Jeff Bezos’ message was clear: in the end, We Are Our Choices. So the stakes are high and we need to find our way to choose wisely. Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People provides one way: a roadmap to effectiveness. A map that helps assures alignment between our choices and our life’s ambitions. Here we start with Habit 1: Be Proactive.
The First Principles of Effectiveness
The idea of first principle thinking was introduced by Aristotle, who viewed first principles as “the first basis from which a thing is known.” It allows us to step outside of conventional wisdom and decide for ourselves if something makes sense.
It is more convenient and easy to not make choices and base things on what others tell us. But then we adopt their thinking without examination. By default, we do things their way, the way they have always been done, or according to others’ ambitions.
That may work if you’re satisfied with average, but not so much if you wish to increase effectiveness. Reasoning by first principles removes the assumptions and conventions of others. What remains is the essentials so you can see where others’ analogies, paradigms, and advice might lead you astray.
“Reasoning by first principles is useful when you are (1) doing something for the first time, (2) dealing with complexity, and (3) trying to understand a situation that you’re having problems with. In all of these areas, your thinking gets better when you stop making assumptions and you stop letting others frame the problem for you.” (1)
Those three points: doing something for the first time, complexity, and understanding a problem sounds a lot like getting through life.
Covey validated the durable truths as they apply to very effective people with first principles. He then breaks their effectiveness into basic elements: The 7 Habits.
The 7 Habits are your building blocks and guide you on how to think for yourself. With them, you can build a sustainable foundation to grow from and that unlocks the potential unique to you.
A Process for Life
A process is a series of actions or steps taken to achieve a particular end; in this case, effectiveness. It’s helpful to think of The 7 Habits as a process that brings lasting change in your life.
You build good habits by starting small and incrementally build on the progress. And, unlike setting a goal that requires willpower, habits aren’t associated with goals. A habit is something you do routinely without thinking much about it.
So, it’s helpful to think of The 7 Habits as a process you put in place. And, once these habits take hold, they continue through life and increase the positive outcomes through effectiveness.
The key to bringing lasting change is to forget the goals and build a process that doesn’t require willpower or some arbitrary goal.
Habit 1: Be Proactive
Determinism is the belief that events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to our will. It implies there is limited free will. And, that gives us a free pass through life because we are not responsible.
The three paradigms widely used to explain human behavior include genetic, psychic, and environmental determinism.
Genetic determinism ties your nature and tendencies to the genes you inherited. Psychic determinism links them to your upbringing. And, environmental determinism relates to your economic or social situation.
Most will agree that these are factors in our lives (to some extent). But, they are not us.
Proactivity means we are responsible for our lives and behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions. In essence, we take the initiative and accept responsibility.
Proactivity is crucial because it enables us to shape the future according to our design and to take charge to become all that you can be.
Tools to Design Your Future
Humans possess two powerful tools that give us the ability to design our future: self-awareness and the freedom to choose.
Self-awareness is believed to be uniquely human. It is the ability to think about our thoughts and stand apart from ourselves to examine the way we “see” ourselves.
Freedom of choice is the ability to choose how we respond to things. Before reacting, we can choose between different reactions or no reaction at all. Further, we can learn different reactions through other’s experiences or teachings.
Proactivity is a Choice
You have a simple choice to act or not. And, if you don’t act, it will act on you. Your language indicates the degree that you see yourself as a proactive person.
Proactive people do not blame circumstances or conditioning for their behavior. It is a product of their own conscious choice, and they take responsibility for it.
They find an appropriate response and act on it. Not make excuses for it.
Self-awareness helps us see our level of proactivity or reactivity, and Covey views the language we use as an indicator of the extent to which we are proactive.
Proactive language shows responsibility. Examples include: I will; Let’s look at the alternatives; I’ll choose a different approach; and, I control my feelings.
Reactive people excuse themselves from responsibility with phrases like: “That’s just the way I am;” “It’s not my job;” “they don’t allow that;” or “If only.”
This language shows they think there is nothing they can do about it. So reactive people blame other people and circumstances, anything but themselves for their situation.
Circles of Concern and Influence
Our range of concerns is broad and may include health, family, work, the national debt, and nuclear war.
However, within our “Circle of Concern” are things over which we have no control and other items on which we can do something.
We can identify those that we can do something about and place them within our Circle of Influence.
Proactive people focus their efforts on the Circle of Influence. This energy enlarges and magnifies the Circle of Influence, causing it to increase.
Reactive people focus their efforts on the Circle of Concern. This results in blaming, accusing, and increased feelings of victimization. As a result, their Circle of Influence shrinks.
Direct, Indirect and No Control
It’s essential to sort the problems we face into three areas of control; direct, indirect, and; no control.
- Direct control problems reside within our Circle of Influence. These are the subject of our “Private Victories” that include Habits 1, 2, and 3.
- Indirect control problems are within our Circle of Influence. These are the subject of our “Public Victories” that include Habits 4, 5, 6, and 7.
- No control problems are just that, beyond our control. The only course of action is to accept them even if we don’t like them.
Victor Frankl’s Freedom
Victor Frankl was a Jewish prisoner in the death camps of Nazi Germany. His fantastic survival story shows the importance and power of choice.
“One day, naked and alone in a small room, he began to become aware of what he later called ‘the last of the human freedoms’ — the freedom his Nazi captors could not take away.
They could control his entire environment, they could do what they wanted to his body, but Viktor Frankl himself was a self-aware being who could look as an observer at his very involvement. His basic identity was intact.
He could decide within himself how all of this was going to affect him. Between what happened to him, or the stimulus and his response to it was his freedom or power to choose that response.
He suffered torture and personal loss and shared how, through a series of disciplines, discovered that he exercised freedoms greater than his Nazi captors.”
He became an inspiration to his fellow prisoners by using self-awareness to discover this fundamental principle about man: the freedom to choose between stimulus and response.
Frankl demonstrates an important new paradigm. He shows us how we can develop into highly effective people in any environment.
Freedom of choice gives us options, even under the most adverse circumstances possible.
Dr. Covey sums it up this way: “Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions. We can subordinate feelings to values. We have the initiative and the responsibility to make things happen.”
How Can You Be Proactive? Try this for a few days:
- First is recognize you are who you are today because of the choices you made in the past.
- Without the first step, you will never empower yourself to choose otherwise.
- Now, choose to work something only in your “Circle of Influence.”
- Make small commitments and keep them.
- When you make a mistake, admit it and correct it, learn from it then move on.
Need an idea? Pick anything you’ve been meaning to do. Make your bed, start an emergency fund and open a savings account, start investing for the future and open a brokerage account, say good morning to someone.
Following these small steps is all it takes to become proactive, the first building block of a highly effective person. It is easy and doesn’t require willpower. Very soon, “Habit 1; Be Proactive” becomes your habit. And, you will find yourself becoming proactive effortlessly.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
— Will Durant
Our next article on The 7 Habits of Very Effective People will be on Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind.
(1) First Principles: The Building Blocks of True Knowledge, Farnham Street Blog