Why Proactive People Rarely Feel Overwhelmed

Woman catching snowflakes on her tongue

Photo by Yan Krukov

Being proactive is about being in control. You don’t wait for problems and tasks to fall into your lap. Instead, you define a strategy and execute it.

Productivity and proactivity are intertwined. Productivity requires you to control your work and shape it to be efficient. You cannot be productive without being proactive.

Reactivity is like standing in the snow with your tongue hanging out. You can’t control what falls in, nor how much. Is that even snow? Reactive people bounce from task to task. They feel busy but lack direction and purpose.

It’s easy to lapse into reactivity, even if you’re a productive person. The difference between reactivity and productivity is often a handful of habits. Letting one of these slip can tip you over the edge.

To remain proactive, you need to identify the warning signs of reactivity. As soon as you notice one, take steps to get back in control.

Feeling Overwhelmed

Proactive people rarely feel overwhelmed. Yet, they receive the same amount of emails and work as everyone else. How is this possible?

The answer lies in having a strategy that drives everyday decisions. Proactive people know what’s important because they’ve spent time defining it. They compare incoming tasks against their priorities and reject anything that doesn’t fit.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s a sign you’re becoming reactive. You’ve lost track of your priorities and can’t separate the signal from the noise. Every email seems equal in importance and urgency. Work becomes a battle to stay afloat.

You can combat this by allocating time for planning. Schedule two hours each week to review your projects, calendar and priority lists. Once they align, you should feel calmer and in control.

If you’re not sure what that feels like, imagine the last time you took a vacation. I’m sure you declined several meetings because they conflicted with your holiday dates. And I bet you didn’t think twice about it. You had a clear strategy (I’m going on vacation) and a clear plan (I’m leaving on Friday). This is what proactivity feels like.

Checking Emails All the Time

It’s fun to play whack-a-mole with emails all day. It makes you feel busy and useful. Yet most of us aren’t paid to live in our inbox. We have real work to do.

The number of times you check your inbox is an excellent barometer for reactivity. Even the most proactive and productive people can slip into bad habits. Inbox-checking is usually the first sign of reactivity.

Email acts as a crutch for those who haven’t got a plan. You feel busy and important responding to the incoming requests. But you’re masking the fact you’re in reactive mode and treading water.

It’s hard to be honest with yourself about email. It’s a bit like meditation. If you ask someone if they meditate, the answer is “Yes, twenty minutes a day”. In their head, they see themselves as a daily meditator. But in reality, they skip far more days than they realise.

The same is true for email, and I’m guilty of this as well. On paper, I’m a regular email batching machine. But sometimes I slip into reactive mode and find myself answering emails all day.

As soon as you find yourself living in your inbox, stop and reflect on your priorities. Do you have a clear plan? Are you avoiding difficult feelings? Take stock, then return to what you should be doing.

Losing Control of Your Calendar

Meetings are a great way to pass time when you’re in reactive mode. You can easily spend six hours a day in pointless meetings. That leaves only a couple of hours to fill with mindless email. Following this recipe, reactive employees can spend their career getting very little done.

If you’re joining large numbers of meetings, you may be in reactive mode too. If you were proactive you’d have too many important things to do. You’d decline anything non-critical.

Do you feel a little relief when your day is filled with meetings? If so, that suggests you don’t know what to do with your time and you’re thankful someone has filled it for you.

To avoid falling into this trap, regularly prune your calendar. Make sure your schedule reflects your priorities and not someone else’s.

Reflection is Key

Despite your best intentions, you will flit between being proactive and reactive. Nobody is going to spot this for you, so make sure you regularly pause to reflect on your behaviours.

I wrote this post after yet another “Oh damn, I’ve become reactive” realisation. It happens to everyone. You need to be vigilant and react to it.

And if you do nothing else, stay out of your inbox!