In Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, there’s a diagram very similar to the above.
It highlights the two main areas where you can spend your energy. And according to Covey, highly effective people spend far more energy focusing on their Circle of Influence rather than on their Circle of Concern.
The basic idea is that instead of spending a lot of energy thinking about and getting angry about things you don’t influence (like the weather, or the economy, or the environment), you spend your energy and time on things you do influence.
It’s a pretty cool model to keep in mind.
I’d also like to expand on that idea. I’m going to go into enlarging your circle of influence (but bigger is not necessarily better!), and I will introduce the idea of a yet smaller circle that lies within your Circle of Influence. Namely, your Circle of Control.
But first, let me explain the idea of the two above circles a bit more.
Circle of Concern, Circle of Influence
There are a lot of things that concern me.
The quality of my drinking water. Correctly and clearly labeled food in supermarkets. The environment. Clothing being made without child labour. Gay rights. The weather.
And yet I don’t have direct influence over any of those. (I could choose to expand my circle of influence to most of those, but more on that in the next section.)
I choose to let others handle those issues, and I am eternally grateful to them for that. Instead, I focus on where I can make the most difference. Helping people live more passionate, fulfilling lives.
The question is – do you spend a sizeable chunk of your time and energy outside your circle of influence?
This involves things like worrying a lot about the environment (without getting actively involved in helping it). Focusing a lot on politics (unless you’re a politician yourself). Complaining about the weather.
For any of those things, unless you really enjoy doing it, you’re wasting your energy. (It’s completely fine to have some quality play-time. But if you’re spending your time upset and angry, that’s neither relaxing nor fun.)
Instead, you have two good options:
- Focus your attention elsewhere
- Focus your attention on those issues in a way that puts them in your Circle of Influence.
To quote Niall Doherty from his post on this exact topic:
Let me list some common things people worry about (Circle of Concern), followed by an example of something they could do to improve the situation (Circle of Influence):
- The environment – recycle your plastic
- Personal finances – learn new skills to find a job or earn a promotion
- Physical health – exercise for 20 minutes daily
- Being single – work on your social skills so you can meet more potential partners
- The future – build a time machine
Whenever you’re getting worked up over something, ask yourself, “What can I do to change this situation for the better?” Figure out some good ideas and act on them. If you really can’t think of anything, realize that you’re wasting valuable time and energy worrying about the issue. Let it go, and redirect your resources to an area where you can actually make a difference.
As a rather random example of my own, I’ve decided to put the weather within my Circcle of Influence.
Nope, I’m not building a giant mad tesla coil on top of a hill to control the storms (though hmm… now that I say that out loud…). I’ve come to realize how important sunny weather is to my mood, and decided to make that an active part of deciding where to move at the beginning of next year!
That being said, I don’t recommend expanding your influence to everything that concerns you…
Going wide vs going deep – refocusing your Circle of Influence
Let’s go back to my above examples. Let’s say I wanted to actively become involved in all the things that concern me, like checking tap water quality, and making sure supermarkets label their foods accurately, and promoting gay rights, and so on.
I could probably do all of that – but it would also severely cut down on my free time, and I might no longer be able to devote as much time as I’d like to other pursuits. Like writing here.
And I could only get involved in all of those things on a surface level, because I had so many things demanding my attention.
I would widen my Circle of Influence, but make it shallower.
You have a limited amount of energy each day. And while you can increase your energy reserves somewhat, there are still thousands of times more tasks to be done than you could possibly do yourself.
The thing is – you get increasingly big returns with depth of involvement. So while focusing on five things shallowly gives you a wider spread, the difference you make to people’s lives will be far greater if you focus on one thing deeply.
You could deliberately shrink your Circle of Influence. Just stop trying to control everything you’re concerned about, and trust other people to handle most of those issues. Focus on really making a difference in a few areas.
Circle of Concern, Circle of Influence, Circle of Control
Nested inside the above two circles, there’s yet another, smaller circle. Your circle of control.
This circle consists of things that are directly within your control (or could be, in any case). Namely:
- Your thoughts
- Your reactions to outside stimuli
- Your actions
Yes, yes, I know you’re not always entirely in control of those. But the vast majority of the time, you are.
Contrast this with things that you NEVER control directly – other people’s actions, other people’s thoughts, the environment around you. You can influence all of those, but you never, ever control them!
Confusing influence and control can lead to all sorts of unhappiness if you set your goals outside your circle of control, and they get screwed up by external factors.
As an example, a friend of mine was recently formulating his three big goals for this year (September 2011 to September 2012). One of his goals goals was to have the students of his new critical thinking class give his class an average rating of at least 4 out of 5 at the end of the year.
I pointed out that this is outside his control. Judging his success on a goal like that would open him to all sorts of influences he can’t do anything about. Maybe there will be students who don’t really care about the class and will give a low rating no matter how good the teaching is. That would make his goal “failed”, despite him teaching an absolutely kick-ass class that really benefited those who cared.
Okay, that’s quite a bit of loosely connected ideas we’ve covered today. Here’s a quick summary of the main points:
- Spend your time and energy within your circle of influence, rather than wasting them on things outside your influence.
- Expanding your circle of influence dilutes your effectiveness. Trust others to handle most of the issues that concern you, and focus on making a big difference in a few focused areas.
- Set your goals within your Circle of Control, or risk being unhappy because of external factors.
And now it’s over to you!
Give it a bit of thought. Where do you spend your time and energy worrying about things outside your Circle of Influence? How could you move them within your influence?