Reactive vs Proactive Language

Most of us tend to use REACTIVE language in our day to day lives: “I CAN’T do that because I MUST do this”. Changing to PROACTIVE language can have a profound effect on your life: “I DON’T WANT to do that because I WANT to do this”.

I NEED vs I WANT
I MUST vs I PREFER
I CAN’T vs I CHOOSE

Reactive Language

Most of us tend to use reactive language in our day to day lives: “I CAN’T do this because I MUST do that”. The reality of the situation is that you probably don’t have to do the second thing and probably CAN do the first thing.

Outside of being bound by the laws of physics, there are very few things in life that you HAVE to do or that you CAN’T do. So why do we use those words?

Using reactive language absolves you of responsibility but also makes you powerless: “I am not responsible. I am not able to choose my response. There is nothing I can do about it”.

WHAT YOU SAYWHAT YOU MEAN
I can’t do that.
I just don’t  have the time
Something external (limited time) is controlling me
If only my boss were more patientSomeone else’s behaviour is limiting my effectiveness
I have to do itCircumstances or other people are
forcing me to do what I do. I am not free to choose my own actions.
Examples of reactive language.

Proactive Language

Reactive LanguageProactive Language
I need…I want…
I must…I prefer…
I can’t…I choose…

This subtle change in language can make a huge positive impact in your life.

Examples

REACTIVE
“I wish I could take 6 months off and travel the world but I can’t because I have to work and I don’t have enough vacation.”

PROACTIVE #1
“Although I would love to take 6 months off and travel, my financial security and my career are currently more important to me. I choose not to go on this trip so that I can focus on my career instead.”

PROACTIVE #2
“The experience of travelling is much more important to me than my job or my financial security. So I will convince my boss to give me a 6 month sabbatical (or just quit?) and I will go on this iconic journey.”

Re-evaluate your Paradigm

Saying that “I DON’T WANT TO go on a wonderful 6 month trip because I WANT TO work” is difficult and counterintuitive.  By changing your language you will re-evaluate your reality:

  • Do I really want to keep working instead of travelling?
  • How important is seeing the world to me?
  • How important is my job or career?
  • Is this job really what I want to do?
  • What is truly important to me?

There are no right or wrong answers to any of these questions. But asking these questions is important and empowers you to change.

Be Precise in your Speech

How you talk reinforces what you believe to be true. By being reactive with your language, you reinforce that you are powerless. By being precise and truthful with your language, you accept responsibility for your choices and gain the power to change those choices and to change your situation.

Take Responsibility.
Make it your Fault.

Until you can honestly say that “I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday” you cannot say “I choose otherwise”.

Never blame others for failures.  Always blame yourself. The moment you blame another person or some external circumstance, you become powerless to change the results:

THEIR FAULT
“The project failed because we didn’t get enough support from the marketing department. They need to do a better job next time.”

YOUR FAULT
“The project failed because I did not mobilize the marketing department effectively. Next time I will change my strategy and make a more effective presentation explaining the importance of their role in the success of this project.”

The more responsibility you take, the more power you have to change.

Related Reading

The Four Quadrants of Time Management

Everything you do in life can be classified by its urgency and by its importance. We often spend our lives focused on the Urgent things instead of the Important things. It is important to learn to distinguish between the two.

Four Quadrants Time Management Matrix
The Time Management Matrix: Everything you do in life can be classified by its urgency (Urgent or Not Urgent) and by its importance (Important or Not Important)
Important and UrgentCrises and Emergencies
Important but Not UrgentPrevention, Planning, and Improvement
Not Important but UrgentInterruptions and Busy Work
Not Important and Not UrgentTime Wasters

We often spend our lives focused on the Urgent things instead of the Important things. In business as in life it is extremely important to ask yourself: “Am I doing this because it is truly important or am I doing this because it is simply urgent?”

Important and urgent things, such as crises and emergencies, should not be ignored. However, the more time you can spend on the non-urgent but important things (prevention, planning, improvement) the less crises and emergencies you will experience..

Below is a more detailed explanation of each quadrant along with some examples:

Quadrant 1: Important and Urgent

Important Urgent Quadrants 1

Fire fighting mode: Crises, real hard deadlines for important project, health & family emergencies, etc…

Quadrant 1 is the urgent important quadrant: Things that you should definitely NOT ignore. However, spending too much time in fire fighting mode will lead to stress and burn out. You will be caught in a never-ending cycle of crisis management.

The only way to reduce the time spent in this quadrant is to be proactive by spending more time on the important things BEFORE they become emergencies (see Quadrant 2 below).

Quadrant 1 Example
Dealing with a heart attack is an Urgent and Important problem that cannot be ignored (but perhaps by living a healthier lifestyle such health emergencies can be reduced or avoided all together).

Quadrant 2: Important but not Urgent

Quadrant 2 Tasks - Prevention and Planning

This is where you should spend most of your time.

Quadrant 2 tasks are all about planning, prevention, capability improvement, relationship building, recognizing new opportunities, etc…

Spending time on these important things should lead to a clear vision and a balanced life, discipline, control, and fewer and fewer crisis situations.

Quadrant 2 Examples

  • Frequently buying flowers for your significant other “just because”
  • Eating healthy and exercising to avoid future health issues
  • Preventative maintenance on your home or car
  • Reading, learning, and education
  • Forming bonds and strengthening relationships with your friends and family
  • Self renewal and spending time on things that inspire and uplift you

Quadrant 3: Not Important but Urgent

Quadrant 3 - Interruptions

Many of us spend a big portion of our time in this Quadrant confusing the Urgent things for the Important things.

Interruptions, ringing phones, most emails, etc…  Spending too much time on the unimportant urgent things leads to a very short-term focus with continual crisis management.  Your plans and goals will seem increasingly useless since you are unlikely to have time to devote to them.  Your relationships and reputation will suffer and you will feel victimized with no control over your life.

Quadrant 3 Example

You have scheduled an important meeting with a coworker 2 weeks ahead of time. This person has very limited time and so you carve out a 30 minute window to deal with a very important matter. As you sit down and start the meeting, your phone rings.

The phone is screaming: “Pick me up! Pick me up! Pick me up!” Most people will pickup the phone and sacrifice the very important meeting for the likely not important but urgent ringing phone.

Quadrant 4: Not Urgent and Not Important

Quadrant 4 - Time Wasters

These are the time wasters in your life.

Spending too much time on non-urgent and not important things can lead to dependence on others for your basics, loss of jobs, irresponsibility, etc…

Quadrant 4 Examples

  • Trivial busy work
  • Mindless web surfing
  • Watching too much TV
  • Lots of pleasant activities

How do I use this to make my life better?

quadrants 1,2,3,4
How do we transition from Quadrants 1, 3 & 4 and make more time for Quadrant 2 activites?

A. Identify Quadrant 2 activities.

  • Write down all the Quadrant 1 and 3 activities you routinely do (all the Urgent stuff)
  • Write down how you can prevent these things from reoccurring or from becoming emergencies in the first place: These are your new Quadrant ii activities.

B. Free up time for Quadrant 2 activities

  • Look at all the things in Quadrant 4 and STOP DOING THEM!
  • Look at all the things in Quadrant 3 and stop doing them too.  This is more difficult as it involves saying NO to people.
  • You should now have time to spend on Quadrant 2

C. Schedule time for Quadrant 2Schedule Time for Q2

  • Schedule time to do Quadrant 2 activities.
    (Put them in your calendar just like a meeting).
  • DO THE THINGS YOU SCHEDULED!

D. Reduce Quadrant 1

  • The beauty with spending more time in Quadrant 2 is that it should slowly chip away at all your Quadrant 1 activities.
  • As you reduce your Quadrant 1 activities you have more time for Quadrant 2, creating a fly-wheel effect.

Simple, right?

Not quite.  The Question “What is important to me?” usually does not have a simple answer.

What Quadrant Am I?

Example 1: Going to a Sporting event
(Hockey, Baseball, Football game, etc…)

Which quadrant does this fall into?  The answer is it depends on YOUR priorities and what is important to YOU. On the surface it looks clearly like a Q4 item – a time waster.  Not urgent and certainly not important.

But, it could be a Q2 event (important) if you consider the event to be an opportunity to spend quality time building relationships with your parents, children, or friends .

Example 2: Watching TV

Clearly another Q4 item: A time waster.  Or is it?  If watching TV is a stress reliever for you and serves as a way to wind down and chill out after a hectic day, it could very well be a Q2 activity.  Just as long as you frame it correctly and consume it in the right way.

To be successful with this method you must have a very clear understanding of what is important to you, what your long term goals are, etc… For more information about how to plan your week around this framework, see my blog post on How I Plan My Week.

Related Reading