Proactive vs reactive

In today’s ping-pong world of global teams and connections, zillions of emails, Twitter feeds and Facebook updates, just keeping from falling off the treadmill can feel like success.

It might be worth checking, every now and again, how much time you spend being reactive or proactive, meaning:


  • Reading things you’re copied on
  • Responding to email threads
  • Attending standing meetings
  • Reading something “interesting” (article, etc) someone sent you
  • Doing something your boss asked you to do
  • Anything you do on Facebook or Twitter if you’re not there for a very specific reason (e.g. communicating with your customers)


  • Initiating a conversation
  • Reaching out to a customer
  • Tweaking something to make it better
  • Taking a mundane task and doing something surprising, or even beautiful, with it
  • Sharing a crazy idea, and then get to work on it

The surprising thing isn’t that reactive outweighs proactive, the surprising thing is that we can go through a whole day doing nothing proactive at all and still feel like we’re working.

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Bonus: fun feature from The Atlantic Wire on Maria Popova’s (@brainpicker) media diet, with other links to the likes of Ann Coulter, Chris Matthews, Malcolm Gladwell, David Brooks, Chris Anderson, and many more.

All of them read like crazy, and all of them are very deliberate about delineating between what/when they read and what/when they produce.

7 thoughts on “Proactive vs reactive

  1. There’s a fine line between “doing” and “feeling like you’re doing” though. That line is extremely tricky, especially when we start looking into what Steven Pressfield refers to as the Resistance.

    So how do you know when you’re really doing what needs to be done? How do you know when you’re not wasting creative energy? To answer those questions I recently wrote a blog post about the very topic. Take a look if you’re interested (and have the time/dedication to get back to work after):

  2. Tanner, thanks for your comment and for your post. I would have commented directly on your post but commenting seems to be turned off. I agree with you, it’s important to step back and figure out when you’re most productive, when your energy is greatest for creative work. I found it interesting that all the posts about peoples’ media diets showed that they knew when they were most productive.

    There’s one thing that I disagreed with somewhat, though – the idea that our energy (creative or otherwise) is finite. It may be the case, but as you allude to, sometimes we find ourselves in the zone, sometimes we think we’ll work for 20 minutes and two hours fly by…so of course our energy and ability to produce great work may be much greater than we think it is, and the mental model of “finite resources” may hem us in and limit us unnecessarily.

  3. Great topic, Sasha. I always hate that slow, creeping feeling at the end of a day when I realize…wait…it’s the end of the day and I feel like I’ve done absolutely nothing. Being proactive takes a little more imagination and effort than always JUST reacting, but afterwards, it’s always so much more rewarding. I think of it as going to the gym: the hardest part is just making time, motivating yourself, and getting there – the GYM part is the easy part.

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