Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Influence

How to Act and Not React

David Maxfield 

David Maxfield is coauthor of two bestselling books, Change Anything and Influencer.


Change AnythingQ Dear Crucial Skills,

My job in sales means that prospects and customers call me all the time and want quick responses. As a result, I become very reactive—responding to urgent problems. Sometimes this short-term focus comes at the expense of long-term priorities, such as building and developing large accounts. How can I learn to be proactive instead of reactive?


A Dear Reacting,

Great question! I’d have replied sooner, but I was responding to short-term priorities and urgent problems. Know what I mean? I think we all have this career-limiting habit to some extent, and it’s a perfect place to apply our Change Anything approach.

I’ll use myself as an example: I know I need to be far-sighted and proactive, I want to be far sighted and proactive, and yet I find myself stuck in a short-term and reactive pattern. I sail along down my comfortable, reactive groove responding to e-mails and answering calls until I’m blindsided by an important milestone I somehow missed. Then I beat myself up for not having the willpower to stay focused on what’s truly important. I get caught in the Willpower Trap.

I blame my failures on my willpower—my character. I blame myself for being a weak person. But at the Change Anything Labs, we’ve discovered what you and I are facing isn’t a willpower problem; it’s a math problem. It turns out we are surrounded by influences that we don’t even see. We are blind and outnumbered. Our world is perfectly organized to perpetuate our status quo behaviors, and we don’t even realize it.

Avoid the Willpower Trap. If I want to become more far-sighted and proactive, I’ll need to recognize the sources of influence that keep me in my short-term, reactive track and pull them over to my side. Here are a few ideas:

  • Personal Motivation. I realized I feel a comfortable sense of accomplishment when I respond to people’s urgent requests, but don’t even think about my long-term projects until I’ve missed them. To fix this, I’ve placed a sticky note on the bottom of my computer screen that lists the four most important long-term projects I need to accomplish. It captures my attention each day and helps keep my top priorities in front of me as I respond to new requests from people by e-mail or phone—mostly short-term urgent requests. This simple reminder motivates me to focus on my long-term projects as well as finishing my rewarding short-term projects.
  • Personal Ability. I’ve learned a script for responding to these day-to-day “urgent” requests. I say something like, “I’ve got your request. I will need about 24 hours to dig into it. I’ll get back to you by end-of-day tomorrow to let you know when it will be done.” This gives me time to understand it, prioritize it against my other tasks, and figure out how to fit it in.
  • Social Motivation & Ability. I’ve learned to delegate a lot of my short-term urgent tasks. The fact that I can do them and sort of enjoy doing them doesn’t mean I should do them. One of the rules of delegating is to delegate the tasks you—and potentially others—are most skilled at. And these often include the short-term urgent tasks that distract you from more important priorities. Use these tasks to help others build their skills, get client contact, and gain valuable experience.
  • Structural Motivation. I created a work plan that lists projects, shows the steps I need to complete for each project, and the dates I need to complete each step on a 3×5 card. In effect, I’m taking long-term projects, breaking them into pieces, and turning them into a series of short-term urgent tasks. This sounds pretty simple, but it works—probably because it is so simple. It also works because I’m motivated to cross each task off my list.
  • Structural Ability. Many of my longer-term projects require periods of uninterrupted thought, planning, and writing. I can’t do them effectively if I allow my e-mail and phone to derail me. So, I schedule a couple of hours each day when I won’t read e-mails or answer the phone. I have specific goals for these periods, and they have become some of the most productive hours in my day.

Be the Scientist as well as the Subject. Begin by developing ideas in each of the six sources of influence. Then, try them out in combination to see what works for you. Know that your progress won’t be perfect. It’s nearly impossible to develop the perfect plan the very first time.

Instead, progress comes when you turn bad days into good data. Acknowledge your setbacks, but don’t let them get you down. Use them as data points. Ask yourself, “Why did I fail?” and “What can I do to prevent a similar failure in the future?” Analyze and adjust. Refine your plan. Soon, you’ll see a path of steady progress.


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10 thoughts on “How to Act and Not React”

  1. Arma

    This is great advice and I am sharing with my co-workers. I could spend 8 hours respodning to email and telephone calls.

  2. Laura Moen

    I agree – great advice. It echoes what my Division heard when I brought in a time management specialist to help us break out of some problematic behaviors. It can also be helpful to take a step back and look at your time management behavior as an individual – different people do different things for different reasons. Understanding that personal motivation is a key element towards change.

  3. editor

    @Arma Thank you for your comment. It’s always nice to hear that we’re helping someone!

  4. editor

    @Laura Moen That’s a great point! We need to recognize that what works for one person might not work for another. Try a few of David’s tactics (such as scheduling periods of uninterrupted thought and delegating short-term tasks) and see if they work for you.

  5. Elizabeth Richards

    Short term tasks are addictive. One way I’ve discovered to avoid the temptation is to unplug the laptop and head to Starbucks. I don’t login in to their free network but I do indulge in a cup of tea. Something about escaping the office to do work makes me feel like I’m on holiday. I get my projects done and feel like I’ve played hooky at the same time. Plus settling into deep uninterrupted thought is a gift of it’s own.

  6. David Maxfield

    Laura’s point is especially important. I hope it came through in my suggestions. Try something, but try it the way a scientist would–as an experiment. Then learn what works for you. As Elizabeth notes, you’re fighting an addiction to short-term tasks. Best wishes,

  7. Weekly Links Aug 29th – Sep 2nd 2011 | Leader's Quest

    […] How to Act and Not React – David Maxfield […]

  8. Kim Clarke

    This advice is perfect timing. I am in the midst of reflecting on what needs to change so I can eliminate working weekends. I have resorted to focusing on my really important tasks on the weekend when I have no interruptions of the urgent short term tasks. The weekend approach has come at a price in other areas of my life, a price that I am no longer willing to pay. The advice in the article is very helpful and I will use the online Change Anything tools to support the change. Thanks

  9. Ali Al-Hawwaj

    Thanks David,
    Sometimes, I read a book and get little from it while othertimes, I got a lot from a word.
    I think I learned a lot from your articles and will do my best to reflect the advices to my life.

  10. Georgann

    Ok I will try to do this. LOL I found myself wanting to read the new email that just sounded while I was reading this. oh well it lasted for a 20 seconds.

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