Reading for Leading #25: Reactive versus responsive

Reactive versus responsive

Reading for Leading is a weekly leadership tip shared every Monday morning as a pithy suggestion, question or reflection. You can find the whole series here.

In our busy, hyper-connected lives a steady stream of notifications, alerts and lengthening to do lists can easily pull us into a reactive state, where each new input takes our focus away from our initial intentions for the day. We may enter into a struggle to deal with the distraction as quickly as possible and then pick up the dropped threads of our previous activity. This can becoming exhausting and unproductive as it disrupts our workflow and may lead to unskillful, quick-fire reactions rather than more considered, appropriate ones.

Chess is a great example of balancing reactive and responsive actions.
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Aside from changing our notification settings and pulling ourselves out into periods of deliberate isolation, which may not always be possible, there are two broad ways we can tackle this pressure on our attention. Firstly, we can strengthen our initial intentions and secondly, we can change how we respond to the interruptions.

We’ve talked about intention-setting before – whether that’s revisiting a general intention each morning, or thinking about how we set up our devices to allow us to stay on task. But how do we respond when something pulls us away from a goal?

The key here is to experiment with the difference between being reactive – “something pings so I immediately drop everything and get pulled into the new thing” – and being responsive: “I note that there are new emails coming in. Nothing looks crucial, I’ll sit down with my inbox in half an hour when my next meeting is over.”

In the reactive state we allow ourselves to be pulled about by whatever next thing tries to claim our attention, creating an overall sense of time pressure and resultant stress. With a responsive orientation, we still see things coming and going, but we’ve chosen to put a gap in between the stimulus and our response to it. This hopefully diminishes any sense of being overwhelmed and maybe even allows us the time to come up with a reply that takes both ourself and the sender into account.

What happens when you try to be responsive for a day or a week? Does it reveal anything noticeable about your workload and your relationship to it? Are there some things that really do require you to be reactive during your day? 

Source of inspiration: Lesson 7 in the Headspace meditation pack on Prioritisation (Incidentally, also recommended by community expert, Jono Bacon!)


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