Open Thinkering


Find what you can influence, and focus your attention

Sandstone rock

One of my favourite blog posts of 2013 was by James Clear. In it, he shared this diagram:

Circle of Concern vs. Circle of Control

This brings into sharp focus an easy way in which we can quickly and easily change our lives for the better. All it takes is shifting our attention from things we can’t influence to those that we can. In other words, focusing on and increasing our Circle of Control.

Here’s some examples where I’ve tried to do just that:

Example 1

“Success or failure is caused more by mental attitude than by mental capacity.” (Sir Walter Scott)

During the years I was writing my doctoral thesis I had very little time to study. Not only did I have a demanding full-time teaching job, but my wife and I had a baby boy to take care of and worry about as only new parents can.

In order to find time to write I had to carve out time wherever I could. This would often mean getting up very early (~4am) to get in a couple of hours of study before the rest of the family woke up.

Feedback from my family and colleagues quickly confirmed what I suspected: on the days I got up early I was more positive and pleasant to be around. Instead of waking up and reacting to what happened around me, I could prepare for it. I was in control.

Example 2

“Most people would rather be certain they’re miserable, than risk being happy.” (Robert Anthony)

When I used to commute to work, like millions of people around the world I switched on the radio each morning. After all, everyone wants to keep up with the news. So I joined an audience regaled daily with, effectively, stories of misery and death.

The turning point came when I realised that I could listen to podcasts in the car. I can’t remember exactly what I used to listen to back then but these days my favourites include Thinking Allowed, 99% Invisible, and Freakonomics Radio. Not only do podcasts tend to be more upbeat than the news, but it’s like having my own radio station. I’m in control.

Example 3

“A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.” (Franz Kafka)

In my early twenties I used to read the bible every morning. While I’ve strayed away from the faith, the habit of reading something familiar and with a moral dimension has remained with me. In fact, the book I’ve chosen to read on repeat each morning was written by a 17th-century Jesuit priest named Baltasar Gracián.

The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence is a collection of 200 maxims about dealing with yourself and others. I read anywhere from a couple to ten maxims most days, and I try to do so before dealing with other people. It’s the perfect mix of pragmatism and moral imperative. Interestingly, sometimes it’s translated The Art of Worldly Wisdom.

The important point here is less the book I’ve chosen and more the habit of reading something that encourages you to be the best you can be. When there’s so much happening around me in the world that I can’t influence, it’s nice being reminded that there are many things I can control.


These are small changes that make a huge difference to my life. They involve shifting my attention from other people’s agendas to my own. This year I’m looking to further increasing my Circle of Control rather than my Circle of Concern.

You’ll notice that all of these examples derive from morning activities. For me, it’s a crucial time: get it right and you’re set up for the day.

What do YOU do to help increase your Circle of Control?

9 thoughts on “Find what you can influence, and focus your attention

  1. Over the past 3 years or so I have definitely been moving towards more of the “Circle of Control”. I have made a conscious decision to invest most of my time and effort in making an impact within my immediate environments. Whilst I still take up opportunities to share my work and experiences nationally & internationally I have noticeably been able to improve staff & student experiences more than when I was more focussed on trying to generate national discussion & debate. I have increased my use of social networks to keep in touch with colleagues nationally and internationally so that I can spend more time actually at work!

      1. Almost as delicate as balancing family with work. I am in a fortunate position where my job is also a personal interest so when I am reading or surfing for pleasure it can often be related to work. I think the important thing as you have identified is to find a system and process that works for you.
        As an example my morning routine usually looks a bit like this:

        6.30am – up and do some work usually planning my day (using Wunderlist) and emails etc.
        7.30am – breakfast with the family.
        8am – cycle to work (also a great opportunity for thinking)
        Usually at work between 9-9.15

        Evening routine:

        Home between 5.30-6
        Dinner 6-6.30
        Homework help until 7.30 (or an opportunity to play PS3 with my eldest if there’s no homework)
        8.30 – usually 30 mins of finishing off any lose ends from the day
        9pm – R&R

        It’s taken me a few years to find a routine that works for us but it really has helped me be more focussed and productive and be realistic about what I can achieve. It doesn’t always work the way we plan or intend it to but I think if we can generally get the balances right then we can be effective in our work and supportive in our family lives too.

  2. Thanks Doug.

    I think the Circle of Control and Circle of Concern were taken from Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I picked a copy up for coppers from Amazon a while back –

    It’s a best seller, but I found bits of it a bit wishy washy. This part on the circles was interesting though and a good way to look at things. Only part way through that book so I really should get back to it!

  3. I love this list. It is easy to fall into the trap of reacting to the things around you, and sometimes positive changes can come from that. However, I’ve found that, now that I’m starting to be more proactive that more change can come from that. I just have to be careful not to get sucked into stimuli like social media which can make you more reactive. Thanks for sharing your resource. I’m going to share your blog

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