“To improve is to change, so to be perfect is to have changed often.” - Winston Churchill
“Change isn’t an event; it’s a process.” - Chip & Dan Heath
Everyday we make choices, and lots of them. In fact, the average adult makes more than 200 decisions per day on food alone (Wansink & Sobal, 2007). Thankfully, the majority of these choices are unconscious, freeing our mind up for the more important decisions to be made (imagine how tiring it would be to consciously process every decision!).
The point of this statistic is to show that each day is filled with choices. And choices are the key to change.
Powerful change comes from powerful choices.
So how do we get better at making a powerful choice?
Seeing the Difference
A key factor in the choices we make is the distinction between conscious and unconscious choices. Believe it or not, the majority of the choices we make are unconscious - estimated to be 95%! This means a majority of our daily decisions and choices are automatically made for us by our unconscious minds. These unconscious decisions are often trivial, which is why allowing our human operating system — aka the brain — to take care of them is a blessing that enables us to focus more of our attention on choices of greater importance.
A less technical distinction between the decisions we make and a difference we can all more readily relate to is the difference between reactive and proactive choices.
I still remember the first time I read about this difference: my freshman year of college. I played and competed as a golfer for most of my life, and the arena of golf gave me a plethora of personal experience in seeing the difference between reactive and proactive decisions.
One of the worst feelings in golf is hitting a tee-shot O.B. (out of bounds). When you hit a bad-enough shot that it lands outside of the boundaries of the course, you get the opportunity to try the same shot over again… with the added bonus of a penalty stroke.
After reading about the importance of being “proactive” from Stephen Covey’s groundbreaking book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” I had the “gift” of seeing this play out in real time on the golf course.
During a collegiate tournament in southern California, I was playing exceptionally well and all signs indicated that I was about to post a low score for my team (low scores are good in golf!). Reaching a par-5, I knew it was time to let the big-dog eat (how us golfers affectionately refer to our drivers). My swing went awry and the ball went ballooning out of bounds. This blunder infuriated me; to waste such an opportunity with such a bad swing. My frustration and anger caused me to react without thought or intention, reaching right back into my bag and teeing up another ball without a second thought. As you might guess, the same exact result followed. The anger now turned into despair, but then I was able to make the right move by grabbing another ball along with a different club — in order to make sure I kept this shot in-bounds.
As Stephen Covey points out: being proactive “means more than merely taking initiative. It means that as human beings, we are responsible for our own lives.” He goes on to point out that the word “responsible” can be broken down into “response-ability: the ability to choose your response.” That is the power of proactive vs. reactive.
On the golf course that fated day in college, I saw firsthand the damage that can come from making choices reactively instead of proactively.
Understanding the Difference
To be able to make a powerful choice, we must not only be able to see the difference between reactive and proactive choices, we must also understand what each type of choice entails.
Reactive choices are the decisions we make in response to the situation or circumstance at hand, fueled and steered by the emotions of the moment. Reactive choices can often feel uncontrollable and typically they seem less like a decision and more of an instinct (hence, a reaction). More importantly, reactive choices will always be our default response to any situation. By choosing not to make a powerful choice, we default to making a reactive choice, usually to the detriment of ourselves and those involved.
Proactive choices are the decisions we make that are consciously directed despite how we might feel in the moment. Covey describes proactive decisions well in saying: “highly proactive people do not blame circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behavior. Their behavior is a product of their own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product of their conditions, based on feeling.”
Reactive choices stem from feelings; proactive choices result from intention.
“It’s not what happens to us, but our response to what happens to us that hurts us.” - Stephen Covey
Creating Powerful Change
If powerful change results from powerful choices, and if powerful choices are the result of consistently striving to be proactive instead of reactive, how can we daily accomplish that?
There could be countless factors to highlight that lead to the difference between reactive and proactive choices, and while the temptation may be to list out all of the ways this can play out (“5 Steps to Becoming More Proactive!” or, “The 7 Deadly Habits of Reactive Living!”), I don’t think it needs to be that complicated.
The simplest, easiest, and most trustworthy method for creating powerful choices by living proactively is: space.
Creating space between your situation and the choice that results from it is the key to consistently making powerful choices. It isn’t rocket-science. It’s a first-grade-level formula that will deliver on it’s promises time and time again.
“Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.” - Viktor Frankl
Simply pausing, giving yourself a few seconds, maybe even five, can be all that’s needed for choosing the response that is best for you and the other person(s) involved.
“Rational (or conscious) thought always lags behind the emotional reaction.” - Laurence Gonzal
Powerful change always starts with making a powerful choice, but in order to make a powerful choice we must first know the difference between conscious and unconscious choices, between reactive and proactive choices. The most powerful tool in creating more consistent and proactive choices is space. Taking a few seconds of time to pause and insert intentionality into a decision will enable you to make consistently powerful choices that will lead to intentional change and more thoughtful lives filled with love and kindness towards ourselves and others.
Kindness is something that doesn’t happen by chance, and in order to help ourselves help our self, let’s stack the deck in our favor by building the habit of space into our daily decisions.
“There is good in everything, if only we look for it.” - Laura Ingalls Wilder
- Take 2 deep breaths before every important conscious decision today. Especially before you reach for your phone for the first time today.
- Create a visual reminder of “space” (be creative!) that will help you be intentional throughout the day.
- At the end of the week, review which powerful choices led to a powerful change. Identify the top 3 choices you made this week that were challenging, but beneficial.
- Write down your favorite quote from this article and keep it near your teaching station as a reminder to make space to be proactive today.
About the Author: Thane Marcus Ringler is a former pro golfer turned speaker, author, coach, and entrepreneur living in Los Angeles, CA. After competing for nearly four years as a professional, he transitioned out of the world of golf into his new endeavors. In his current work, Thane's mission is to help others live and work better. He is passionate about speaking to the journey from the journey, and is striving to empower this generation to take ownership of their lives and never settle for less than they are capable of. Thane is also the host of The Up & Comers Show, a podcast all about learning how to live a good life. To find more on Thane and his work, visit: ThaneMarcus.com or find him on the socials @thanemarcus.