Why You Should Be More Proactive and Less Reactive, and How to Do SoAUTHOR: Francisco Sáez
"I think that whenever you feel reactive or are being reactive as opposed to proactive, that inherently - consciously or subconsciously - creates a lot of stress." ~ Tim Ferriss
The human brain uses a proactive system and a reactive system to deal with the different tasks that are imposed on us on a daily basis. The proactive system uses fluid intelligence to connect the dots of the moving parts that make up each challenge and come up with an appropriate plan of action. On the other hand, the reactive system is quick to reorient itself when the challenge is immediate, urgent, or catches you off guard, and needs to solve problems quickly in seemingly new situations.
Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner in Economics for his research on how the human brain makes decisions, calls these systems System 1 and System 2. System 1 is reactive, operates quickly and automatically, and requires little effort. System 2 performs mental activities that require effort and we use it to give a thoughtful response to a stimulus.
The reactive system can be very useful in situations where there is real danger. In fact, its development has allowed us to survive as a species for thousands of years. It’s also useful if you train it for quick responses in certain situations, something that, for example, is done in high-performance sport.
Reactive thinking is also our way of creating habits: instead of having to decide what to do next, we can tap into our reactive instincts and act automatically. In a way, it’s a form of externalizing control and decision making.
The problem with reactive thinking is that habits and reactions can become so automatic that they dominate our judgment. In the average person’s day-to-day life, the overuse of reactive thinking is associated with anxiety and low levels of concentration. Reacting to things in haste, without thinking and without making the effort to elaborate a planned response is the ideal recipe for poor performance and low productivity when doing any job.
If you have that feeling of always being busy, of having lots and lots of things to do, you are probably overusing reactive thinking.
There are different cognitive therapies to make a person’s habitual behavior more proactive and less reactive.
According to cognitive psychology, the most effective thing to do is to get used to creating mental images of what you expect to see. It’s about mentally narrating your own experience when something happens, so that your brain creates mental models to solve the problem. When you do this you calm reactive thinking, and the proactive system takes over.
The GTD personal management methodology (Getting Things Done) establishes the mental structure needed to eliminate reactive thinking and help you manage your attention properly.
It is a five-step work method: capture, clarify, organize, reflect and do. The first two stages are the key to eliminating reactive thinking. Just separating these stages of thinking and doing them at different times is enough to make your brain “cool things down”.
The first stage, capture, consists of noting down anything that happens to think about it later, without stopping what you’re doing at the moment. You react to the new thing by storing it and cooling it down, but without acting on it. What you’ve captured is stored in one place waiting to be cleared at another time. This will be the second stage, clarify, in which you must imagine the desired outcome and define well the action (or actions) that will get you there.
The reason GTD is called “the art of stress-free productivity” is that it’s an organizational method that establishes the mental structure needed to cool down thinking and respond to things with the right level of reaction.