Circles of Effectiveness

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Circles of Effectiveness

Originally published as “Circles to Keep You Sane” on 8/25/2021.

One way I practice resilience is to focus on the things I can do something about. Being educated about big issues is important and can quickly lead to feeling overwhelmed. My father was a historian and followed world politics avidly. Mom is much more action oriented, “There’s not much we can do about that. What are we going to do today?”  Choosing what to focus on reduces the overwhelm. 

I encountered this same idea in a more formal setting in Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989). He describes the Circles of Concern and Influence. This idea has been helpful ever since. I amended this with an inner circle, the circle of Control. I picture these as concentric rings with fuzzy borders. Some things overlap; topics can shift from one circle to another.   

Your Circles

You can do this next exercise in your imagination or better yet, on a piece of paper.


Imagine a big piece of paper, or a huge whiteboard. Draw as big a circle as you can and label it CONCERNS. This is the container for all the things you worry about but that you have no (or virtually no) influence over. And if you start debating if something belongs here then it does. These are big things (global warming) and little (why did that guy give me that look?). 


Draw a teensy, tiny circle in the middle. Label it CONTROL. These are the things you have control over. The daily choices you make: Eat this, not that. Move your body or lie down. Spend your time, attention, and energy here or there. This circle only exists now. The past and the future all lie outside this. 


Draw a circle around the circle of control, label it INFLUENCE. These are the things you can somewhat change. Generally, making a difference requires the cooperation or participation of others. It is a place where your words and actions impact others. The bonus is the more time you spend in this circle the bigger it gets. The near future and close relationships live here. 

Circles inside circles depicting that whic is in our control, influence, and concern.

Circle Checks

The more time you spend in your outer circle CONCERN the more stressed, exhausted, and helpless you feel. For example, the news shares that the world is on fire, flooding and facing a drought all while humans are making bad decisions and being incredibly barbaric to one another. In other words, a normal Thursday on our planet. It is hard not to sink into that and to watch the horror anxiously. If I spend my day checking on the latest awfulness, which I have no control over, I will be a hot mess in no time. If the fire is in your town, and you work as a fire fighter, and you are on duty – it is then in your circle of INFLUENCE. If not – then circle of CONCERN no matter how much you care. 

When I find myself obsessed about something, I do a circle check. (I am not perfect at this. Ideally it would be 1 minute into the obsession, but I have lost so much time worrying about CONCERN.)  When I realize I am focused on the outer circle, I stop to do something in the circle of CONTROL. I take a short walk, drink a glass of water, or clean something. Then I look at my circle of INFLUENCE. I find a project that needs done, and take an action that is my part to play.  

Sometimes a concern is too overwhelming to ignore. When that happens, I write it down and find some small way to do something about it in my circle of INFLUENCE. I cannot solve humans’ tendency to be brutal to one another. I cannot think of a way to save a child on another continent. I can, however, donate to a local domestic violence shelter which is my small contribution toward people being helped. I can write an email or call a representative. I can always find something to do within my influence.  

Circles of Effectiveness

The two inner circles are finite. Worrying about CONCERN is like fog – it permeates everything. CONTROL and INFLUENCE are limited. There is only so much time, energy, and attention. And they are where change happens. I use these circles again and again when considering stress management, prioritizing my time, and dealing with relationships. I wonder if you have used these, or similar ideas, in your life? How do you bring yourself back into those spaces where you can be most effective?  

Laura will talk more about using these circles as a tool to envision your long-term goals in the upcoming class: Creating Your 5-Year Compass. We are planning a launch in early 2022.  

To learn more, explore for tools, videos, and coaching opportunities.


Laura A. Gaines