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How to reduce your reactivity and work more proactively

Many of us feel like we are working under the constant pressure of urgent issues and deadlines. We feel like we have little control over our time and our priorities, and that we must work reactively to stay in the game.

But if we stop and examine what is really happening with our work when we are in reactive mode, we might find that the problem is not just environmental, it is behavioural. Sure, our environment and culture does dictate to a degree how reactive our roles might be. But to say that the problem is purely environmental is to become a victim of urgency.  If we want to rise above the tyranny of urgency, we need to make a stand and take control. Reactivity is a choice, and fortunately, so is proactivity. If we are to develop a less reactive and more proactive workstyle, we need to understand what causes us to be reactive in the first place, and the simple behaviours we can shift to create a better approach to our work.

First–minute reactivity

When we do things in the first minute, we are usually reacting to things such as email alerts, ringing phones or physical interruptions. These things are often not actually urgent, but we react anyway because they are immediate and persistent. Think about a ringing phone — it is hard to ignore. Emails are an especially intrusive and distracting form of incoming work, and I believe they are responsible in part for the dramatic rise of urgency in the workplace.

Over the last two decades, as email has become more and more prevalent, we have developed poor habits around it that have us working more reactively than we should for no good reason. We tell ourselves that we are keeping things moving, and that we are working efficiently by responding quickly, but the reality is that while we might be efficient, we are not being effective.

Add to this the distraction and pull of our always present mobile devices, and you have a perfect storm of interruption and distraction. This all drives a sense of urgency that is not real. But it is destructive. And it is self-inflicted.

If you suffer from first-minute reactivity, try turning off email alerts on your PC and phone as a start. Break the cycle of mindless reactivity that email has created for us. And while you are at it, stop using your Inbox as your main screen when at your computer. Put a daily plan in place each morning and make that your dashboard for the day. Finally, always measure new ‘urgent’ priorities against your existing priorities, and make sure the opportunity cost of switching your focus is worth it.


Last-minute reactivity

We can also spend too much time working on things at the last minute if we are not careful. For instance, we might have emails that we look at but leave to deal with later. But once that email gets buried by newer ones, there is a risk that it will slip through the cracks. That is, until someone has to chase us for the response a week later when it has become urgent. We then need to drop what we were doing to deal with the urgent item, derailing our priorities for the day and possibly putting unnecessary pressure on others.

This is a very common workstyle; in fact, some people revel in this way of working. They say that they don’t bother to do things until they are urgent enough. And they don’t mind the increased pressure or stress, and in some ways enjoy it. The behaviour of leaving things until the last minute, either because you procrastinate or you are not organised just increases mistakes, rework and stress for you and those around you.

Work in the proactive zone

Rather than doing things the minute they come in, or leaving them until the last minute, you (and your team) will be far less reactive if you work in the proactive zone. This requires you to evaluate incoming work, consider the deadline, then consider you capacity and availability, and schedule time to work on the task somewhere between now and the due date. This could mean you block out time in your calendar or schedule a task for a specific day or week. But it does not mean that you just put it in a pile with everything else!

Remember, industries are not reactive. Organisations are not reactive. It is individuals that cause reactivity most of the time. The buck stops with you.

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Dermot Crowley
Dermot Crowley is one of Australia’s leading productivity thought leaders, director of Adapt Productivity, and author of Urgent!, Smart Work and Smart Teams. Dermot Crowley is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on LinkedIn.