Being Proactive – The Essential Soft Skill

In 2011 I learnt a very valuable lesson. In fact, I think it may have been the defining point in my career and one that set me off on a much more proactive methodology about my work.

I can remember it like it was yesterday because it’s the point where I felt like a complete failure. I laid in my bed sobbing for days because I decided to call time on my failing business.

I started up a business selling used cars, the same as my dad had done which made him a hugely successful man. Unfortunately, it was just before the recession hit after the banks had collapsed. People were not spending money and certainly not buying cars, so it wasn’t easy at all.

We kept it stumbling along for 3 years until I decided that this wasn’t going to work. But as I laid sobbing and reflecting, I started to realise that it wasn’t the recession and the banks that were to blame for the failure of my business. It was, in fact, me.

I was so depressed in my work and with things out of my control that I sat back and let everything happen. I didn’t really try to influence anything. I was lazy, indecisive, self-centred and ineffective. It was me that blew the opportunity.

So, there were 2 lessons I learnt –

  1. Do something you love
  2. Be Proactive

A story about being proactive

The lazy mouse and the industrious mouse

There’s a great story about being proactive that I first heard during one of Ricky Gervais’ stand ups about the lazy mouse and the industrious mouse told in a much more humerous way that I ever could.

It was summertime and there were two mice living near one another. The lazy mouse was loving life in the sun, stuffing his face with berries, chilling out, sunbathing, thinking the food will last forever. The industrious mouse was much more proactive. Sure, he would eat but he also knew there were colder times ahead. So, he ate berries but then he also worked hard store them away instead of chilling and sunbathing.

Autumn came and still the lazy mouse would be having a few berries, kicking about the autumn leaves, not a care in the world. The industrious mouse was much more conservative gathering up the last of the berries putting them in his store.

By the time winter came around, the ground was hard, it was tough to travel around and there was no food anywhere. The lazy mouse had nothing stored away, he travelled through the freezing cold hard ground and couldn’t find a thing to eat eventually dying. The industrious mouse had an abundance of berries, he didn’t need to travel anywhere in the cold hard ground. He lived a comfortable winter and was ready for the following spring.

The proactive mouse survived!

6 steps to being more proactive and more productive at work

1. Set yourself a goal

How do you know how to apply yourself when you don’t know where you’re going? You need to have a plan. Where do you see yourself in 2-5-10 years from now? Set yourself a goal to hit and don’t be shy to stretch yourself. ‘Shoot for the stars and if you fall, you’ll land on the clouds’. By knowing where you’re going, you’ll know the steps to get there.

2. Take responsibility

If you want to be proactive you can’t sit around blaming the world around, you for your situation or life. Something I was doing while running my business in the motor industry. ‘It’s the recession’ I used to tell myself, ‘Not much I can do about it’. Be sure there is always something that you can do. A basic example, if it’s cold outside you put extra layers on to make you warmer. You can’t control the weather, but you can control how it will affect you. So, take responsibility for your future self.

3. Develop a thirst for knowledge

Proactive people will fill their spare time by being curious and asking questions. When I worked as an agency body just after I lost the car business, cleaning machinery parts, I used to follow the engineering team gathering extra knowledge ready for the next step in my career.

I could have sat scrolling through my phone but this new proactive me was looking to the future. I also started to be more aware of the time I wasted scrolling through my phone or binge watching tv series such as Breaking Bad (a brilliant series but too many of them wasn’t helping my cause). What would happen if I filled a bit of that time reading non-fiction and developing knowledge?

4. Get involved

Those things that you used to run away from because you couldn’t be bothered, or you were too lazy to get involved. Well now it’s time for a U-turn. Get involved in projects, ask your peers for parts in projects, involve yourself in discussions if you have insight. Not only will you make better relationships you will gain extra knowledge and skills.

Whilst I love interacting with all types of people, I never really used to get involved for fear there were better people than me but once you start getting involved it’s amazing to realise how much you can contribute.

5. Clear your diary of meaningless activities

Scrolling through pointless social media posts, meaningless TikTok videos, watching a news story about someone finding treasure in a canal, conversations of the viscosity of the workplace hand soap. These are time wasting activities that you need to clear from your day to day. Substitute this time for planning, relationship building, creative thinking.

6. Stay positive

It’s an easy thing to say but positivity is the key to staying proactive. Surround yourself with positive people. Read some tips on my other post about a positive mindset. Keep yourself motivated and remember you will experience failures, but it is all part of the learning process. Don’t let it take you off course from your goals.

Proactive vs Reactive

The most influential book I have read and the one that set me on a course to eventually started this blog is Stephen Covey’s 7 habits of effective people. If you haven’t read it. Stop now, head over to Amazon and get yourself a copy. He explains a concept called the circle of influence and circle of concern. Something I have recited to my team so many times since I first read as it really struck a visual chord with me.

Circle of Concern vs Circle of Influence

So imagine the outer circle as your full allocation of time, it’s 24 hours or maybe even the time you are awake. The great thing about life is we get to choose how we spend our time. Now do we choose to fill out circle of concern or circle of influence?

The circle of concern is time spent on things that you have no control of. The weather, the news, the things celebrities post on social media, politics – you get the point. Things that take up your time that really you can’t influence (unless you’re a president or world leader).

Then there’s the circle of influence, the relationships you have, the skills you learn, the books you write, the people you teach. All things that you have control over that make you more influential, effective, and ultimately more fulfilled. Proactive people have a large circle of influence compared with their circle of concern. That’s not to say they don’t have a circle of concern, but these people seem to get a lot done in short space of time. They read books, get work completed efficiently, manage to get to the gym 3/4 times a week and have a good social life.

Reactive people have a large circle of concern they fill their time up with things out of their control, reactive people generally wait for things to happen before they make a decision on something. This can lead poor data analysis, not having all the facts, limited resource availability, pressured environments and more stress.

Think of it that a reactive person spends every penny and more that comes into their bank account. A proactive person is saving money for a rainy day or to get into the property ladder.

There’s a lot to be said for being a proactive person. Those who you think seem to have time for everything are just very good at being proactive. Being more proactive was the turning point in my career, and an essential soft skill for career success in any industry. Set yourself a goal, one not too far in the future and one maybe longer term so you have the motivation to be more proactive. Take responsibility for your situation, develop a thirst for knowledge, get involved, clear your diary of meaningless tasks and be sure to stay positive. Keep visually that circle of influence better bigger and the circle of concern getting smaller.


One response to “Being Proactive – The Essential Soft Skill”

  1. Another well written piece, not enough of us realise that you yourself can change your direction if what you’re doing isn’t working. What is important is knowing what you want. Not as easy an answer as you might think.


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