Covey habit #1 – Why you should be Proactive

Covey habit #1 – Why you should be Proactive

“… Give me the courage to change the things which can and ought to be changed, the serenity to accept the things which cannot be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference.” (Covey)

Unlike animals we are not our feelings, nor our moods, nor our thoughts. The fact that we can reflect on our feelings, moods and thoughts separates us from all other living creatures on this world. This ability to be self-aware gives us the opportunity to be proactive.

Because we are self-aware we can look at ourselves and reflect on our way of looking at and interacting with the world.

How your behavior is determined

According to Stephen Covey behavior is determined by three main factors. These factors create your ‘Pavlov reaction’ through many repetitions.

  • Genes: you inherited the character of your family;
  • Nurture: you got your character from how your parents brought you up;
  • Environment: you are influenced by everything in your environment (people, situations, economic and natural policies).


Our standard behavior can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yet we all know the feeling of escaping our normal reaction and surprising ourselves with personal growth. We experience this as having the freedom to determine our own behavior.

Liberty and freedom

Some people have more liberty than others in creating and choosing their environment. To give an extreme example we compare a free man to a man in chains. The man in chains has less liberty: he cannot position himself everywhere in the room, let alone somewhere else. He is restrained in the movements he can make.

How much liberty we have does not influence our freedom. This might sound contradictory, but I will explain. We always have the freedom to choose how we respond to our situation. As restrictive as his position might be, we cannot oblige the man in chains to eat, speak, or even listen, to be happy or unhappy. As Kierkegaard said: we can always refuse what we are offered, we always have the freedom to (at least) say ‘no’.

Being proactive

Proactive stands opposite to reactive. Reactive actions are based on what our environment brings us. Proactive actions are based on our own (personal) values and are hence less influenced by current affairs.

Whenever we react we are highly influenced by our circumstances. Circumstances can be anything: from the weather to emotional relationships to others. When we act proactive we choose from a perspective of freedom.

Being proactive does not mean that we do not have to think about what the future environment will bring us. It means that we combine this question with the question of ‘how we will act’. We actually must face reality to be capable of being proactive.

If I am offered a day full of workshops on a day where I also have an important appointment planned, it is my choice to pick one of the two. That implies it is also my choice to dismiss either of the two. If we say we are made to pick one over the other, we blame the system, others, or the situation for the appointment we miss, and we neglect the freedom we had when making the decision. When we blame the situation we act reactively, when we anticipate on the situation, we act proactively.

See the difference in reactive and proactive language here:


Reactive language

  • There’s nothing I can do
  • He makes me so mad
  • That’s just the way I am
  • I have to do that
Proactive language

  • Let’s look at the alternatives
  • I control my own feelings
  • I can choose a different approach
  • I will choose an appropriate approach


Being versus having

The verbs we use to describe a situation are a good measure of how proactive we are. Just have a look at the difference between the following sentences:

  • If only I had more obedient kids


  • I can be more patient towards my kids


By being different ourselves we influence our environment and can make a change. Even if what has to be changed is not under our direct influence.

It is much easier to blame the situation, blame the others. But is the result also better?

Covey’s conclusion

Covey suggests some points of attention if we want to work on being proactive.

  • Don’t suffer from the mistakes you made, be proactive and correct. Accept that you made a mistake and take action.
  • Make promises, set goals, even if they are really small ones. It builds the feeling of integrity and awareness and feeling of self-control.
  • Be a model, not a critic; be part of the solution.

My critique

Habits exist in all kinds of forms, they can also be the standard verbal reaction we express. Yet the way Covey talks about being proactive is mainly about how we approach something, not how we act.

Covey asks us to reflect on how we normally act and to think about where we want to be compared to where we are. I think this is a very valuable exercise, but I also think that we can arrive at a more valuable conclusion when we focus more on habits.


For me habits lie in actions, so I tried to translate Covey’s proactivity-demands into more actionable patterns.

  • Reformulate your current reactive patterns in proactive patterns by formulating your ideas around the verbs ’being’ and ‘doing’.
  • Try to focus on reoccurring situations and events so that the impact of your proactive approach is as big as possible.
  • Think about key factors that surround reactive types of action to be more capable of recognizing the situation and be proactive in future times.


Suppose I want to think over my responses more before I actually speak. I might find that the moments I speak too quickly with negative consequences are the moments I feel irritated or angry. So I should recognize this situation (annoyance) to be silent for a few seconds.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/



Innovation and Research Officer at Sugar Habits
Judith studied behavioral change (applied social psychology) and is currently finishing her masters in philosophy with special attention for philosophy of action and intentionality. She works for SugarHabits a social media platform that helps people unlock more of their potential through learning new habits.

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4 Responses to “Covey habit #1 – Why you should be Proactive”

  1. LeedoLeedo says:

    Great Blog Judith!! I love the conclusion most. Was wondering if ur next blog could be about giving examples from the three elements in your conclusion.That would be cool to see how this could be applied in practice.

    Regarding “How your behavior is determined”, it seemed to me like “nurture”and “environment” are both the same, except that they take place at different times. Meaning “nurture= young/early influences from outside” and “environment= influences from outside after you have become older”. Do you agree? Looking forward for ur next blog!

  2. Hi Leedo, thanks for the comment and the compliment! Great idea to dive into some more examples. I try to blog weekly about his seven habits and will try to put your idea in between. Might be a good one for the other six habits as well.

    As to your comment about the “nurture” and “environment”,I think the influence is different since we are in a different stage in life. In the end I agree that it is about forces outside us. Yet the period of nurture will form your character. The moment your boss, or a policy is forced upon you your character is already formed so the influence of the environment is probably smaller (mainly because we are already formed by former influences).

    • leedo daniel says:

      Thanks for responding. Can thinking (in a certain way) be considered a habit? It seems that you view thinking a certain way different from acting a certain way.

      Can you help me understand ‘my critique’ a bit more? Looking forward,

  3. Judith says:

    I think that changing the way you think is the first step to changing yourself in total, but I also think that the moment you act is a bigger enforcement of yourself (and your brain) that you changed. Research shows that distancing yourself from certain ideas can help you (for example to stop smoking).
    Since we have so many thought, many not guided by our consciousness, I find it harder to change just by thinking. Also I believe that we are what we do. Other people only see our acts, we can reflect on our own acts: they are really there as prove that we are what we think we are.
    In conclusion: our body and mind are connected and they ‘influence’ each other. If you change your behavior, you change your mind. If you change your mind, your behavior will change. Yet we do not always know what we think and hence I believe behavior is a stronger sign of change.
    Hope this is a satisfying answer?
    Have a good day!