Circles of control, influence and concern
We often seem of find ourselves worrying about things that are outside of our control, and yet at the same time, we are helpless to influence them. As a result, they make feelings of hopelessness even stronger. This leads to a vicious cycle, where we become consumed with worries about anything and everything, without any power to do anything.
Instead, it can be helpful to focus on the things that you can control, rather the things that are outside of our control. When we focus on these things, we take back the control and empower ourselves to make changes.
Here’s an exercise that you can do to help shift your focus:
Think about three circles. We call these the circles of control, influence and concern.
The circle of control includes the things that you can control directly. This might include what you think, how you behave, your words and actions, your decisions, your mood, how hard you work – these are all within your direct control. Thoughts might spring into your mind uninvited – you might not have control over how and when they appear, but you do have control about how you entertain them and respond to them, how deeply you dwell on them and how they impact your mood and behaviour. Reactions might feel instinctive rather than controlled, but with the space to pause, think and reflect, we can begin to control our responses.
The second circle is the circle of influence – the things that we have indirect control over. You might have some influence over these things, but they are outside of your direct control. These include things like other people’s actions, choices and behaviours, what happens at work, who follows you on social media, your children’s future. You can influence these things, but you can’t directly control them. Let’s think about work for a moment – to some extent, you can control where you work, but other factors – the office location, who your manager or colleagues are, the state of the market you operate in, these are outside of your direct control.
The third circle is the circle of concern – things that seem really important but are usually totally outside of our control – the weather, the traffic, government policy, things that have happened in the past, the results of your favourite football team, how celebrities look or behave, things you read in the news on online, the threat of war. For example, a huge traffic jam can make you late for work, or a storm might spoil a bank holiday weekend, but these things are outside of our control and therefore becoming consumed with worries about them increases feelings of helplessness and despondence.
Think about these examples: You can choose what food to put in your mouth, but however hard you try, you can only influence your weight, appearance and health. The price of food, or its availability is within your concern but out of your direct control. You can control what time you leave home, but whether there’s traffic on your way to work might be of huge concern but is largely outside of your control or even influence.
Try this exercise to help deepen your understanding.
On post it notes, write down all the things that you’re worried about – for example, maybe someone else’s health, your weight, how much you like your job, whether your partner is drinking heavily, how happy other people appear on social media, your children’s emotional wellbeing, behaviour or academic results.
Now try to arrange these into the three groups described above – things that are within your control, things that you can influence, things that are within your concern.
Think about the things that are within your influence – are there elements that you can control? Or are some things only within your concern. Can you move things between columns?
Once you’re confident that you have attributed all of your worries accordingly, write them into three lists, and try to keep them somewhere that you can look at them, and revisit them from time to time. There might be things that move around, that you have more or less control over. Try to focus on the things that you can control, and worry less about the things that are outside of your control.
You can repeat this exercise whenever you feel that your worries are becoming overwhelming. Do you notice if things move between columns? What are the factors that are influencing this? Continue to focus on the things that are within your control.
The Circles of Control and Concern exercise is originally from a book called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R Covey. It’s an exercise that I’ve borrowed, used and adapted over the years, and I hope you find it as helpful as I do..