication skills
  • taking a simple writing class at her university that helps technical students make their writings easily understood

Using this approach, Jane is able to flip the ‘problem’ on its head and turn it into an ‘opportunity’ to improve herself, and by doing so, effectively increase her appeal as an employee to her future employers.

“Frame problems as opportunities”

Regaining Control

People feel overwhelmed when there are numerous obstacles to overcome. This leads to giving up because “there’s just too much stuff to do”.


Figure 1: Too much to do

If Jane were to try and accomplish the tasks above, she might succeed, but there is a higher chance that she would fail and end up frustrated. Rushing to accomplish the small tasks, simultaneously, could be counterproductive.

Breaking down the large task ‘getting a job’ into smaller more manageable tasks is the first step. Prioritizing and working on the smaller tasks sequentially is the next step. Click here to read more about prioritizing tasks.

The key to getting a lot done is getting it done over time. Accomplishing small tasks day after day, add up to large accomplishments over a period of weeks, months and even years. Applying the Principle of Aggregation of Marginal Gains will increase the chance of effectively accomplishing tasks.

“Consistently accomplish small tasks to consistently accomplish large tasks”

Gaining Momentum

“Let’s get rolling” is a great phrase that epitomizes the quality that is required to produce results. Without momentum, nothing gets done, hence, nothing is accomplished. There are many deterrents to gaining momentum which can be summed up as reluctance.

Reluctance is the frictional force preventing one from moving forward with ease.


Figure 2: Reluctance vs. Time

From the graph above, as time increases, the reluctance to do something increases as well. The longer one waits the harder it becomes to ‘get things rolling’. Slogans like Nike’s “Just do it” are examples of motivational phrases that aim to get people moving as quickly as possible.

Reluctance time: time taken to achieve 99% reluctance

Generally, smaller tasks have longer reluctance times and larger, more complicated tasks have shorter reluctance times. This means smaller tasks are met with less reluctance compared with larger tasks. This principle goes hand in hand with the Principle of Aggregation of Marginal Gains. Breaking down a larger task into smaller, more manageable tasks will increase the likelihood of finishing the large task. Click here to read more about breaking down large goals into smaller more manageable ones.

“Keep moving forward, even if it is inch by inch”

Proactiveness can be learned by mastering these principles and applying them daily. Use them in combination with each other and watch yourself accomplish things you never thought possible.

How do you stay proactive?

Tell me in the comments section below!

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2 Comments, RSS

  1. Razi September 13, 2016 @ 09:07

    Very nice article.

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