From fighting against to fighting for

March 18th, 2021

Last week, I mentioned the importance of resilient government organizations for our society. And before that I’ve already made a case for the added value that positive proactive approaches can bring to both private and public organizations. That’s why today, I want to discuss what a positive proactive approach means, and what it takes to transform negative reactive approaches into positive proactive approaches. 

The easiest way to explain this is by drawing a parallel with our personal habits. We all have one or more bad habits we would like to get rid of. Consider a habit that you would like to quit yourself. Maybe you’re a smoker? Or you get angry easily if something doesn’t go your way? Perhaps you have a habit of eating sweets or snacks to get your emotions under control? Or maybe you drink alcohol to relax? Our bad habits are persistent and difficult to break. It’s hard to make other choices when our favorite poison is just within reach. We all have experience with this. Whether it’s our last failed diet, our countless number of attempts to quit smoking, or our latest purchase which only true function is to gather dust. 

In order to survive, our brain has evolved in such a way that rewards play an important role in learning habits. Simply put it works as follows. A need prompts us to act. Our brain rewards us for the action and we feel satisfied until the next need presents itself again. In practical terms this looks like this. We are hungry (need), we eat food (act), in response to the action our brain releases chemicals that make us feel good (reward) and because our stomach is filled again, we are no longer hungry (satisfaction). Sometimes, this elegant mechanism gets disrupted and we try to fulfill needs with actions that reward us in the short term, and therefore give a good feeling, but yield little or no satisfaction in the slightly longer term. We feel stressed and want to decrease our stress level (need). When we eat chocolate ice cream (action), our brain releases chemicals that make us feel good (reward). Once the pleasant short-term effects of the sugars have worn off, the stress takes over again (there is no satisfaction). We’ve learned that we feel good when we eat sugars and we use this to suppress the unpleasant feelings we experience. Unfortunately, this action doesn’t meet our need to reduce our stress level. In fact, it probably only increases the feelings of stress. 

Whenever we give in to a bad habit, the first part of the reward system (need, action, and reward) kicks in. The last part (satisfaction) is usually not or not fully achieved. And this happens every time we try to exchange our unpleasant feelings for a pleasant feeling. When we update our social media profile or shop online instead of finishing that task that we really need to finish. This way we learn that we can numb our unpleasant feelings and in the process we develop a bad habit. Based on this simple explanation, you might think it’s easy to quit these illogical and bad habits. After all, they bring little or no satisfaction and they don’t make sense. So why don’t we have enough self-control to adopt new habits? 

Quitting bad habits by applying self-control requires a lot of willpower and effort. And we all know that our self-control usually doesn’t last very long. The chance of success decreases as the need increases. For example, consider how much more likely it is that we lash out at a loved one or find ourselves lying on the couch eating a bag of chips when we’re more stressed. Even when we promised that we wouldn’t do this anymore. 

Getting rid of our bad habits through self-control is an example of a negative reactive approach. We’ve developed a habit that’s harmful to us and/or our environment and which we would like to quit. We respond by focusing our efforts on removing the negative behavior. If we want to lose weight, we have to stop eating unhealthy sugars and fats. But although we really like to quit our bad habit, we know all too well how good we feel when we eat those tasty things. And soon an internal struggle between our needs ensues. A battle that we can hardly win. Especially when we consider that we usually only try to get rid of our bad habits after they’ve become chronic. Habits that have developed over a long period of time often already caused extensive damage and are more difficult to overcome with resistance. An added disadvantage is that every time we ‘lose’ this inner battle, it’s more likely we start to believe that we are unable to ‘overcome’ our bad habits. As a result, our stress level remains just as high, or maybe even increases, and in the meanwhile we’ve also developed a weight problem. The best thing we can achieve with a negative reactive approach is that we move away from something, that we get rid of something we don’t want. With this we don’t have a new pattern available, and certainly not a positive pattern, to fill the gap that’s left behind. 

This brings me to a positive proactive approach. There’s another way to quit bad habits. If our brain has evolved to learn habits based on rewards, then we can also make use of this. Instead of using our energy to suppress bad habits (a negative reactive approach), we can also use our energy to learn new positive habits that bring rewards themselves. We can teach our brains that there are also other rewards that can make us feel good and use this to develop new habits. This way we use our energy to achieve something we want to achieve. To work towards something positive in a proactive way. 

Before continuing, let me emphasize that a positive proactive approach is not a short cut and also requires effort, time and persistence. It’s a different approach that, unlike a reactive negative approach, makes us focus on the future. It makes us move towards something instead of moving away from something. If we want to develop or get better at something, we must do things that are beyond the reach of what we’ve already mastered, train ourselves to apply new perspectives and adopt new expectations. This could include learning new things that we’ve never done before, more specialistic skills that go beyond the skills we already have, or adopting the mindset that we always have the opportunity to learn, to change and develop. That’s why development requires a conscious effort. After all, it is easier to activate existing patterns than to create new ones. 

Suppose we perceive ourselves as impatient with a tendency to get angry easily when things don’t go our way. A negative reactive approach would prescribe us to use self-control to suppress our impulses. As we’ve discussed, this is easier said than done. It probably won’t take long before we revert to our old patterns. And if we do manage to suppress this pattern, we don’t have a positive pattern available to replace this negative pattern. 

The first thing a positive proactive approach requires is that we become aware of the existing situation. What are our habits and patterns? What stimuli usually trigger a habit? When do these stimuli usually occur? What are our bad habits? Which parts of these habits bring rewards? Are these rewards appropriate? How do we really feel when we practice our set behaviors? Do we really have pleasant feelings when we ignite in anger? 

By developing curiosity about our habits, we already work with rewards. Curiosity is a reward-based trait. If we become genuinely curious about our habits, this causes our brains to deliver a reward when we learn something about our habits. This way, we can train our brains in a positive way that the pleasant feelings we experience when we fall into our bad habits only last for a short time. And that other behaviors actually feel much better and that this pleasant feeling actually lasts much longer. We are, as it were, performing a reset of our reward system. Perhaps it’s not that we ‘are’ impatient and ‘have’ a short temper, but perhaps we’ve slipped (unnoticed) into patterns and habits that have led us to form this self-image. 


Another important part of a positive proactive approach is to determine a direction in which we want to move. If we’re not that impatient person with a bad temper, what do we care about? What are we motivated by? Perhaps we believe in the importance of enthusiasm, sportsmanship, health, open-mindedness or perseverance and from now on we’re committed to build habits that fit in with this. This could mean that we don’t use our energy to suppress our urge to eat a hamburger, but that instead we will immerse ourselves into new cooking styles and cooking techniques. Every time we master a new cooking skill or prepare a new healthy and delicious dish, our brains will give off a reward. This ensures that not only the first part of the reward system (need, action and reward) comes into effect, but that we also experience the last part (satisfaction). We feel good and satisfied. Our bad old patterns start to lose their power and will slowly fade away as our new consciously chosen patterns grow stronger and stronger. 

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