Sunday, April 29, 2012

Become Proactive and Do What Matters

Proactivity has been a much-used word in the past couple of decades. But it is more than a buzzword. To be proactive is to do the things you need to do to control your life rather than letting events control you.

Too many of us are figurative firefighters (FFFs). While I am thankful for the real firefighters, who put their lives on the line to help other people, FFFs spend their lives putting out fires that do not involve life and death. Like real fire fighters, the fires they fight often are due to carelessness; unlike those fighting real fires, the fires are often of their own making. The FFF does not have time to control life—life is a roller coaster of one pseudo-emergency after another, rushing to do whatever is most urgent. FFF’s use crisis management as their life strategy.

It saddens me to see people live like this, and it frustrates me when I see it in myself. We all have dreams, things we want to do. It might take years of planning, working, and daily attention to make the dream into a reality. But how many of us are able to do pursue these dreams? How many of us spend so much time on emergencies that we cannot do the things we love?

Stephen Covey was largely responsible for making “proactive” a buzz word. He also popularized the phrase “the urgent is rarely the important” ( see a nice article about that by Michael Hyatt). Urgent only means something must be done soon to avoid consequences. Paying a bill late makes a mundane task an urgent one, especially if non-payment can result in discontinued services. Suddenly, something that should take 5 minutes (to put a check in the mail or a few clicks of the mouse) becomes a complicated transaction, possibly involving a drive across town to hand deliver a payment. The simple, proactive step of having a bill payment center and a regular schedule for paying the bills would eliminate this problem.

Sometimes proactivity is not this simple, but it always yields rewards. Is there a difficult conversation you know needs to be initiated? Have you held off, hoping events will force an action rather than engage the problem? How much control will you lose over the issue by allowing circumstances to dictate your actions? What if instead you sat down, wrote out the issues that need to be addressed, spent some time thinking about the best way to handle the conversation, then call the other person and do what you know needs to be done?

Do you have a skill you need or want to develop? Have you thought about what needs to be done to gain this skill? It might take no more than researching the internet and downloading some articles or watching a few YouTube recordings. Or you may need to take a class. Do you know what you need? What benefits are you missing out on because you check Facebook or emails for an extra 30 minutes a day that you could use to develop your skill? Is Farmville or (my vice) Bejeweled Blitz that much fun?

Here’s how to start on the path to proactivity:
  • Make an appointment with yourself. Go ahead, go to your calendar. I’ll wait. Make the appointment for sometime this week. You’ll need at least an hour. In the hour, write down the things you’d like to do that never seem to get done—whether it’s learning Italian or clearing out the garage.
  • Pick one thing on this list.
  • Make another appointment—at least 30 minutes this time. If you know how to do what you want to do, spend the time scheduling the time to get your project done.
  • If not, spend the time in research. Go to a search engine, and type in the project—“basics of weight loss,” “how to begin training for a marathon,” “how to host a simple tea party.”
  • Gather information to plan your project. Make a file for the project if you need to gather information, and plan another research time if needed. Map out what you need to do, and get your project done.

I’ve found the key to proactivity is to work one thing at a time. I tend to list out dozens of projects, and try to juggle them all at once--which results in a lot of starts without a lot of finishes.

As you begin to proactively accomplish things instead of being an FFF, you’ll find you only want to do things that are worthwhile. Time is precious, and wasting it becomes annoying instead of fun.

This year, I’m focused on doing as few things as possible. I can easily see spending the rest of my life taking things off my to-do list. I want to remove activities that are only urgent or distracting—I want to do what matters as often as possible.

“Doing what matters” is a focus for Chris Guillebeau, a writer I always read when I need to be inspired. He has built his life around doing work he believes is important in a way that give him freedom to live his life. For me, being proactive means minimizing my life so I can maximize the things that bring me joy and serve others.

If this article resonates with you, take the time to become proactive. Letting your life pass you by as a series of fires you chase with water will leave you unfulfilled with a full bucket when the time comes to kick it. Begin the journey to living life on your terms today!

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