Let’s face it. Most of us have more on our plates than ever before. With a constant stream of updates, deadlines, and to-do lists, getting overwhelmed by everything can be hard to avoid. The sheer volume of things on our minds can seem like a heavy burden as well. Just trying to keep everything straight is a challenge. We often expend unnecessary energy dwelling on things that are out of our control or we lack action in the areas that we can control out of analysis paralysis or fear. However, there are two tools we can use to discover where our attention should be placed and what to do next.
The Circle of Influence
This first attention focusing method, the circle of influence, comes from Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In the book, Mr. Covey explains that we often worry and think about much more than what we have control over. This leads us to stress out in a reactive way that leaves us unproductive. Rather, he encourages, we should inventory what we do have influence over in our lives and narrow our focus there.
To illustrate this point, take a piece of paper and draw two concentric circles (the end result will look like a doughnut with a large circle and a smaller one in the center). In the biggest circle write the words “My Circle of Concern.” In the smaller, middle circle, write “My Circle of Influence.”
Next, take a moment to write all the concerns or worries you have on your mind in the appropriate circle. For example, if you are worried about your boss’ slightly negative feedback, that would go inside the Circle of Concern. You cannot change your boss’ demeanor, nor can you force her to act in a certain way. So though this may deeply concern you, it also does not need to be where your focus lies.
Instead, you can determine what level of influence you can have over the situation, if any. Perhaps you can anticipate her needs in an upcoming meeting and provide her with the information she will seek. Or, if there is truly an unfounded bias, you can still influence what your reaction to her negativity is, choose not to hold on to any hurt or anger, or even look for a new job.
Other items like starting a small business will stay within your Circle of Influence. Need funding? That would fall under the Circle of Concern, but your business proposal writing and investor networking is still within your control.
As you live from your Circle of Influence, the proactive part of you, rather than your Circle of Concern, the reactive part of you, you will find that your inner circle may grow. When people come to rely upon you as a stable, reliable person who is not swayed by things beyond your control you will find that more people will come to rely on your thoughts and ideas for their own lives.
Another way to unravel what you have control over and what to do next is by creating what I call “worry flashcards.” Simply cut a piece of paper into small squares and write a single worry on a single sheet of paper. You may find you have 12 worry flashcards or 32, depending on the volume of things you are concerned about.
If your concerns span several different parts of your life, you might want to then subdivide the flashcards into each category. You might find you have personal, relationship, career, or financial categories. Take a look at each worry category one by one. When looking at the personal category, you will check to see if the concern falls in either of these three labels:
I can’t control…
I can control…
Not true anymore…
Odds are, there will be a few worries in each category that will fall under these three labels. On the back of the “I can’t control” cards, write what you wish, pray, or hope for in that situation. On the back of the “I can control” cards, write the very next thing you can do in that situation today. On the back of the “not true anymore” cards, write out why that worry is no longer valid or necessary. Continue this process through each worry category until all the worry flashcards have a response on the back of the card according to their labels.
Next, it’s time to sort. Feel free to discard the “not true anymore” cards and throw them away – they are no longer worthy of your attention. For the “I can’t control” pile, feel free to reflect on each and wish/hope/or pray for the best in those situations and let those cards, too, fall away. And last but not least, take the remaining cards from the “I can control” pile and put them in order of what you can actually accomplish today – starting right now.
This new order of cards, with actions face up, are really all you now need to use to guide your steps and thoughts for the rest of the day. If you find your mind wandering to any of the discarded worries, simply remind yourself of your hope about a situation or the reason that it is no longer true and return your focus back to the action at hand.
Though we will all find ourselves from time to time distracted by things outside our Circle of Influence or worries that we cannot control, we can always return back to these exercises to give ourselves perspective and clarity. It’s not what happens to us that determines our success, it’s how we handle what we do next that determines the outcome.