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Out of the Circle Thinking

Focus = Feelings

If you tend to focus on things you do not control, you’ll feel more anxious in general, because the brain evolved to dislike uncertainty.

But if you develop a habit of finding and focusing on the things you can control, you will feel more certainty, calmness and clarity. This is easy to demonstrate using a model from Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Our Circle of Control is all the stuff we pay attention to which we can control (light green circle). Our Circle of Concern is the stuff we focus on which we do not control (dark green circle). The bigger our circle of control gets, the smaller our circle of concern gets, and vice-versa – because we can only focus on so many things at once.

On the left is a person with a big circle of concern, therefore a small circle of control. They will feel more anxious, nervous and exhausted, because they focus on so many things they cannot control.

On the right is a person with a large circle of control, therefore a small circle of concern. They will feel more certainty, more in-control, and calmer overall because their attention is on things they can control.

So, a key way to reduce anxiety and feel calmer is to find and focus on the things we can control, growing our circle of control which automatically shrinks our circle of concern.

For example, consider: What are the top 3 things you could do to improve your current situation? How can you enjoy today? How can you adapt your parenting or work to be more effective? As you begin answering questions like those, you are already moving your focus on to things you can control.

But focusing on things you control isn’t only about your thoughts: It’s about taking action as well.

Feeling tired? Take a walk. Go to bed earlier. Pour some coffee. Take a shower. Schedule a medical check-up.

Feeling stressed? It might help to reduce how much news you watch, because the problems on the news are probably things you cannot directly control.

So, draw two circles, start notice where your worries are, which circle they are in, and how much time you spend on each.

Note: Some people use three circles, adding a middle "circle of influence" between control and concern, to allow them to list things they have some, but not total control over. Again, you should apportion the most time and energy to those items in your circle of control.


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