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There is an important distinction in these two words that has a significant impact on your productivity. According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, react means “to act in return.” Respond means “to reply.” Adults typically have a responsibility to reply to the many communications we receive on a daily basis, whether they come in via snail mail, email, voicemail, and, increasingly, social media. What we don’t have is an obligation to constantly act on the relentless stream of communication we receive on a daily basis.

It’s courteous and responsible to respond to the communication you receive in a timely manner (and the definition of timely depends entirely on the specific request, and it’s something you need to determine for yourself. But it’s probably longer than you think.)  Given that communication comes in virtually all day long in some form or another, if you constantly react to all of them, you’ll never get anything important done.

As I tell my clients all the time: you can only be productive when you’re being proactive.  And you can only be proactive when you’re not being reactive.

So my suggestion is this: rather than stopping what you’re doing to immediately react to (take action on) every communication that reaches you…instead, tackle those items on your to-do list, and in between, set aside times in the day when you will respond to communication.  The action required by the communication may fit into your plans for your day.  If you expect that it will take longer than you have time to allocate that day, based on the priorities you’ve set for yourself, then make the conscious decision to either rearrange your priorities, or simply respond and say that you will take action at a later time.  This is thoughtful action as opposed to reaction.

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Dwight D. Eisenhower is quoted as saying, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”  This led to what began as the “Eisenhower Matrix.” Decades later, Steven Covey adapted it in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  The basic idea is to be sure to understand that “urgent” does not necessarily mean “important,” and that “important” is often not “urgent.” So spend as much time as possible on the things that are important but not necessarily “urgent,” (what I call proactive time) and spend as little time as possible on the things that seem “urgent,” but are not necessarily important (reactive time).

Implementing this distinction puts you in control of your attention and your time, attending to the things you deem important, rather than constantly working on everyone else’s schedule.  As I like to say, this behavior “empowers” your productivity.

Thanks for reading!