how to balance being reactive and proactive

How to balance being ‘reactive’ and ‘proactive’ [PMP #223]

Last Friday, my colleague, Warwick, and I were doing our weekly review where we go through all the clients we’re working with and we prioritise his workload for the upcoming week. During the conversation, he asked me how to deal with ‘urgent’ requests that he gets via email. These are seemingly important tasks that need to be dealt with pretty quickly and put you into a reactive work mode.

If you’re not careful, it’s very easy to react without thinking to these ‘urgent' requests and this takes your time and attention away from your planned, ‘proactive’, work.

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Paul Minors · PMP #223: How to balance being ‘reactive’ and ‘proactive’
Technology allows us to communicate in real-time which is great for urgent situations. The problem is this instantaneous communication gives the impression that requests require an instant response. Almost all of the time, this isn’t the case.Click To Tweet

‘Reactive’ vs. ‘Proactive’

I define these two work modes as follows:

  • Reactive – This is where you respond to something that you didn’t plan to do. Reactive work usually starts as an email, phone call or even a colleague asking you to do something i.e. it’s coming from an external stimulus outside of your control. Often the request is time-sensitive and requires a quick reaction to deal with.
  • Proactive – This is work you planned to do ahead of time. Proactive work is often planned-out using a task management system or calendar. This is the work that you identify needs to be done and is within your control.

The amount of reactive vs. proactive work you do will largely depend on your job. Creative workers like developers, designers or writers get most of their work done when they can be proactive having made time for a project or task.

Other jobs like customer support or sales require you to be more reactive where you are responding to incoming requests and questions in real-time.

Whatever your job, most likely you need to balance being proactive and reactive so you’re not spending too much or too little time in either work mode.

How urgent and important is this?

When dealing with incoming requests, before dropping everything, it’s important to ask yourself, how important and urgent the request is. A task is important if it has a big impact or consequence attached to it. But that doesn’t necessarily make it urgent. It’s only urgent if it’s time-sensitive and needs to be dealt with straight away. Some important tasks can wait. But a lot of important tasks are made out to be more urgent than they really are by the person making the request.

Evaluating the importance and urgency of a task will help you decide whether to deal with the request immediately, or whether you can schedule a time to come back to it later.

How does it compare to my other work?

Another important consideration to make when triaging incoming requests is to evaluate them against your other work.

If you’ve been proactive and you’ve set aside time to work on an important project, is it really worth stopping what you’re doing to deal with an urgent request? Or can the request wait a few hours for you to come back to it later?

When I was talking to Warwick last week, he explained that he often likes to get into a project for a few hours because it takes time to understand the work and what needs to be done next. And the last thing he wants when he’s just getting going on a project is for an urgent request to pull him out of that deep work zone.

In a situation like this, you almost need to ask yourself: “Is it worth stopping the project I’m working on now and potentially losing all the progress I’ve made in the last hour to go and deal with this urgent request?” Often, the answer is no.

For me, often it comes down to revenue. Just the other day, I was scheduling a discovery call with a new client and I made the decision to postpone some of my own proactive work so I could make time for the session. In this case, I was happy to reschedule the project because that work can wait and I’d rather make progress with the client which has a greater impact on revenue for the business.

Plan to be reactive

I think a better way to deal with reactive work is to plan for it to happen and make time for it.

We concluded our conversation last week with Warwick scheduling time on his calendar at the end of each day to deal with these last-minute, urgent requests. So each day as new requests come in, he can come back to them in the afternoon rather than letting it interrupt a project he’s currently working on. This is fine for 95% of the incoming requests that he needs to react to. Very rarely do we get a request that needs to be dealt with immediately (and this is likely true for most knowledge workers).

Technology allows us to communicate in real-time which is great for quick conversations and urgent situations. The problem is this instantaneous communication gives the impression that tasks and requests require an instant response. Almost all of the time, this isn’t the case.

The key takeaway here is to take a few minutes to evaluate new requests instead of simply reacting. Being reactive is okay if the work is important, urgent and is worth doing before your proactive work. But don’t assume this is the case for all income requests.