Imagine if we stopped doing this. Imagine what would happen if we stopped investing our time and energy into thoughts and actions that are going nowhere, and instead focused them on things we can actually do something about.
This is what Stephen Covey, in the classic book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, calls focusing on your Circle of Influence.
We each have two circles in our lives, Covey explains: a Circle of Concern and a Circle of Influence. Your Circle of Concern includes everything you think, worry, complain, care, dream, and get excited about.
This could include personal matters such as your relationships, your work, disagreements or frustrations with people, your financial situation, or your health and happiness. It can also include social, policy or political issues you care about, or news stories you focus on.
Simply, our Circle of Concern is where we spend our time and energy, in our heads and hearts.
Here I will ask that you take a couple of minutes to think honestly about your Circle of Concern and what it includes. You might want to write down your answers. You can draw your own circle and fill it in, or you can print the one below. This will not be shared with others, so be honest, even if you wish some of the things weren’t true.
Then there is your Circle of Influence, which includes things you actually have the power to change, influence, or do something about. This could also include any efforts (actions or habits or conversations) which may lead to change. Put simply, your Circle of Influence contains everything you can do about the things you care about.
For most people, our Circle of Influence is much smaller than our Circle of Concern. But, as Stephen Covey writes in 7 Habits,
“Proactive people focus their efforts in the Circle of Influence. They work on the things they can do something about. The nature of their energy is positive, enlarging, and magnifying, causing their Circle of Influence to increase…
…Reactive people, on the other hand, focus in the Circle of Concern. They focus on the weaknesses of other people, problems in [their] environment, and circumstances over which they have no control. Their focus results in blaming and accusing attitudes, reactive language, and increasing feelings of victimization. The negative energy…combined with neglect in areas they could do something about, causes their Circle of Influence to shrink.”
“As long as we are working with our Circle of Concern, we empower things within it to control us…by working on our [Circle of Influence] instead of worrying about conditions, we are able to influence the conditions”
Now might be a good time to think about which of the concerns you listed in your Circle of Concern are actually within your control, or at least within your ability to influence. Take a few minutes to work on the Circle of Influence worksheet. Again, you can draw your own, or print out the one below.
This exercise can be uncomfortable, and frankly humbling. On top of this there may be confusion as to what belongs in the Circle of Influence, and what does not.
Some of the answers will seem obvious. There isn’t much you can do about an impending missile crisis, politicians’ tweets, or the dating habits of your favorite celebrity–so if you had included these in your Circle of Concern, there they will remain. You can, though, do something about your health, your work, your finances, and your relationships, so those belong in your Circle of Influence[i].
If you are having trouble thinking of things to include in your Circle of Influence, or if it is feeling pretty small indeed, this list may serve as a starting point.
These examples aren’t intended to suggest that we should focus only on our own lives, and forget about the world around us. But for many issues or concerns outside of our own person (whether they be disagreements with other people, or societal problems keeping us up at night), we may find ourselves genuinely confused as to whether they belong in our Circle of Influence.
If this is the case for you, this is okay–you are among us mere mortals. There is a reason the Serenity Prayer is so popular, after all.
But in this case, you might find it helpful to ask yourself the following questions:
- Is there anything I can do about this issue, problem, or person’s behavior?
- Can my thoughts, words or actions change or influence these circumstances?
- Do I have any control over this situation? Can I have any control over it?
- Do I have a role in creating this problem or circumstance, however small?
- Can I have a role in addressing or improving this situation, however small?
Where any answer is “Yes”, it belongs in the Circle of Influence. This is where we want to spend our thoughts, time, and energy. Where the answer to all of the above questions is “No”, the issue belongs in the Circle of Concern.
And then there are two more questions to ask yourself, which call to attention an important layer in the distinction between Circle of Influence and Circle of Concern:
Will my current approach (thoughts, words or actions) actually lead to any change? Am I willing to take the actions that might lead to change, however small?
These questions highlight a habit many of us share–we tell ourselves we are doing something constructive about a problem because we are thinking about it, or talking about it. That or we take actions that are in the scheme of things futile, as they delay meaningful action, distract us, or leave us dancing in circles instead of directly addressing the problem at hand.
Doing our Part: Looking Out and Looking In
This is the simple beauty of the Starfish Story: the child doesn’t worry about the enormous, seemingly hopeless scope of the problem, but instead takes small practical actions within reach, and in doing so actually accomplishes something. This story resonates with so many of us because it contains a real truth: by focusing on the Circle of Influence, the child actually makes a meaningful dent in a problem, and feels a genuine sense of accomplishment.
When we contrast that simple truth to the satirical version of the Starfish Story, it is easy for us to see the absurdity of focusing our thoughts and actions out in the Circle of Concern. So many of the characters engage in blaming and hypocrisy, distractions, avoidance and delaying tactics, among others. It is easy to see the absurdity from the outside. It is harder to see it in ourselves.
But so much of the time, we are the people on the beach looking at the problem with deep concern but standing still. We are the people watching screens and scrolling while ignoring the reality of the situation directly in front of us.
We are the people telling each other that we need more–more data, more information, more resources, more money, more time, more anything–before we can do something about the problems in front of us.
We are the people buying, and buying into, the root causes of some of our most worrisome problems. We are the people looking to others to offer to us solutions tomorrow to problems we possess the power to address ourselves, today.
We are the people who have the time and energy to look outside of ourselves and judge others’ inability to do what needs to be done, but who somehow do not have the time or energy to make simple yet crucial changes in our own lives.
I’d love to change the world/ But I don’t know what to do/ So I’ll leave it up to you. ~Ten Years After
When we look at it this way, the starfish symbolize not only our collective or societal or policy problems, but they can also represent what is important in our personal lives. The starfish can be seen to represent many things we care about, which for the most part are not things—relationships with family and friends, passions, personal goals or dreams, taking care of our health, or getting out into the world in one way or another.
(If you don’t believe me, go back and read the last few paragraphs with this idea in mind.)
The people in the story, then, can represent the voices in our own heads–the things we tell ourselves to keep ourselves from actually taking necessary risks, or any purposeful step or action. These are the voices telling us to focus on our Circle of Concern, at the detriment of what we care about in our lives, and in the world around us.
Why aren’t they doing something, the voices ask. Why aren’t they behaving differently? Why won’t they fix this?
I’m so busy, the voices tell us. It’s not worth it to do this now. Who has that kind of time?
And when we listen to these voices, we soon find ourselves standing and watching while the things we claim to care about wither away.
Looking to Today
Before we get too far down a darker path of thinking, Stephen Covey has a helpful reminder:
“For those filled with regret, perhaps the most needful exercise of proactivity is to realize that past mistakes are also out there in the Circle of Concern. We can’t recall them, we can’t undo them, and we can’t control the consequences that came as a result.”
If we find ourselves thinking about mistakes that are truly and utterly behind us, and there is nothing we can do about them today, or tomorrow…then the only rational thing we can do is let it go. Otherwise we are placing our bets on the table, where they will do us no good. This doesn’t mean we have license to disregard the past entirely. As Covey continues,
“But not to acknowledge a mistake, not to correct it and learn from it, is a mistake of a different order. It usually puts a person on a self-deceiving, self-justifying path, often involving rationalization to self and others. This second mistake…causes far deeper injury to self.”
The point is not to ignore the past, then, but to learn from it, and to work to address or ameliorate the effects of past mistakes from where we are today, with what we have today.
Which brings us back to the beginning, and the story of the Jar of Life. Here is the jar from another angle.
It is a circle. If you think about it, it may be our only real Circle of Influence. The only thing we can ever have control over, the only thing we can ever imagine to change, is what we do with this day. There is no guarantee that tonight will come for us, let alone tomorrow. But if it does come–and fingers crossed that it does–there is not one action or thought we can change, not one molecule we can move tomorrow…until, that is, tomorrow is today.
“There are two days out of the year when you can’t do anything: yesterday and tomorrow.” ~Mahatma Gandhi
Much of our time in our Circle of Concern is spent in our heads, in the past or in the future. But we cannot change the past, and we cannot know the future. If we want to heal the mistakes or hurts of yesterday, we can, but only with purposeful thoughts, words or actions today. If we want to make a better tomorrow, or prevent what we fear in the future, the only way we are going to get there is by changing what we fill our day with today.
The question is, will we fill it with proactive thoughts and actions in support of our priorities, passions, and purpose?
Or will we fill it with sand?
Stephen Covey suggests that we focus on our Circle of Influence for thirty days, choosing to fill our days with the following:
“Be a light, not a judge. Be a model, not a critic. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Look at the weaknesses of others with compassion, not accusation. It’s not what they’re not doing, or should be doing that’s the issue. The issue is your own chosen response to the situation…
Try it in your [relationships], in your family, in your job. Don’t [complain about] other people’s weaknesses. Don’t argue for your own. When you make a mistake, admit it, correct it, and learn from it…Don’t get into blaming, accusing mode. Work on things you have control over. Work on you.”
“Try it,” Covey asks, “and see what happens.”
Now I’ll ask you to imagine one more time.
Imagine what your life would be like if everyone you know focused on their own Circle of Influence, and followed Theodore Roosevelt’s guidance to “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Imagine if your coworkers and colleagues did this. Imagine if your family members did, and your friends did this. Imagine if your significant other did this. This may begin to give us an inkling of how our lives, the lives of those we love, and the world itself could transform if we each made this change.
We often believe we are too busy to make needed changes in our lives, and in the world around us. But our days aren’t nearly as full as we think they are. Our days are packed, that is certain. But so often, they are packed with sand. This leaves us little time for what matters. This leaves us little time for truly living our lives. This leaves us little time for the stars.
For Next Time:
Much of what we covered in this installment isn’t exactly evidence-based. In installments to follow we will get into some of the science supporting the Circle of Influence theory, including the effects on our own well-being, our effectiveness in the world, and our ability to influence others.
A few final questions to consider, if you feel so inclined:
How do you think your life would change if you focused more of your time, energy and actions on meaningful things you can change?
How do you think the lives of the people you know and love might change?
How do you think your impact in the world, your community, or even just one issue you care about might change?
Common Themes in the Circle of Concern
1) Work: politics, advancement, goals, stress, coworkers, boss, work load, schedule;
2) Relationships: family, spouse/partner, friends, coworkers, neighbors, in-laws;
3) Financial situation: goals, retirement, savings, expenses, investments;
4) Health/well-being: (your own, or that of family members/loved ones);
5) Goals/Accomplishments: school (grades, ranking, acceptance,etc) work/ career, athletic, artistic/creative, entrepreneurial, etc.
6) Status, reputation or appearance: (your own, or that of family members/loved ones);
7) Social, policy or political issues: anything that gives you a visceral or emotional response, or which you think or talk about or worry about, from taxes to health care, poverty, war, guns, education, the economy, or the environment.
8) Passions or Hobbies
9) Other people’s personal or public lives or habits: Political leaders, pop stars; the status or selfies of your old high school nemesis or crush;
10) Possessions, property, and other things you own or want to purchase;
11) Things you want to have or experience; and,
12) Things you want to avoid, or things you fear having or experiencing.
13) Behaviors, words, and actions of other people
14) Related to many of the above: resentments, grievances, fears, disagreements, arguments, gossiping, hopes, dreams, etc.
[i] Your health, work, finances, and relationships are not entirely in your control, course…but you have the ability to influence or change them in one direction or another. That is all you need to include them in the Circle of Influence