How to be more proactive at work and in life

Dunja Jovanovic

Last updated on: March 31, 2022

Do you know that one person who seems to have their life completely together? They are successful at work, they have a great personal life, they somehow manage to work out regularly, and they always seem to be prepared for everything.

You may think that they have sold their soul on the black market.

While that might be true, it’s most likely that they mastered the art of being proactive.

In this article, we’ll go over what it means to be proactive at work and in life, what is a proactive mindset, and how to become less reactive – with a lot of examples included.

How to be proactive at work and in life - cover

What being proactive means?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, being proactive means “acting in anticipation of future problems, needs, or changes”.
Being proactive means thinking about the future and focusing on the things you can control instead of all those you cannot. It also means taking responsibility.

The concept of proactivity was popularized by Stephen Covey in his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Being proactive is the very first habit.

As opposed to being proactive, being reactive means just waiting for things to happen to you; circumstances dictate your actions instead of your actions dictating the circumstances.

There is a stimulus and there is a response. In between, there is your freedom to choose what your reaction will be. Will it be proactive or reactive?

If you’re not sure, here are some additional questions to ask yourself that can help you figure it out:

  1. Do you have any kind of long-term plan?
  2. Do you take an active or passive role at work and in life?
  3. Do you make a decision only when you absolutely have to?
  4. Do you think about the future and anticipate possible outcomes or do you have a more live-in-the-moment approach?
  5. Do you feel like life is just happening to you and you’re not playing an active role in it?

What is a proactive mindset and how to achieve it?

A proactive mindset starts with realizing that you’re not a product of your circumstances, but your decisions.

One of the most important characteristics of a proactive mindset is focusing on things that are in your control – you can’t control the weather, but you choose if you’ll bring an umbrella and put on waterproof footwear – and, ultimately, will you come home dry or with wet socks. Sometimes things that happen to us aren’t our fault, but they are always our responsibility, and proactive people realize that.

The proactive mindset is often intertwined with the growth mindset. If you have a growth mindset, you don’t give up when you face a challenge, you persist; you don’t see failures as a bad thing, but the opportunity to grow; you are inspired by the success of others instead of envious; your goal is to continuously grow and improve yourself.

Are you open to change?

Proactive people are. They are also not afraid to make positive changes themselves, by taking action instead of waiting for everything they want to magically appear in front of them.

When a reactive person makes a mistake, they will make excuses or blame everyone but themselves: circumstances, people around them, Mercury retrograde. When a proactive person makes a mistake, they acknowledge it, take accountability for it, correct it and learn from it.

They know they are responsible for themselves and their life; they control their response to unpleasant or stressful situations, instead of letting their emotional reactions get the best of them.

How to be more proactive in life

Being proactive in life means taking care of yourself and things around you, as well as developing good habits because you realize your life is a product of things you do every day.

For example, proactive people will make sure they are eating healthy and having some kind of physical activity in their daily routine; they will also go to regular health checkups. Reactive people will go to the doctor only when they can’t tolerate the pain anymore – till that point, they’ll just brush it off. (This can have fatal consequences, please don’t do that.)

In relationships with other people, proactive people don’t throw problems under the rug. They don’t take their frustrations out on other people. They regularly communicate about their feelings and needs and when there is a problem, they actively work on solving it.

Even their car is less likely to break down because they’re doing regular vehicle maintenance.

How to be more proactive at work

“Being proactive in the office starts with awareness,” says Hillary Flinn, a Life Organization Coach. ”Knowing what’s coming up, who it will impact, and what could potentially go wrong. Organization is the key to handling a large workload, so take the time on a daily or weekly basis to get a good sense of your upcoming tasks and projects.

From this place of awareness, you’re in a better spot to take proactive steps to accomplish your tasks and mitigate issues. Here are some practical examples:

  • Reaching out to a colleague a few days ahead of a cross-functional deadline to check in on their progress and offer support.
  • Blocking time on your manager’s calendar well in advance to review an important project. (As a proactive best practice, try to book meetings with at least 24 hours’ notice!)
  • Creating calendar reminders for recurring tasks you might have forgotten in the past.

Becoming more proactive through awareness and action will allow you to make better use of your time, improve your work relationships, and effectively achieve your professional goals.”

If you wanted a promotion, would you look up what requirements are and work towards meeting them, or would you just wait and think about how it’s unfair that you’re not getting it? We’ve already learned that proactive people aren’t the ones doing the latter.

Proactive people are also aware of the negative effects of stress on our health and they will make a conscious effort to de-stress and find a good work-life balance. Reactive people, on the other hand, may have greater chances of experiencing burnout because of their lack of good organization.

How do you show you are proactive at work?

  1. Don’t wait for feedback, actively seek it. That shows a desire to learn and improve.
  2. Provide timely updates to your boss, your team, your clients, or whoever it may concern.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you have any – not only that you’ll do your job better because everything will be clear, but you’ll also show that you’re proactive.
  4. Be active in meetings; give suggestions, participate in brainstorming sessions, share your opinions and help other team members.

How to be less reactive

Other than having a proactive mindset, you’ll need to develop a few skills too. Is being proactive a skill, you may ask? Not in itself, it’s more like a set of skills on top of each other with a trench coat on. Here is the list of the most important skills you need to acquire to be proactive:

  • Be aware of the words you use. Words we speak have a bigger impact on our lives than we realize. Be aware of how you talk and what phrases you tend to use. Do you keep saying “I have to”, “If only”, “I can’t do anything about it”, “Things would be different if _________”? That’s a reactive language that gives away your power. Try saying “I get to”, “I will”, “I choose”, “I will try different alternatives/different approaches”.
  • Plan ahead. Whether they use a regular planner or a time-tracking app like Clockify, proactive people are aware of how they spend their time and use that knowledge to plan the future and be prepared.
  • Set goals. In that way, you create your future. Set SMART goals – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely.
  • Prioritize. Not all goals and tasks are equally important and you shouldn’t treat them as they are – that leads to burnout. If you’re not sure how to prioritize, the Eisenhower matrix can help you.
  • Learn to problem-solve. Proactive people focus on how to solve the problem instead of panicking (panicking for a couple of minutes and then solving the problem is fine too). Find out what exactly the problem is, create a plan, and…
  • Take action. Contrary to popular belief, good things don’t come to those who wait, but to those who take the initiative and work for what they want.
  • Learn to take responsibility for your actions.
  • Don’t dwell on the mistakes from the past, but learn from them. Mistakes are inevitable, there’s no way to completely avoid them. However, you can learn how to not repeat the same mistakes by analyzing what went wrong and what you can do better next time, and using the mistake as an opportunity to improve yourself and your knowledge.

According to April Pashovich, content writer for MysticSense: “Proactivity is a crucial part of being successful, and the way to do this is simple.
1) Gather all required information before starting whatever it is you are doing. The more you know, the more prepared you will be to make decisions you are confident about. Calling the shots can’t happen if you don’t know what you are doing.
2) Get training and sharpen skills often as necessary. Being a lifelong learner in whatever you are doing will keep you at the top of your game, and propel you forward to greater and greater successes.
3) Keep in mind not all people thrive in all settings. You may have to change what you do to ensure you are successful. When at first you don’t succeed, try again, but if you are continually failing, you might need to try something else.”

Bonus: surround yourself with proactive people. They say we are the five people we surround ourselves with. Seeing how they approach life, what are their habits, and how they think will help you become more proactive too.

Why proactivity can be a double-edged sword

Proactive people are generally high achievers and they achieve career success faster if they’re in the right environment.

However, proactivity can be a double-edged sword.
You don’t need to be proactive at all costs, especially at work.

Sometimes you have to read the room and figure out if it will be appreciated. Not all working environments are open and healthy – in some workspaces, it can bring more harm than good. Be aware of envious coworkers, punitive bosses that will get you in trouble if you make a mistake, and environments that refuse to let go of outdated systems (you’ll hear things like “Changing things may upset the employees” or “Who do they think they are”).

Building interpersonal skills is imperative because in some instances, being proactive can be perceived as annoying or obnoxious.

On the other hand, there are situations where it’s better to be reactive. If your friend is venting to you, perhaps it’s better to listen to them and be their shoulder to cry on instead of coming up with solutions and advice (especially if they didn’t ask for it). Sometimes people just need someone to listen.

Also, keep in mind that you can’t plan and predict everything, sometimes things just happen.
Maybe your goals have to be altered due to changed circumstances or maybe you came across an unavoidable obstacle that no one could foresee. Life is unpredictable and at times it forces you to be reactive and that’s okay.


Proactive people don’t wait around for things they want, they make a conscious effort to take the right set of actions and get what they want. They have the right mindset, plan ahead and take initiative. That’s why they are often the highest achievers.
You can be one of those people, too: it’s not a magical superpower only the chosen ones get. It can be learned and trained like you would train a muscle.

Author: DunjaJovanovic

Dunja is a content manager passionate about time management and self-improvement. After years of trying out all the productivity techniques she managed to come across, her goal become to share her knowledge and help others to become the best, most successful versions of themselves.

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