It’s a bit of an understatement to say that 2020 has been an incredibly stressful year for many people all around the world.
With Covid-19 stress levels are likely higher than normal, due to drastic changes in daily life including unemployment, social isolation, and worry about the health of ourselves and loved ones.
It is often said that “stress is the new smoking.” According to a study, being chronically stressed out is as bad for your health as smoking 5 cigarettes per day!
To make the problem worse, many people aren’t able to turn to their typical stress management techniques during this time, such as going out with friends, traveling, participating in team sports, going to the gym etc.
This post will give you a new tool called the circles of control, which will help you learn how to manage stress so that you can stay healthy.
Introducing The Circles of Control Technique
The circles of control technique was pioneered by Stephen Covey, author of 7 Habits For Highly Effective People.
The purpose of this technique is to help us focus our attention and effort on the things we can change so we don’t waste time worrying about what we can’t.
It is a great technique for those times when you feel as if nothing in your life is under your own control.
You may be familiar with the serenity prayer:
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”-Reinhold Niebuhr
The circles of control technique gives us “the wisdom to know the difference” between what we can and can not change.
The Circles Explained
In the circles of control technique, there are three concentric circles.
The largest, outer circle, is known as the “circle of concern“. This circle contains anything and everything that we worry about.
For example, paying bills, possible accidents, work deadlines, the morning traffic, wildfires, if our kids will behave, whether we’ll wake up on time, or get that promotion would all fall within the circle of concern, because they are all things we worry about.
The middle circle is called the “circle of influence“. This circle contains things that we may have some say or affect on, but that are not under our direct control.
For example, we can not control the words or actions of our loved ones, but we may be able to influence those words and actions by talking and reasoning with them.
Similarly, we cannot control whether or not the hiring manager gives us a job, but we can influence the decision by writing a fantastic resume, learning all we can about the company, and practicing interview questions.
Finally, the smallest, innermost circle, is called the “circle of control“. This circle contains the smallest amount of items as compared to the other two.
What Things Are Actually Under Our Control?
It should be noted that everyone is different and there are always extenuating circumstances, but for the most part, we have control over a pretty fixed set of things.
When you are feeling that you have no control over what’s going on in your life, refer back to this list to put things back in perspective.
You generally have control over:
- Your actions.
- Your words.
- Your attitude.
- Your mindset.
- Your priorities.
- Your effort levels.
- The food you eat.
- How active you are.
- How you spend your free time.
- How you respond to a situation.
- Who you surround yourself with.
Note: just because you don’t like the options you have, doesn’t mean a situation isn’t under your control.
For example, say someone enrolled in university and the homework and studying occupy every waking moment. For these reasons, the person may think that they can’t control how they spend their free time.
However, it was their choice to enroll in university after all.
They could decide to quit university to free up extra time if they wanted (not that I’m encouraging this!), but just because they may not like that option doesn’t mean it’s not an option.
How a person spends their free time is based on their decisions and therefore under their control.
How To Manage Stress With The Circles Of Control Technique
To use this technique, do a brain dump and write down everything that’s making you worry with respect to a certain topic or situation.
I like to write it all down on the outside of the circles to start with. This way I can get them out of my head fast, without thinking where I need to put each worry.
Once you’ve got all that down on paper, revisit each worry, and ask yourself:
- Is this something I have direct control over?
- If so, put it in the circle of control.
- Is this something I can influence?
- If so, put it in the circle of influence.
- The terms that are left would be placed in the circle of concern.
- You worry about them, but you can neither influence or control them.
When you put each worry in it’s appropriate circle, make sure to cross it out where you had originally written it around the outside of the circles. This way every worry is accounted for.
Interpreting The Results Of Your Circles Of Control Activity
When you’ve placed all your worries in the corresponding circles, take a moment to reflect on your completed diagram.
Focusing on and worrying about the items in the “circle of concern” wastes a lot of mental energy and can make you feel overly anxious, unhappy, and not in control.
The items in this circle are the ones the serenity prayer references in the line that says, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change”.
There is nothing we can do about the items in this circle, so it’s best not to dwell on them."Worrying is like a rocking chair, it gives you something to do, but it gets you nowhere." -Glenn Turner Click To Tweet
What You Should Focus On
The two inner circles are where we may have some ability to influence the outcome of what we are worrying about.
This is the “courage to change the things I can” part of the prayer.
However, I should mention that you should spend a lot more time focusing on things in the circle of control than the circle of influence.
Focusing on the circle of influence typically is banking on the fact that you can persuade someone else to change their actions or words. Sometimes this may work, but oftentimes it won’t.
Where you will get the most bang for your buck, is by focusing your efforts on the circle of control – on the things you can do to change the situation.
People that can focus their energy and efforts on this circle tend to be happier, more light-hearted, and less stressed overall.
Examples Of The Circles Of Control Technique
Check out the following examples of how to use the circles of control to determine where to focus your energy and efforts.
Note that this technique can be used with all types of situations.
For health reasons, it is extremely important to be able to reduce stress levels and avoid excess worry, especially in situations where nothing can be done. The circles of control technique can help with this.
The Circles of Control Exercise will help you:
- Get your worries off your chest.
- Realize there are things you have control over.
- Focus your energy on what you can control.
- Stop worrying about what you can’t control.
- Effectively manage & decrease stress levels.