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Habit 1 is ‘Be Proactive’. Most businesses look upon that as meaning ‘anticipate events and prepare accordingly’. That’s only part of it. That is a way of being Proactive, but that isn’t what Covey meant. Here’s my take based on study and attendance at many 7H courses over time.

In the book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, this Habit was sub-titled, “The Principle of Personal Vision’ and it still is. But in later course workbooks the subtitle was changed to The Principal of Choice which I think better reflects the intent.

Be Proactive reflects the fact that as humans we have the ability to pause in the gap between stimulus (what happens to us) and our response (what we do about it). Stimuli can be prevailing circumstances or something that blindsides us. The advice is the same. But I get ahead of myself.

Being proactive requires that we recognise and utilise our ability to self-analyse, to understand ourselves and to use and change that knowledge for the better. Covey opined that we all tend to default to our social mirror, in that we reflect back to others what we think they want from us. He called that the Case of Mistaken Identity and the result of determinism, where we accept and take on characteristics of those we respect. Other psychologists call this Belong – Believe – Behave, where our desire to join a group is followed by unthinking adoption of its credo and then behaviour in accordance with that credo. Discuss the Nazi Party as an illustration.

Being Proactive essentially means overcoming that auto-response to social nurturing and deciding for ourselves what we want to be, do and have. And how we wish to live, and to be seen. In order to do that we must use our four endowments, which Covey identified as self-awareness, creative imagination, independent will and conscience. He suggests that in the gap between the aforementioned stimulus and response, then instead of just reacting instinctively, ‘the way we always have’ or according to influence, we utilise those endowments to choose our response. Or to use a Covey-ism, to act as if we are Response-Able.

When we do that we subordinate moods to our values, we do the right and better thing instead of the easiest or most convenient thing. We move towards principled living and effective success instead of just clearing the problem away only for it to come back again, harder.

Covey quotes something he said he read in a university library – I suspect he came up with it himself –  and says, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and capacity to choose our response. And in that choice lies our growth and our happiness.”

How often have I wanted to snap back at something someone has said only to think, in that space, “Is this a victory worth winning at the expense of the relationship?” – and shut the hell up.

Do you have experiences where you wish you hadn’t hurriedly done something? If you’d been proactive you might not have transgressed, and what did happen, may not have. That is how powerful this Habit can be. It stops us making mistakes.

It also means we can constantly redirect our efforts away from the convenience of ‘now’ and towards the effectiveness and success of our future. Or, as Covey and others put it, sacrificing the present for a better future.

Effective people are consistently proactive. Not in terms of anticipating trends – even that is a reaction to the data that identifies that trend. No, they are proactive in that they take a moment to make better decisions.

Tomorrow, we look at where those choices should be directed.