The 7 Habits: Be Proactive, Not Reactive

Be proactive, not reactive.
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The “be proactive not reactive meaning” is a term that has been coined by Stephen Covey. It means to be proactive and go forward with your life, rather than being reactive and waiting for things to happen.

Baseball player caught a ball while running.

We’ve chosen to reprint a vintage essay each Sunday to assist our younger readers discover some of the greatest, evergreen jewels from the past, with our archives currently totaling over 3,500 items. This story was first published in March of this year.

In the summertime, like most American boys, I played baseball. And, as corny as it may seem, my time on the field taught me some valuable life lessons. The proverb about how to field ground balls is one that has resonated with me and that I still think about.

Before you can play the ball, you must first play the ball.

As we fielded grounders, I recall my coach repeating this chant. “Before the ball plays you, play the ball!” “Play the ball before it plays you!” says the narrator.

A child’s natural instinct while learning to field a ground ball is to stay motionless until the ball comes to him. Baseballs, on the other hand, do strange things when they contact grass and soil. They alter their course and slow down. They don’t, however, go straight into your glove. Nine times out of ten, a player who waits passively for the ball to come to him will end up empty-handed.

“Play the ball before it plays you” is a command to grounders to attack the ball and seize the initiative. It’s a reminder to be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to fielding. Good fielders create plays; poor fielders just wait for the ball to make the decision.

I became a better fielder after adopting the philosophy of “play the ball before it plays you.” When I attacked a grounder instead of waiting for the ball to roll to my feet, things typically worked out better.

It wasn’t until I read Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People as a student in high school that I learned that “play the ball before it plays you” is also a good life motto.

Be proactive rather than reactive.

Stephen Covey, a writer and businessman, mapped out seven habits he thought lead to a prosperous life in his popular book. I recall being blown away by his observations when I read it as a 15-year-old youngster. As a 35-year-old guy, I’ve been re-reading the book, and Covey continues to inspire me twenty years later. Talk about perseverance.

I’m having so much fun re-reading the book that I’ve decided to undertake a monthly series summarizing, elaborating, and commenting on each of the seven habits.

Today, we’ll start with the first habit Covey discusses in the book, which serves as the basis for all the others: Be Proactive.

Being proactive is a way of looking at the world. It necessitates a person accepting responsibility for his or her position (however grave) and taking steps to improve things. Instead of allowing their surroundings and circumstances to dictate their judgments, proactive individuals use their beliefs guide their decisions. People that are proactive take action rather than waiting to be acted upon.


People who are proactive are the ones who play the ball before it plays them.

Even when his options are limited, a proactive individual will find ways to exercise his agency.

Covey mentions existential psychiatrist Viktor Frankl as a prime example of being proactive even when it seems that all of your autonomy has been taken away from you. He and his family were sent to concentration camps in Austria as Jews during WWII, when they were subjected to systemized, soul-crushing brutality. With the exception of him and his sister, everyone in Frankl’s family was either killed in the gas chambers or perished as a result of the camp’s harsh circumstances.

However, it was amid these dreadful conditions that Frankl received a life-changing realization. Despite the fact that he had lost all of his fundamental liberties, the guards could never take away his ability to adapt to his surroundings.

Poster of proactive mindset.

“There is a gap between stimuli and reaction. “Our capacity to determine our reaction resides in that space,” said Frankl in his famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Death, deprivation, and brutality were among the everyday stressors Frankl faced. The natural reaction to such stimuli would seem to be to give up and lose hope. However, Frankl noticed that stimulus and reaction were not welded together in the concentration camp. There was an omission. There was a decision to be made.

As a result, Frankl deviated from the standard reaction. He went with hope. He made the decision to assist his fellow inmates. He made the decision not to resent his captors. He made the decision to find purpose in his pain.

Frankl’s life is an illustrative example of what it means to be proactive.

Poster of reactive mindset.

The stimulus and reaction are “welded” together in the minds of reactive persons.

A reactive person is the polar opposite of a proactive person. People that are reactive let their surroundings and events to dominate them. People who are reactive believe that stimuli and reaction are closely linked. They are oblivious to the distinction between the two, believing that one dictates the other. As a result, if the weather is bad, a reactive person will be in a bad mood as well. When a reactive person receives unfavorable criticism, they feel irritated and defensive. When a reactive person gets the short end of the stick, he complains rather than looking for methods to gain more.

People that are reactive don’t act; they are acted upon. Reactive individuals allow life to play them instead of playing the game.

Concern and Influence Circles

Re-reading The chapter on being proactive by Covey convicted me because it showed me that I still have a long way to go in terms of being a less reactive guy. I know that the bad moods I have from time to time and the anxieties I have on a daily basis are the consequence of being reactive rather than proactive in the face of life’s problems, yet I still find myself using reactive language everytime I confront a problem:

“I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do…”

“I have a melancholy demeanor. “It’s simply how I’m wired…”


“Well, the reason I’m experiencing this issue is because [insert name] is such a jerk…”

I often consider stimulus and reaction as inextricably linked. I don’t recognize the room that exists for me to select how I will react.

Covey, on the other hand, offers a mental model that may assist people who are reactive think and act more proactively. The Circles of Concern and Influence are what they’re called.

Poster about circle of concern and influence.

Imagine a circle in which you place all of your worries: your health, your work prospects, your children, your money, and so on. Anything that causes you to be concerned or keeps you up at night. Even the little details. This is the area in which you should be concerned.

Consider drawing a circle inside the Circle of Concern. You place the worries that you have some or total control over within the circle. Yes, your financial position may make you sick to your stomach, but there are things you can do about it, such as cut down on spending or request a raise. This is what your Circle of Influence looks like.

Some items will stay in your Circle of Concern rather than your Circle of Influence. You have no control over the weather, your luck, or your body’s ability to avoid cancer, and you have little control over other people’s choices.

What distinguishes reactive individuals from proactive ones, according to Covey, is which circle they spend the most time, attention, and energy in. Reactive individuals pay greater attention to the things in their Circle of Concern – the things over which they have little or no control. The consequences are psychologically draining; as Covey points out, “blaming and accusing attitudes, reactive language, and increasing emotions of victimhood” arise from this concentration.

Poster about circle of concern and influence with reactive focus.

Your Circle of Influence diminishes while you concentrate on your Circle of Concern.

Not only does concentrating entirely on your Circle of Concern make you feel worthless, but the sensation of powerlessness that results causes your Circle of Influence to shrink. You spend so much time and energy worrying about things you don’t have control over that you get paralyzed and fail to act on the ones you do have control over.

On the other side, proactive individuals devote more time to their Circle of Influence. When you concentrate on the things you can influence, you’ll see that your activities have an impact on the world, which is powerful. That sense of empowerment motivates you to take more action, which in turn motivates you to feel more powerful, which in turn motivates you to take more action.

Poster about circle of concern and influence with proactive focus.

It grows when you concentrate on your Circle of Influence.

Focusing on your Circle of Influence generates a virtuous cycle of activity that not only results in good change for the objects that were initially in that Circle, but also expands the scope of what may be included inside it. You develop competence as you do more actions. Increased competence also permits you to make a greater impact on the world. Things that were previously just in your Circle of Concern are now in your Circle of Influence. Concentrating on your Circle of Influence can help you expand it.


The Circles of Concern and Influence is a compelling mental model because it encapsulates a fact that Stoic philosophers wrote about thousands of years ago and that cognitive psychologists have been testing in laboratories and clinics for the last several decades.

Life was ruled by a Dichotomy of Control for the Stoics. There are things over which you have no control (Circle of Concern) and those over which you have partial or total control (Circle of Influence). The Stoic follower seeks to accept the truth of the former while concentrating his attention on the latter in order to live a decent, serene, and thriving existence.

What the Stoics and Dr. Covey taught has been proven by modern cognitive scientists. We get stressed when we concentrate on things over which we have no control. During times of uncertainty, a little stress might help to prepare your mind and body for performance. However, if you’re always freaked out about uncertainty, bad things start to happen in your brain, leading to a vicious cycle of reactive anxiety. Chronic stress may lead your amygdala — your brain’s warning system — to enlarge, making you more sensitive and reactive to your surroundings and hence more subject to anxiety, rage, and terror. Furthermore, persistent stress may impair executive function, making it difficult to distinguish between real and fake dangers. Furthermore, persistent stress reduces the generation of dopamine, which our brains need to remain motivated to perform.

In a sense, concentrating on your Circle of Concern expands it while shrinking your Circle of Influence. The stress that comes from focusing all of your energy and attention on your Circle of Concern primes your brain to perceive more problems than solutions, diminishes your capacity to discern what is and isn’t within your control, and dampens your willingness to take action on the things you can control. It’s a never-ending circle.

What Can You Do to Be More Proactive?

As someone who is prone to focusing on his Circle of Concern, I can attest to how difficult it is to resist this inclination and concentrate on the Circle of Influence. Genetics is most likely to blame for a big portion of it. By nature, I’m a bit neurotic and pessimistic. Other members of my family are as well. We’re worriers who get down easily and imagine the worst-case situation.

While I can’t do much about my temperament, it doesn’t imply I have no influence over how I respond to the environment around me; there is still a gap between stimulus and reaction. It may take me longer to notice the gap and take action than it would for someone who is less neurotic, but it is possible.

Here are a few things that have helped me in adopting a more proactive outlook on life:

Determine what’s in your Circles of Influence and Concern. Make a note of all the things that are bothering you. For a good 10 minutes, mentally dump all of your anxieties into paper. Your Circle of Concern is represented by this list.


Take a break and then return to your to-do list. Ask yourself, one by one, “Do I have any control over it?” It is possible that the impact will be little. “Send an email asking guidance on X problem,” for example. Although you may not get a response, it is a step you can do to affect the result. Put it on your Circle of Affect list if you can influence the outcome of anything (even if it’s in a little manner). If you’re having problems coming up with ideas for this list, consult a buddy. If you have a tendency to dwell on the bad, having someone with a more proactive attitude on life show you how you do have power over things in your Circle of Concern might be beneficial.

This practice should demonstrate to you that you have more power over your life than you believe.

Keep your language in check. Watch your language for reactive or proactive words, according to Covey, to have a more proactive and less reactive approach to life. The way you talk affects the way you view the world. You’ll be more reactive if the majority of your language is reactive. You’ll be more proactive if it’s proactive.

Here are a few reactive phrases to keep an eye out for:

  • I’m powerless to help.
  • That’s simply how I’m wired.
  • He irritates me to no end.
  • That isn’t going to happen.
  • That is something I must do.
  • I can’t.
  • I must.
  • If only.

Replace one of these reactionary statements with a proactive one whenever you find yourself saying it:

  • Let’s have a look at our options.
  • I have the option of taking a different strategy.
  • I have power over how I react to this.
  • I make the decision.
  • That is what I prefer.
  • I will.

This is a sort of cognitive behavioral therapy, according to Covey. This approach is comparable to an exercise in changing your “explanatory style” that we discussed in our resilience series. It takes some effort, but adjusting your words may help you shift your perspective.

Take action now (no matter how small). While altering your perspective and language might help, taking action is the most effective way to acquire a more proactive attitude. You’ll begin to demonstrate yourself that you can have an impact on the world as you take action, which will create a virtuous cycle of proactivity.

Examine your sphere of influence. What action can you take to help one of its items travel in the right direction? It is not necessary for your activities to be large. They shouldn’t even be that large. When confronted with an issue, break it down into the smallest pieces feasible and attack each one separately. It makes the situation more clear and less intimidating.

Those are some of the things that have helped me in the past. Perhaps they’ll work for you as well.

Before you can play the ball, you must first play the ball.

Act instead of being acted upon.

Be proactive rather than reactive.

Listen to my interview with Stephen’s son on his father’s well-known principles: 



Read Throughout the Series

  1. Be proactive rather than reactive.
  2. Starting with the end in mind is a good way to go.
  3. Prioritize your efforts.
  4. Consider a win-win situation.
  5. Seek first to comprehend, then to be understood.
  6. Synergy is when two or more things work together (Beyond the Eye-Rolling Buzzword)
  7. Make the Saw Sharper

Make the Saw Sharper

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People concepts and figures



The “be proactive 7 habits” is a book written by Stephen Covey. It’s about how to be proactive instead of reactive. The author believes that if you are proactive, then you will live a happier life.

Frequently Asked Questions

What habit is be proactive as opposed to reactive?

A: If someone says they are proactive, it means that they plan ahead and try to do whats best for them by being in control. This generally involves looking at the big picture.

How can I be proactive and not reactive?

A: A proactive person usually takes the initiative to do things that will benefit them in the future, such as saving money for a goal or making healthy choices. Reactive people dont think about what theyre doing and often feel bad when problems pop up.

What does proactive not reactive mean?

A: Proactive means acting before there is a need to react, while reactive implies the opposite.

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