How to Plan Ahead so that You’re Proactive Rather than Reactive

Jan 4, 2021

Elizabeth Houghton

Sutton Full Potential Founder

Do you react to events occurring around you or do you anticipate events and act to control them? That’s the difference between being reactive and acting proactively, and it matters a great deal at work and in life.

It is easy to slip into ‘comfort mode’, a feeling that if things are going smoothly now, the good run will continue. There are also those moments, the red flags and warning signs that tell you to look ahead.

Say you have a list of tasks to do every day. You begin them at 9 am., and submit them by 6 pm. Your supervisor emails you this list early morning or the day before. You’re at your desk by 8.45 AM to prioritise your day’s work. In the past two weeks, you’ve been asked to meet tight morning deadlines, such as wrapping up a task by 10 AM. To get a head start, you might need to start your workday earlier and plan the rest your day a bit differently.

This adjustment is easy for most, and just one example of the variability in your work routine that you must accept at your current job. And because it will affect the other things you’ve made time for, you should be able to work things around, ensuring that you’re not feeling stressed out or unable to meet other commitments.

However, you can be caught off balance confronting a big change at work. You may then have to make a choice between rearranging your daily life or moving to a different role or company to preserve the routine that brings you satisfaction and peace of mind.

Three Steps to Planning Ahead

Predict how an event may unfold

To be proactive, you need to be able to reasonably predict future outcomes. Foresight is important to understand what is likely to happen. It is an innate human ability, but must be nurtured to make a difference in your life.

Here’s what applying foresight means:

  • Using logic to anticipate a future outcome
  • Creating multiple scenarios of the future
  • Imagining how you might feel and act in those situations

When faced with a challenge, inspect it. What is its immediate impact on you, and how might it reasonably affect you in the future? Stay on top of the change, seeing how it unfolds.

Evaluate your options

Find ways to overcome the challenge before it becomes too overwhelming to handle. You never have to get to a point where the problem becomes unbearable if you’ve already done something about it early on. This could mean the following:

  • Adapting to the evolving environment
  • Emerging out of an environment that no longer serves your needs

Accepting change and moving on as long as you won’t feel terribly unhappy or unmotivated if you continue, is a safe option. It’s easier to know what you want and where you can thrive if you know who you are. Compromises are a part and parcel of everyday life, but when they go against your value system and make you miserable or otherwise affect your productivity or motivation, you should consider moving on.

Make a plan

Knowing what to do takes time. Resist the temptation to take impulsive decisions. Be mindful of how you’re feeling in-the-moment as you deal with uncertainty.

The advantage of a proactive mindset is that it buys you time to lay the foundation of a plan. Say you’ve been wanting to switch to a new job but never got around to acting on it. Then, suddenly the world is engulfed in a crisis and companies are freezing hiring. Your opportunities have halved, you’re cautious now and thinking that you’d better wait out the hiring lull.

Regrets start to set in. The crisis was unavoidable and beyond your control. But you had every chance to transition to a better place, yet weren’t proactive about it. You never created a plan and you’ve lost precious time.

The drive to start planning increases when you:

  • accept that a chain of interlinked events must be activated for a final outcome;
  • visualise the change you want to bring in and how it will impact your life; and
  • try to gain clarity about where you might end up if you postpone planning.

Not everything you predict may actualise but the point of being proactive is to have a plan that allows you to adapt to or get out of the ‘new normal’ quickly. In contrast, ignoring the first signs of change can create more pressure and even a sense of hopelessness later on. You will then inevitably react to the change that has been unfolding all this while. It can be in the form of resistance, or a hasty move because now the problem appears too big to solve.

What does a proactive job search look like?

One of the areas where being proactive pays off is making the leap to a more satisfying, higher-paying job. When there’s very little opportunity for career advancement within your organisation, or when you’ve had one too many ‘expectation vs reality’ moments six months into your new job, tunnelling work on your ‘escape route’ should begin!

  1. Shortlist companies that interest you. Talk to friends and friends of friends who work at these companies. Get opinions from LinkedIn contacts employed at the chosen companies. Do you see yourself working there?
  2. See if these contacts can provide an introduction to hiring managers. Those with influence may help you get a foot in the door, so don’t hesitate to reach out. The conversations are easier when you’ve been active on LinkedIn or helped people from your professional or social circle in the past.
  3. You can also identify hiring managers in your area, check the LinkedIn groups they’ve joined and the professional forums on which they participate. Showcase your expertise in these groups and forums.
  4. Build connections with decision-makers online. Although relationship-building takes time, the reliable contacts you make today can be useful for a lifetime – as long as you’ve been proactive in maintaining those relationships!

What being proactive at work entails

All employees are valuable, it’s just that some are more valuable than others. This distinction comes into sharp focus when management needs to groom future leaders or make the difficult decision to layoff some of the workforce. Contributing to your organisation is more than meeting the requirements of your role. If you aspire to grow within your company, you must show that you can exert influence, be an active problem-solver, and demonstrate a high level of accountability.

Here are five ways to hone and demonstrate these qualities:

  1. Engage and work well with others: Even politicians have to work across the aisle to achieve consensus and pass bills. In a corporate environment, it’s far easier to have a positive attitude and build as many mutually-beneficial bonds as possible. The assurance that at least some people are in your corner will help you stay confident and calm in stressful work situations.
  2. Act on feedback: The goal of constructive criticism is performance improvement. Working on what you lack also builds confidence, removes fear of not being able to meet expectations, and may inform you where your true talents lie. If you’ve tried to improve and hit your milestones, you win. If you struggle to make a breakthrough, maybe you need more time or your talent is more apt for a different work requirement or responsibility.
  3. Be open to participation: We tend to act impulsively when we don’t have a full understanding of an issue. Learning and more importantly – participating in voluntary meetings or creative side projects at work can introduce you to new perspectives, give you facts that you may have missed, and help you understand a problem in finer detail. You can then work on the problem with an objective mindset and the information needed to realise the desired outcome (ex: resolve conflict) or reach a logical conclusion (ex: end a contract with a troublesome client).
  4. Document your ideas and processes: What have you done so far that has or hasn’t worked? What else can you pursue to solve the problem or make a change? A record of efforts serves as a handy reference when you’re confronted by something you’ve overcome in the past or a new type of challenge. You can make the most of the limited time to focus on solutions that have a high chance of success, and avoid taking a reactive approach to problem-solving.
  5. Don’t over-commit: It’s never a good idea to have your hands full with tasks that leave little time for the things that really matter. A balance between what you must do in your role and what to delegate, creates the time you need to future-proof operations and draft other future-focused plans.

Possible reasons why you may be reactive

Feelings of anger, insecurity, anxiety or confusion – among other negative mental or emotional states – can trigger responses that you may regret later. Most often, the unempowering emotions are temporary and you can move past them with proven solutions like mental distractions, physical movement, getting fresh air or not committing to anything then and there (ex: “I’ll think about it”).

This is different from being reactive in making decisions related to your career or personal life. Unfortunately, it is easy to get comfortable and not think enough about planning ahead. It could be due to three main reasons:

  • You’re a procrastinator! The more you put off goals, the harder it is to feel motivated and come up with a plan that puts you on the path to success.
  • You’re unorganised. Mental and/or physical clutter dims motivation to pursue planning in a dedicated manner. You may sputter and halt, never coming around to making a solid plan.
  • You lack self-discipline. Being proactive means staying on the ball and – if need be – on your toes! You need to act when an opportunity presents itself and follow through to get to where you want to be.

Do an assessment every couple of months

Take stock of your career every six months or so. Are you engaged at work? What achievements are you most proud of? Are you willing to continue with the personal sacrifices you’ve made so far? A self-assessment can bring harsh truths to light, helping you carve a more satisfying present or future. You will have enough information to begin planning ahead. This approach can be used in other ways, such as planning a new project with multiple variables and a big team.

Of course, the point of the assessment is to encourage action. Go for it and get in the groove. Every bit of progress you make will motivate you to keep moving and inculcate proactivity into your personality.

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