One of the biggest difficulties we face when trying to instigate change in our lives is protecting ourselves from the effects of the past and an imagined future. Even when the past has been somewhat dealt with, the brave new world known as our new future life can be difficult to deal with, hold many fears and lead us to rumination. It is in this process of rumination (a form of daydreaming) where we are at our most vulnerable mentally. We allow negative thoughts and “big picture” concerns to affect our lives and judgement. What do I mean with “big picture” concerns? These are the things that we busy ourselves with thinking about such as global issues, political and financial structures and other’s behavior that we have no chance in the world of influencing. Yet we try, blame and judge and make ourselves miserable. Our minds race, trying to solve problems that have no solution and the result is depression. How many of these issues can you or should you directly influence? Let’s say, for example, that you’re very concerned with the rise of international terrorism. How can you, as an individual, influence global politics to such an extent that you’re going to have a personal impact on the future of this issue? Unless you’ve committed yourself to a career in international politics, the chances are that this concern of yours, critically important though it may be, will not fall within your circle of influence. Fundamentally, outside of being well-informed on these issues that concern you, your time would be much better spent focusing on the issues that lie directly within your own influence.
One of the best descriptions of this process was written by Stephen Covey in his best-seller, The 7 Habits. Covey depicted two circles to describe where people spend their time : The Circle of Concern, which contains the activities mentioned above and the Circle of Influence, the smaller circle that we really should be focussing on. This contains all the activities that we can have an influence on, namely our own focus, thoughts and behavior. As in this diagram :
The circles represent the 2 areas where you can focus your time and energy. The vast majority of people focus too much time and energy outside of their Circle of Influence, and in their Circle of Concern.
Covey notes that highly effective people think and act primarily within their Circle of Influence. They forget about the things over which they have no or very little control, preferring instead to focus their time where they can actually make a difference. By doing this, they gradually expand their Circle of Influence as they deflect the thoughts from outside. To give a concrete example, let me list some common things people generally 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, be environmentally more responsible
- Personal finances – learn new skills to find a job or earn a promotion. Face difficult situations head-on.
- Physical health – exercise for 20 minutes daily. Change diet.
- Being single – work on your social skills so you can meet more potential partners. Drop perfectionist values.
When you’re faced with something that comes at you from your circle of concern, but that isn’t within your circle of influence, you meet that challenge by changing something that is in your control. When you figure out what that is and respond accordingly, you will have learned a valuable lesson. The lessons of childhood, adolescence and adulthood are hard enough, but they mainly concern themselves with the outside world. The lessons I am talking about here are different: they concern themselves with the inner you. They deal with self-esteem, values, purpose, meaning, direction, and your unique destiny in this world. These are the real lessons: the ones that really count.