The Choice Is Yours: Using Proactivity To Live Effectively
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
― Viktor E. Frankl
Can we actively create our ideal lives, or are we simply byproducts of biological phenomena and events out of our control? Do we have the ability to transcend our genetic profile and current socioeconomic standing?
Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, originally believed in determinism, that socioeconomic and biological factors determine our entire destiny. His experience recovering from physical abuse and treating others for depressive symptoms in concentration camps in the Holocaust led him to conclude that we have the ability to actively choose our response to the stimuli in our lives, to live proactively, unlike animals who act primarily based on instinct and emotion. Understanding and applying this concept to our lives will enable us to effectively manage and grapple with our deepest challenges—from academic to emotional difficulties— accomplishing our most meaningful, fulfilling goals.
Proactivity underpins effective living. As a principle, it states that we can consciously make decisions from a place of control and reason, creating and living our ideal lives; proactivity implores us to “happen to life,” not to “let life happen” to us. This principle differs from reactivity: passively responding to one’s environment. More specifically, reactivity engenders a sense of helplessness, a victim mindset, which convinces one that she cannot effect change in her life.
However, reactivity does not coincide with one's psycho-behavioral ability, for we have the ability to choose the way in which we respond to the various events in our lives. In Man's Search for Meaning, Frankl describes the emotionally unsettling experience he and his Jewish brethren had in concentration camps in Germany, where he studied and treated many of his fellow prisoners for depressive symptoms.
After suffering a beating from a prison guard in the shower, Frankl sat alone, unclothed on the floor. He initially felt helpless, for he suffered physical domination by the security guard and could not change his current circumstances. The Holocaust had taken almost everything away from him—from the brutal death of his wife to the confiscation of his research plans, his life’s work.
But he then realized that he still had his free will, something that the Nazis, or anyone for that matter, could never take from him. Thus, Frankl posits that a gap lies between a given stimulus and our response; we have the capability to actively determine our course of action after the occurrence of a given event.
According to Frankl, we can use proactivity in many areas of our lives: Prior to choosing to drop out of a stressful university course or ending a relationship, we can consider ways to analyze the scenario instead of merely responding emotionally, which may wreak havoc on our social and emotional lives.
Thinking Proactively: A Scenario
If I live in an apartment above a fast-food restaurant, I could react to the delicious smells of unhealthy goods that waft into my home by purchasing and eating large quantities thereof. In this scenario, I am helpless; I cannot control my urges for fast food. The sumptuous smells of baked or fried goods overwhelm me; I give in, I react.
But a more proactive alternative course of action exists. According to Frankl, I can choose another response, such as learning to tolerate my desire to eat junk food without acting on it or finding healthier alternatives instead of following my natural tendencies.
Such tactics require rational thinking, which proves nearly impossible if our emotions are too high. When we are too anxious, the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls emotion, takes over the part of the brain that controls reason. So in a sense, we are literally physically helpless, at least in that state, according to many psychologists.
Instead of letting our emotions run our lives, we can lower our anxiety to help us think rationally by using mindfulness techniques such as recognizing our high emotions and lowering our anxiety through deep breathing.
As Stephen Covey states in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, our language can indicate whether our thoughts are primarily proactive or reactive: Reactive language usually indicates a perception of inability or incompetence; proactive language often indicates a recognition of one’s ability to determine the direction of her life.
The list below compares the differences between commonly used reactive and proactive language. Each reactive phrase has a more proactive alternative below it. Using proactive language can help us mindfully work toward becoming more proactive, for we will indirectly sensitize ourselves to the importance of proactivity, which will affect the way that we see ourselves and the world in which we live.
“I can’t do this”
“I give up”
“I am going to re-analyze my options”
“I’m going to change my strategy”
“I don’t know the future; I can only affect what I can”
“I am in control of my actions”
The Benefits of Proactive Living
We will eventually expand the areas over which we have control in our lives as a result of practicing proactivity. If I have difficulty with math, for example, I will feel less discouraged when I realize that I have the ability to choose my course of action instead of reacting emotionally when I have difficulty solving a given equation. Instead of running away from my issues with math, I can choose a more beneficial response, such as spending more time trying to understand the concepts or meeting with the teacher or a friend to receive extra help. Like a muscle that gets progressively stronger throughout a weight-training program, our ability to behave proactively depends on how often we engage in such modes of thinking.
Proactivity in Action: Three Exercises to Improve Your Proactivity Today
Try implementing one of the following three steps to help you live proactively in your life; and it will most definitely help you improve your ability to make more effective decisions and achieve your goals more efficiently.
1.) Identify three scenarios in your life where you usually behave reactively. Devise at least two proactive ways of looking at the scenario, and a plan to remind yourself to behave proactively. Try to think and behave proactively in these scenarios for three weeks.
2.) Check in with yourself and label your anxiety three times per day—before breakfast, lunch, and dinner for thirty days. At each check-in, ask yourself how you can behave more proactively.
3.) Choose one particular area of difficulty in your life and think of how adopting a more proactive view will help you succeed in that area in the near future.