Getting Back in Control of Your Life Through Proactive Living
Daily life is often full of challenges and struggles, sometimes seeming to be more like a rollercoaster ride than a relaxing cruise down a freshly paved highway. We deal with concerns of one type or another from the time we get up & going in the morning that seem to last until after we’ve gone to bed. If you’re like me, you’ve sometimes stayed awake late at night with plenty of thoughts running through your head as you make a futile attempt to come up with answers when you’re already exhausted.
Living in our society today is so much more hectic than the way previous generations lived just 30 years ago. It seems that even for the blessing of technology to make some things simpler, being in the information age can translate to living with information overload. Our schedules are jam packed, as are the schedules of our children. Whether at work or home we seem to have very little disposable time and many people feel that something is demanding their attention during every waking moment.
Changes in society discount the value of what matters most
A drastically marked change in standards and morals combine with financial stress and other factors to lead to higher divorce rates than ever seen before. People in general live with a much more liberal attitude toward relationships and family, sexual relations and monetary spending in relationships which almost inevitably lead to many other conflicts and long lasting problems for families & individuals.
In relationships, loyalty and commitment seem to have taken a back seat to instant gratification, living for the moment and the attitude of a marriage or relationship being disposable or “toss when done” if things are no longer convenient. Yes, we have seen a lot of progress in our modern day with advances in technology, medicine, travel and knowledge – but now we see discounted some of the things that should matter most when it comes to values and personal character.
In the days of our grandparents living in their 30’s, there was no such thing as living together or “trying it out” to see if a relationship worked. When two people loved each other they made a choice (a conscious decision) to be together and work through their problems, come what may. Marriage vows meant something more then – they were promises that were kept between two people and our maker. Couples and families still had problems then. Infidelity wasn’t unheard of, but it wasn’t commonplace, either.
As a whole, our society has migrated away from true principles that govern humankind. We’ve become wasteful and don’t truly value “what matters most”. Instant gratification and what feels good now have replaced what used to be common knowledge – that when a person sows sacrifice and patience, the reward to reap is something lasting and of great value. We get so frustrated when we don’t have control over a situation or when it isn’t going our way – almost as if to say, “if I can’t have it my way and now, I’d rather not have it at all”.
I’ve seen people quit jobs with no prospects lined up simply because they didn’t like how things are going where they were at. People who’ve yelled at their children when they are worn out or stressed from their job or because of financial difficulties. People who want to give up because they don’t feel control over their own lives. I’ve lost several friends and a my younger brother to suicide – apparently over feeling no control in their lives. These are examples of being reactive– but more about that in a moment.
Challenges and trials that we face daily
So, have you gone through stressful relationship problems? Do you ever feel like you have too many things on your plate for one day, as if you could never stand a chance of accomplishing all that needs to be done today? Are finances a problem? Pressures at your job or with children have you stressed out? Do you feel like things are out of control or that you have little control over your life? Have you found yourself in a situation where you feel you’re in too deep or there is simply no answer? Currently, there are several hundred million other people who are dealing with that and are feeling very much the same way.
As a single father, I often feel very alone in the daily struggles of life as I work a full time job of anywhere between 45-70 hours a week depending on the season, pay bills, do the shopping, cook, clean house, teach my children, deal with their problems and try to spend time with them – along with all of the other things that come up in the course of a week. Many times in the past few years it seems like I sacrifice, give and work hard with very little immediate reward other than the time I have to spend with my children. At times, I feel quite frustrated and have even caught myself thinking that my life is beyond my control.
When there are so many things going on in life that have an effect on us in one way or another where we have very little or no direct control, is it any wonder that we often perceive that we have no control over our lives? If you aren’t satisfied with the way that things are in your life right now – whether it has to do with your marriage, your job & financial situation, your children’s grades or the path they are choosing, your friendships or any other aspect of life – there is no quick fix. Maybe that’s not good news but it’s the truth. ANYTHING worthwhile requires sacrifice to some degree, an investment and effort. The good news here is that if you’re willing and open to really making a positive change and want something lasting & of value, it isn’t out of reach. The answer goes back to principle centered living.
A more effective way of dealing with things
There’s a lot to be said for being proactive, responsible and accountable as individuals, but before we can choose to act in that manner we have to know exactly what we have control over in our lives. To know that, we have to indentify and define that which we actually control or have influence over. While this still doesn’t solve all of the issues that may be causing you stress, it can and will provide you with an accurate perspective from which you can make productive choices. It will lay the foundation from which productive choices can be made. It’s true that nobody has complete control over everything that takes place in their lives but as human being we all do have the same control over one common thing – our choices. We have freedom of agency and the ability to make decisions. The point is to make constructive decisions based on “what matters most”, what we have direct control over and not out of emotion or for the sake of feeling good right now.
Stephen Covey teaches this concept as part of a timeless principle in his best-selling book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. He refers to the areas where we have control and influence in our lives as a Circle of Concern and a Circle of Influence. A simple way that I’ve remembered this is by imagining the circle of influence as a circle of control, meaning that within that circle are only the things over which I actually have true control over. Within the circle of concern are the things that make up our everyday lives and have an effect on us in one way or another, yet we aren’t in direct control over them.
As we exercise the principle of being “proactive” (which doesn’t mean being aggressive) rather than its opposite of being reactive, our circle of influence expands to cover more and more of the area within our circle of concern. Obviously, there are always going to be issues within the circle of concern that cannot be reached by our circle of influence simply due to their nature. Monetary inflation is a good example of something inside our circle of concern but far beyond the reach of our circle of influence. If you’re relatively healthy, getting out of bed in the morning is well within our circle of influence or “control” – it’s a choice, like brushing your teeth, or going to work, school, saying hello or smiling at someone, etc.
Identifying and defining which circle various aspects of our lives fall within allows us to choose how we can deal with those things. Again, it’s the foundation for progress.
Our base human nature tends to distort the image of these circles. We seem to have a natural tendency to want to have control over things which we don’t rightfully have influence over, or even less constructively – blame another person or a situation for us not wanting to take responsibility for something we actually have influence over. That’s reactive behavior and it never produces lasting, constructive results, often ends up hurting other people and ourselves.
Reactive versus Proactive
“Reactive” people are those who don’t take responsibility for their own actions or lives. They often blame another person or situation when they get upset or raise their voices. They react to moods, situations and the actions of others. It may seem a hard pattern to break when it is been a habit for someone to behave reactively for years but with desire and persistence, it can be achieved. It’s a choice any person can become “proactive” with practice.
Proactive people are those who recognize that they are responsible for their own choices, basing those choices on timeless principles which empower them to make productive change and have greater influence in their own lives as well as helping others to do the same.
I recently had an experience where I failed to practice some of the timeless principles that I know to be true – principles found in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In this particular situation a few moments of reactive behavior caused days of hurt, upset and confusion for both myself and someone I care about.
To share the story, someone close to me was telling me about their day and wanted me to know about something they had done that afternoon, wondering if the way it took place may have bothered me. At first, I understood to a degree the reasons why they went where they did but certain aspects of it still bothered me. As I thought more about it, certain things didn’t make sense to me and I became reactive instead of trying to gain more understanding. My reactive behavior and words caused the other person feel that I didn’t trust them and suddenly we were in a downward spiral of escalating emotion and declining feelings.
Reacting as I did, I wasn’t focused on actual, productive understanding and neither was the other person. Instead, I was focused on my own feelings. I no longer wanted to understand and continued to make ridiculous assumptions as I became more upset when I felt my feelings weren’t being acknowledged. In such a short time, I had allowed myself to say things that were very disrespectful and deeply hurt the other person.
During the next three days I had deep regret and was terribly upset by what had happened. The other person was obviously very hurt, too. I took that time to reflect on how I had acted and could easily see that what went wrong was that I had allowed myself to “react” to the situation instead of being “proactive”. If I had simply made a choice (by being proactive & responsible) to understand more of what had happened from the other person’s perspective before wanting them to understand my own perspective, I wouldn’t have been focused on my own feelings and would have gained insight into anything that had not made sense to me. That was well within my circle of influence or control.
Though I’m usually pretty good at being proactive, I obviously haven’t completely perfected proactive living and this situation was a very powerful lesson to me in just how harmful and destructive it is to be reactive. A simple choice to be proactive would have prevented days of upset, hurt, confusion and the damaged trust in my relationship with the other person.
Putting it to work for you
If we practice and make a habit of identifying what is truly within our circle of influence and then are proactive in our choices, it empowers us as individuals, bringing peace and comfort more & more as we focus on what is truly within our control. At first it may seem like there really isn’t a lot within our control but by practicing a proactive approach we realize that our circle of influence continues to expend.
So what about the things we simply have no direct control over? We’ve all heard that saying, “learn to pick your battles”. This may be the hardest part for some people, like myself. When I want something or desire for something to be different in my life, I usually want it now and naturally, I want it to go my way. That’s a normal, base human reaction. Striving to maintain the perspective of what is in our circle of control requires that I’m proactive enough to exercise patience and work toward the goal of expanding that circle. When something is taking longer that I want it to, it’s a matter of deciding what is important and valuable to me and focusing on that goal as I deal with the things I still have direct control over.
Living proactively we recognize that we have no control over another person’s actions or choices. This is the hardest part of proactive living but somehow it seems to be one of those unwritten laws of the universe that trying to control another person or force our perspective on them always results in hurt. The same goes for certain circumstances that we have no control over – while it may be within our circle of concern, if it’s not within the circle of influence (or control) we must return focus on what we actually do have control over and make choices from there. An example of that is when we can’t change our work schedule to have as much time with family as often as we’d like. A proactive solution could be to make a choice of planning things out and making the time we do have with them “quality time” – valuable and memorable – since that’s what we actually have control over.
Lasting, priceless rewards
Proactive living and the choice to seek to understand other people enriches the relationships in our lives – whether at home, at work or anywhere in between. It isn’t about sharing the same point of view or having to think the way another person does, it’s simply a matter of making a choice to understand where they are coming from. Teaching our children the principles of being proactive and seeking understanding before seeking to be understood themselves will give them powerful, character building keys to being confident, effective and successful as they grow and develop.
Regardless of your income level, upbringing, relationship status or current situation, proactive living based on what we truly have within our circle of influence gives us back that sense of control in our lives. It’s a principle that is timeless and works the same for people regardless of age, religious beliefs or race – it will be as true in 100 years as it is now and as effective tomorrow as it was in the days when Christ taught the beatitudes.
In a hectic, ever more complicated world and when things seem to be falling down around us, when we feel that nothing is going “our way”, proactive living is the truest, most effective way of defining what we really have within our influence and gaining or maintaining a sense of control over our lives.