Actionable Wisdom

Circle of Influence: How To Live a Bigger Life


Published August 24th, 2018 by Ben Reynolds

Imagine all of your cares and concerns.  Your circle of concern is the sum of everything you care about.

A subset of your circle of concern is your circle of influence.  Your circle of influence only includes things you have some power to change.

Your circle of control is a subset of your circle of influence.  The circle of control only includes situations in which we have near-total power to change.

The ‘circle’ hierarchy is:

  1. Circle of concern
  2. Circle of influence
  3. Circle of control

The circle of concern / influence / control diagram below illustrates this concept.

Source:  The circle of concern and circle of influence concepts were originally created by Dr. Stephen Covey in his popular book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  The circle of control concept was created later as an adaptation to Dr. Covey’s work.

The circle you spend most of your time and energy in matters.

If you focus on things outside of your circle of influence, it is likely life will be filled with anxiety and a sense of helplessness.

Over time, focusing within your circles of influence and control will expand the influence you have in your life.

Which circle do you spend the most of your time in?  If you are spending most of your time outside your circles of influence and control, are you being as effective possible?

This article will clarify the meaning of the 3 circles, help you to spend time in the circles that matter, and show you how to expand your circle of influence and circle of concern.

Table of Contents

No Control, Indirect Control, Direct Control

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People author Dr. Covey breaks down the problems we face into 3 categories:

  1. No control (within circle of concern, outside circle of influence)
  2. Indirect control (within circle of concern, outside circle of control)
  3. Direct control (within circle of control)

An example of a situation in which you have no control (outside circle of influence) is in what direction the stock market moves.

An example of a situation in which you have indirect control (in circle of influence, outside circle of control) is the amount of money you save every month.  You can plan to save a certain amount monthly, but there are circumstances beyond your control that could put this plan into jeopardy.

An example of a situation in which you have direct control (inside circle of control) is selecting which investments to purchase.

When we encounter a situation which we have no control over, that’s not an excuse to get frustrated.  Even in situations outside of our control, we can still take responsibility to control our emotions and accept the situation at hand.

Actions, Consequences, & Feedback

In the final analysis, we only have control over our actions but not of the consequences of those actions.  We can control what we think and do, but we cannot control the results of our actions.

This does not absolve us from learning from our mistakes.  Rather, it gives us the opportunity to learn and improve.

In this way, we can turn a ‘negative’ event from a perceived failure to a learning experience, and from a learning experience to a success.

Making mistakes is natural.  Failing to learn from mistakes is perhaps the only real mistake.  When we respond negatively to the consequences of our actions we lose the opportunity to gather feedback, learn, and grow.  Learning from our mistakes gives us power over them.

4 Ways To Focus On Your Circles of Influence & Control

The first step towards focusing on your circles of influence and control is to be aware.  You must take stock of your thoughts and surroundings to determine which circle you are acting in.  This can be done through the conscious practice of mindfulness.

When you have a moment of awareness, you give yourself space to realize the difference between things inside and outside of your control.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Victor Frankl

The Serenity Prayer is an excellent way to create space for reflection and encourage yourself to put your emphasis on areas within your control.  The popular abridged Serenity Prayer is below.

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.”

You can download a printable version of both the full and abridged versions of the Serenity Prayer by clicking here.

Studying the pragmatic philosophy of the Stoics (and other great focus quotes) is another way to build the knowledge and mindset necessary to focus on your circles of influence and control.

The following quote from Stoic philosopher Epictetus is an ancient predecessor to the modern-day concept of staying within your Circle of Influence:

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.  Where do I look for good and evil?  Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…”

Source:  The Daily Stoic, page 9; originally from Discourses by Epictetus, 2.5.4-5

Another way to focus your attention where it is of value is to analyze your language.  Do you often say “if only” or “if I had”?  Using this type of language means you are waiting for an external event to happen before you will take responsibility.

On the contrary, using phrases like “I will” or “I can be” shows you are taking responsibility and living within your Circle of Influence.  You are creating change internally, instead of waiting for the world to change for you.

Focusing on your circle of influence rather than your circle of concern takes practice.  It is not an all or nothing endeavor.  Rather, it is a process that builds momentum over time.

In summary, 4 ways to focus on your circle of influence are:

  1. Practice mindfulness
  2. Reflect on the Serenity Prayer
  3. Learn and implement Stoic philosophy
  4. Analyze the language you use

10 Ways to Expand Your Circle of Influence

Your circles are not static.  They will change over time.

As influence expands, so too can the things we are concerned about.  The President of the United States has a much larger circle of influence and circle of concern than does the average person.

The more we can influence, the more good we can do for others.  But how do you actually expand your Circle of Influence?

#1:  Spend Time in Your Circle of Influence

Time spent in your circle of influence will eventually expand your influence.  The first way to expand your Circle of Influence is to review and implement the 4 ways to focus on it (see the previous section of this article).

The more time we spend in our circle of influence, the more effective we become.  This creates a self-reinforcing process; like a snowball rolling perpetually downhill growing ever larger.

#2:  Be Proactive

The act of being proactive expands our Circle of Influence over time.  By being proactive and taking responsibility we grow our influence.

This doesn’t mean to wait for more responsibility.  In business and in life, we can take more responsibility and deliver more value without waiting to be told to do so.

#3:  Make Commitments and Keep Them

Make commitments to yourself and others.  Set goals, and strive to complete them.

The act of committing and setting goals is empowering.  It gives us authority and responsibility to make a change.

Failing to set commitments gives away your responsibility.  It puts off progress for another time.  Striving to reach goals and fulfill our commitments keeps us in our Circle of Influence – which expands the circle over time.

#4:  Seize the Opportunity to Respond Positively to Life’s Annoyances

Life is filled with minor annoyances.  Traffic, solicitors, rude people, having your takeout order not get filled correctly; these things all lead to frustration.

Aggravations will always be a part of life.  How we respond to them is what matters.  When we respond by remaining composed and analyzing the situation objectively, we gain power over the situation. This in turn increases our circle of control and influence over our reaction to external events.

The thought exercise below can help you prepare for one of life’s semi-predicable annoyances:

Think of a situation where you would normally respond reactively.  Think of how you could respond proactively instead.

#5:  Be Conscious of Where You Can Improve The Most

Most people are naturally wired to notice their own faults and flaws.

When you can notice the areas in which you need the most improvement, you gain valuable feedback.  Once you know where your inputs will have the most results, it’s your choice to take action.

What is the one area in your life which would benefit you the most to improve?  Write it down, and go to the next step.

#6:  Take The First Step

Take the situation you wrote down from #5 above, and ask yourself the following question:

Is this something I have full control over, some control over, or no control over?

If the answer to that question is ‘no control’, then focusing on acceptance and our reactions to the issue is paramount.

If the answer is ‘some control’ or ‘full control’, identify the first step you can take to resolve the issue.

Once you’ve identified the first step, take action.

#7:  Plan Ahead to Make The Most of Your Time

One thing is certain in life; things won’t always go according to plan.  But we can plan ahead for delays and inconveniences.

How often do you sit in traffic or wait in line for long periods of time?  You can plan ahead to use this ‘unexpected delay’ time effectively by:

The above is an example of how planning ahead can improve your effectiveness and keep you in your circle of influence.

#8:  Surround Yourself with Positive Influences

Entrepreneur and author Jim Rohn famously says that you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.  This idea can be applied to your circle of influence.

Who you surround yourself with greatly influences you, and you in turn influence them.  But you don’t necessarily have to go out and build an entire new social circle.

Instead, you can learn to influence yourself by curating the information you take in.  By improving your information environment, you can have some influence over the messages reaching us.  Messages centered on positive growth will help you to improve.

#9:  Don’t Try to Solve Everything

Focusing only on your circle of influence isn’t easy.  It takes will power, especially at first.

Ask yourself if the situation at hand is really in your circle of influence?  Even if you can influence it, is it worth your time?

You don’t have to solve every problem.  If you feel stuck, try to get help or delegate.

#10:  The 30 Day Focused Action Challenge

Coming soon:  The 30-Day Focused Action Challenge is a free 30 day email course that will help you:

  1. Build the habit of identifying what’s in your circle of influence
  2. Accept what you can’t control
  3. Take action on what you can change

Click here to join the wait list.

Invert:  How to Contract Your Circle of Influence

Financial genius Charlie Munger (Warren Buffett’s long-standing business partner, and billionaire in his own right) has popularized the saying:

“Invert, always invert.”

The quote is originally from 19th century German mathematician Carl Jacobi.

The saying above means to look at a problem backwards.  Instead of asking yourself how to live longer, ask yourself what kills people prematurely – and then avoid those things.

The process of inverting shows what not to do.  If you avoid the pitfalls above, you’ve given yourself a much higher probability of staying within your Circle of Influence.

So how do you reduce your circle of influence?

Give away any responsibility as quickly as you can.  Be reactive and wait for “the perfect time” to act.  Better yet, don’t act at all because the world isn’t ‘fair’.

Maybe you are too old, you shouldn’t seek to improve.  Or maybe you are too young; again, it isn’t your time.  In any case, abdicate your responsibility.  Put off decisions until tomorrow, and then repeat that process every day.

Should You Strive to Shrink Your Circle of Concern?

The Circle of Concern may seem like something to be avoided, but that’s not the case.

As your Circle of Influence expands, so too should your Circle of Concern.  The mark of a high achiever is someone who influences others and doesn’t focus exclusively on themselves.

When your circle of influence is larger than your circle of concern, you may be too self-focused and not pushing yourself to grow and reach new heights.  You may be focusing only on your needs at the exclusion of others.

The balance lies in using your concerns as motivation to achieve greater influence, rather than as viewing your concerns as insurmountable obstacles.

The Circle of Concern isn’t bad, but it can be counterproductive and lead to needless worry and wasted time.  Conversely, what you are concerned with can be motivation.

As an example, you may care about animal welfare.  There might not be much you can do today, but this concern can be used as motivation to expand your Circle of Influence and make in impact in an area you feel is important.

Free Download:  Circle of Influence Expansion Worksheet & Actionable Next Steps

The 1-page worksheet contains 4 quick and actionable steps to begin your journey towards a greater circle of influence.

Click here to download your free circle of influence expansion worksheet now.

How productive you are is determined by how often you stay in your circle of influence.

As our circle of influence expands, so does our ability to make meaningful progress in our lives and the lives of others.  You have the choice to focus on what is in your control, or you can choose to fret over things you can’t control.

One path leads to a life of chosen helplessness.  The harder (but more rewarding) path leads to greater freedom, power, and responsibility.

Coming soon:  The 30-Day Focused Action Challenge is a free 30 day email course to build the habit of identifying what’s in your circle of influence, accepting what you can’t control, and taking action on what you can change.  Click here to join the wait list.