The Seven Habits, A Practical Summary: Habit 1 - Proactivity

Nope, This is Not Proactivity

University of Houston Cheerleaders
University of Houston Cheerleaders | Source

Proactivity is Not Rah-Rah

Proactivity, a word defined and made famous by the late Stephen R. Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is often misunderstood and misused:

  • One person can't tell another person to be proactive. Telling someone else to be proactive is telling them how to think. And telling someone else how to think is being controlling and reactive. So one person telling another to be proactive is like a liar telling someone to be honest.
  • Proactivity is not rah-rah, enthusiasm, or a push to feel motivated. In fact, Covey specifically describes such business practices as dysfunctional (7 Habits, pp. 229-230)
  • Proactivity is not pushing to get done what we have to get done, or what others tell us to do.

Proactivity: Your Definition

Before reading this articles, what was your definition of proactivity? Pick the closest choice.

  • I never really knew, or I never heard the word before.
  • I thought it meant "just do what you have to do and get it done!"
  • I thought it meant to push through obstacles and succeed.
  • I thought it meant a commitment to discovering my dreams and making them real.
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Anwar Sadat and Václav Havel

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Sadat wrote that to make peace with Israel "I drew . . . on the inner strength I had developed in Cell 54 of Cairo Central Prison--a strength, call it a talent or capacity, for change."Havel wrote, "Even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance."
Sadat wrote that to make peace with Israel "I drew . . . on the inner strength I had developed in Cell 54 of Cairo Central Prison--a strength, call it a talent or capacity, for change."
Sadat wrote that to make peace with Israel "I drew . . . on the inner strength I had developed in Cell 54 of Cairo Central Prison--a strength, call it a talent or capacity, for change." | Source
Havel wrote, "Even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance."
Havel wrote, "Even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance." | Source

Proactivity is Living Our Truth

Proactivity is, however, knowing our own deepest purpose and goals from the heart of our own being and living in accord with them, day in and day out. Proactivity is the first Habit in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, who passed away this month, in July 2012. Proactivity can lead to success, but it is deeper than that. We can be proactive even in the face of certain failure. We can be proactive:

  • In prison, as the five world leaders who were first in prison, and later won the Nobel Peace Prize did. Covey uses Anwar Sadat as an example.Václav Havel, who wrote plays challenging Soviet authority, is another. We can even be proactive in a death camp, as Victor Frankl was, helping people to survive and developing ideas that later became Man's Search for Meaning and Logotherapy.
  • In day-to-day life in the corporate world. Much of Covey's work was at IBM and with other major corporations. Yet he taught people how to develop initiative and genuine leadership, rather than increase bureaucracy.
  • As entrepreneurs, artists, and in many other forms of creativity and healing.

Whether our lives fit into the conventional box, or are outside-the-box unique creations, we are proactive if our lives are consciously chosen and are true to our hearts.

Do You Know What You Just Said?

Last week, I was sitting at the counter of a pizza place, eating a slice. Three friends came in - high-school aged - a guy and two girls. One of the girls was negative about everything, and the other was acting hostile. Both of them dropped the F-bomb, and, when they did, I looked up.

They saw me looking and got embarrassed. They hadn't really known what they said until I looked at them. But I didn't want them to be embarrassed, so I smiled and said, "I can use the F-word too, when I want to." And I can, but I choose not to. I haven't cursed in public this millennium.

If you want to try an interesting experiment, the next time someone is speaking thoughtlessly, you might ask them, "Do you know what you just said?"

When we know what we said, there is hope for change. When we know what we're about to say, we can teach ourselves to be polite. That's the power of Self-Awareness.

I know. About 33 years ago, I was just like those girls.

How Do We Start Being Proactive?

We develop proactivity by developing four inner skills:

  • Self-Awareness, paying deep attention to ourselves to see our own words, actions, feelings, and thoughts.
  • Imagination so that we can always see, and create, three or more options in any situation.
  • A Healthy Conscience so that we can know what is right according to our values without guilt-tripping ourselves.
  • Independent Will, where we make our own decisions and act on them. We consult others wisely, and we also know that ultimately each thing we do is our own choice, and we will live with the consequences.

We can start small. We can pick just one healthy habit to work on, or just one creative goal of our own to meet. Often, my clients are busy and overwhelmed. Carving out the time to read 7 Habits is often their first proactive choice.

Once we see the freedom of proactivity, we grasp the potential of creating our own lives. But what do we want our lives to be? That's the central question of Habit 2: Begin With the End in Mind.

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Comments 15 comments

McGilwriter profile image

McGilwriter 4 years ago from Florida

Being proactive is so important! Today people are told to have a positive state of mind, but if you don't get up and do something, you will just be a positive lazy person!


cperuzzi profile image

cperuzzi 4 years ago from Freehold, NJ

I was very upset when Stephen Covey died last week.

Not for the reason that is summed up with "Oh another terrific light has blinked out among us" but because I'd been making a serious effort to work with the seven habits over the last three months.

I'd bought abridged versions of Covey's "7 Habits" and "The 8th Habit" and was listening to them while I was doing my long commutes to Pennsylvania from New Jersey. Each day, I'd take one of the things he'd said and bring it into focus. I've been fighting ADD since I'd been diagnosed. The worst part of this condition is the perpetual procrastination and impulsiveness. Things that I have paid for with my physical assets (my body) and in missed opportunities in self improvement.

With each day that passed, I found a better understanding of what the habits were. I specifically like his analogy of using the first three in the "private victory" as 1) realizing you're the programmer 2) writing the program and 3) running it.

So, the first habit of being proactive and realizing that there is the space between the situation, the impulse, and the action is something that I've been working to become more aware of - and acting upon it is integral to making a more effective life.

My mission is to become a successful writer and to earn enough money to support my family. I think I have a talent with this. I think this is the mission I've detected. Now all I need is to put this to work with the first three habits. Detecting the passion and strengths is important. As Albert Einstein has said, "We are all geniuses. If a fish was judged on its ability to climb a tree it will go through it's entire life thinking it's a failure."

You've got me with this one Sid... I will be very disappointed if you don't follow through with six more articles like this one.


SidKemp profile image

SidKemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) Author

Absolutely, McGil! And may what we do bless our lives and everyone's.


SidKemp profile image

SidKemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) Author

Hi CPeruzzi! 6 more - Order up1 They're on their way - today and tomorrow! I've coached people with ADD on 7 Habits. ADD does make it more challenging in some ways, but also some wonderful gifts shine through. Your mission is an excellent one. Please feel free to email me directly at Sid@SidKemp.com to discuss more.


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 4 years ago from San Francisco

This has not at all been my internal definition of proactivity, and I find it to be most interesting. Thanks for explaining Stephen Covey's alternate spin on the term!


SidKemp profile image

SidKemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) Author

Thanks, Simone. Your comment, as usual, got me thinking, and I looked up the history of the term "proactive." It had an odd use in 1930s psychology. It's current meaning derives first from Victor Frankl, who defined a proactive person as, "'a person who took responsibility for his or her life, rather than looking for causes in outside circumstances or other people.' Frankl stressed the importance of courage, perseverance, individual responsibility and awareness of the existence of choices, regardless of the situation or context." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proactivity

Covey clearly picked up his definition from Victor Frankl. Popular usages kept the idea of thinking ahead, but reduced the definition to a narrower frame, focusing on individual problems or situations: "serving to prepare for, intervene in, or control an expected occurrence or situation, especially a negative or difficult one; anticipatory: proactive measures against crime." (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/proactive)

I am working to renew awareness of Covey's use, and also extend it a bit further into a holistic frame respecting all humanity, and cultivating the wonderful gift each and every person is to the world.


timthechirpinbyrd profile image

timthechirpinbyrd 4 years ago from Newport News, VA

Very much needed. I've been motivated since I've discovered your blogs. Thanks again.


SidKemp profile image

SidKemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) Author

Thanks, Tim! All this interest is making me think that it's time to start a new 7 Habits study group this fall.


timthechirpinbyrd profile image

timthechirpinbyrd 4 years ago from Newport News, VA

It would be a great ideal.


visionandfocus profile image

visionandfocus 4 years ago from North York, Canada

Self-awareness is so important. What I think I got out of his first chapters was that point about the space between stimulus and action. For those of us who are impulsive, trigger happy, defensive, etc., that is the greatest tip of all. It's good to be reminded of Covey's definition of being pro-active. Thanks for sharing!


SidKemp profile image

SidKemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) Author

Yes! The value of practicing the four ingredients of the Freedom to Choose every day: self-awareness; imagination, healthy use of conscience, and independent will - is inestimable. Page 71 is a center of growth and learning for all my 7 Habits clients and study groups.


visionandfocus profile image

visionandfocus 4 years ago from North York, Canada

I cracked open the book and found I had dog-eared page 71! Then again, I've dog-eared many pages of this amazing book. I like the explanation that Covey gives about how pro-active is like the opposite of reactive, and he goes on to say that reactive people have chosen to empower conditions or conditioning to control them.

However, so many people (esp. those with childhood trauma) never consciously made that choice. People who've learned before the age of 7 to act a certain way (e.g. trying to please everyone, or repressing their feelings) did so to survive, and that is strong conditioning that is very hard to overcome. I'm sure you've come across many people with deeply-conditioned limiting beliefs in your line of work. Personally, I've found that energy medicine/energy psychology is one way to get rid of such blocks. I wonder if you use these methods?


SidKemp profile image

SidKemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) Author

Yes, I've been doing energy work and energy healing for over 35 years. I work across many disciplines in my own inner work, and in my training, coaching, and group leadership. Some are from the East, such as Zen, qigong, and yoga. Others are esoteric or alternative.Others are at the edge of mainstream - I'm trained in two forms of Western therapy that work well with energy and inner healing. At the essence, I see healing as our own creativity meeting our suffering and transforming it.

I agree about those who have suffered trauma. But I disagree about those who have *not* suffered trauma. I find the majority of people who got through childhood without suffering trauma become responsive. They are not reactive, but they are also not fully proactive - they live inside the box. As Julia Cameron, author of the Artists Way, points out, often the trigger for deeper spiritual work is not goodness, but necessity. The necessity of healing trauma opens a door to a greater healing and spiritual and creative freedom.


ytsenoh profile image

ytsenoh 3 years ago from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri

Sid, thanks very much for writing this helpful hub. Since I'm a supporter in people becoming more self-aware, I appreciated this writing. I find a lot of times that people don't really really listen and don't always realize, for whatever reason, they are responsible for their sayings and doings. I know that's a general statement, but I find there's truth to it. Have a good rest of the weekend.


SidKemp profile image

SidKemp 3 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) Author

Hi Ytsenoh! You are rnight on target. I often ask people "do you know what you just said?" and they truly don't know how to be aware of the words they spoke. Awareness is the first step towards freedom and choice. If you like the theme of awareness, I think you'll also enjoy my hubs about Zen.

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