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We all know the pattern.
You get into work . . . you boot up your computer . . . you log onto the system . . . you check your emails.
Then, what’s your first meaningful action of the working day?
If you’re like most people, the chances are you’ll be responding to lots of those emails straight away. It is, after all, a natural instinct to react to things as soon as they come up.
Reactive thinking is a compulsion which kicks in whenever a task or challenge is put before us. We want to get cracking on it immediately. Often the quicker we do it, the better. Likewise when we’re faced with a fresh problem – we instantly set about seeking a solution. And why not? Solving problems and dealing with issues is a part of our job – and a part of our lives. Why not do something about them as soon as we can?
It’s true that this type of reactive functioning is incredibly useful and efficient, and makes a powerful contribution to our day-to-day productivity. By thinking reactively we can conserve our (much-needed!) time and energy, and put situations to bed swiftly when there’s high time pressure. But while no one can deny that speedy reactions are often necessary in business, we have to be aware of the hazards.
Working on ‘autopilot’ allows us to be productive – but only up to a point. When we use our past experiences and patterns as a basis for determining our future actions, we end up never creating anything new. This can be a real danger. The one constant in business is change; yet being reactive means we risk overlooking opportunities to be creative in today’s ever-changing environment. Remember: innovation comes from doing things differently, not from sticking religiously to strategies you’ve used before.
Being able to evolve and progress in business and life means pacing ourselves to engage our thinking in activities that will help us to…
- achieve something we haven’t done before;
- do something better than we did it last time;
- find a more effective way of doing something that we’re used to doing routinely.
This is proactive thinking. It’s about taking time to strategise where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. I firmly believe that business is a marathon, not a sprint. If you try to take speedy shortcuts and react quickly to events, you won’t necessarily reach your destination any quicker. You might even end up heading the wrong way and have to promptly change course. And none of us like to be in that situation!
So, why do so many of us get caught up in this kind of reactive thinking?
…Because it’s easy to think that being busy means being productive – that if we deal with tasks as soon as they arise, we’re making progress. But in rushing to get through these tasks, we’re not giving them the attention and depth of thought they might need. This can be lethal to our creativity. By thinking proactively, we come to understand that innovative success is a force to be purposefully cultivated and deployed. We learn to push the boundaries with careful planning and strategising, rather than using the same old tried-and-tested formulas.
Another major pitfall of reactive thinking is evident during group brainstorming sessions. Despite brainstorming being a massively popular technique for generating ideas for problem solving or decision making, many business leaders admit they are often left frustrated by the sheer number of failed brainstorming sessions they have. The reason (which they’re usually unaware of!) is again due to reactive functioning.
When one person throws out an idea, what do the other group members do? Almost immediately they’ll analyse and judge it (silently or openly) and decide whether to accept it, consider it or reject it. Their reactive thinking causes them to criticise rather than create! By stopping to analyse and evaluate the idea the group isn’t in the right mindset to be generative or creative. So, can they actually be said to be brainstorming? Clearly not.
How can we avoid being reactive at the wrong times?
The first step is to be aware of it! If we’re going to be proactive, we need to spot that we’re in reactive mode in the first place. With that in mind, next time you boot up your computer and set about responding to your emails, simply take a step back and think for a while.
You may just end up being more productive than ever.
Leading thoughts: Are you so caught up with doing things quickly that you don’t give yourself time to come up with great ideas and plan effectively? STOP and take a moment to think. How can you be more proactive, and less reactive, in your workplace?
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