When times get tough, it's tempting to want to fix it all. Unfortunately, as much as you might want to help out with all the problems in the world, taking on too much can lead to burnout, which ends up taking away from the things you do have control over.
Instead, you should focus on the aspects of life you're able to affect directly, which allows you to enact change while also maintaining your well-being. For guidance on how to do so, we can look to the Circle of Influence.
What is the Circle of Influence?
The Circle of Influence concept was coined by Stephen Covey in his popular 1989 book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
According to Covey, there are two "circles" we can use to categorize our worries: the Circle of Concern (the things we care about), and the Circle of Influence (things we care about and can affect).
The Circle of Concern encompasses anything you might be worried about, including your health, family, finances, the government, the state of the world, etc. Some of these things you can influence, and some of these you cannot. Anything you can directly address falls under the Circle of Influence.
For example, you might be worried about what the government is going to do about the economy. This would fall under the Circle of Concern. It's something that you're worried about but can't do much about.
On the flip side, if you're worried about a big work project you have to get done, that would fall under the Circle of Influence. It's something you are concerned about that you can directly address through action.
Of course, you shouldn't ignore an issue just because it's out of your control, but, Covey argues, you can alleviate some anxiety by focusing your energy on what falls directly inside your Circle of Influence.
How to find your personal Circle of Influence.
"Focusing more on things we can control allows us to invest our emotional energy into issues in the most effective and beneficial way," psychotherapist William Chum, LMHC, tells mbg.
"Similar to icing a cake, if we only have one jar of frosting, we can either use it to spread just a tiny bit of frosting on every cake in the world, or we can use the jar to make one very good cake."
In order to start allocating your energy in an effective way, you'll need to be able to decipher what falls both inside and outside your Circle of Influence. Here's how:
Step 1: Make a list of your concerns.
Write them down on a piece of paper, and start organizing them by figuring out what you can directly affect and what is out of your control. Anything you can influence goes in the inner circle, and anything out of your hands goes into the outside. Some worries will be easy to pinpoint, but others may require some mindfulness exercises.
Step 2: Pay attention to your emotional cues.
Is anything on your list making you feel overwhelmed, burnt out, or resentful? "These emotions are cues for you to slow down and examine whether what or who you're trying to influence is actually responding to the influence," psychologist Justine Grosso, PsyD, tells mbg.
"If you cannot find any evidence that your efforts are leading to incremental change, it may be worth reorganizing your approach to influence or putting your efforts elsewhere."
Step 3: Take focused action.
Once you've figured out your Circle of Influence, you'll want to concentrate your energy on anything that falls within the circle while practicing tools of acceptance for those concerns that fall outside of the circle.
Using the Circle of Influence, you can set and maintain boundaries with yourself. Instead of focusing on a larger end goal, ask yourself, "What is one thing I can do today to help accomplish what I want in the future?" suggests Chum.
"This question allows us to recognize what actions or decisions are within our Circle of Influence that can help us work toward satisfying our Circle of Concern."
How to build out your Circle of Influence over time.
Over time, you may find that you can expand your circle if you work from within.
"In order to sustain influence, we need to prioritize self-care," says Grosso. "There needs to be a balance in replenishing ourselves as we expend energy outside of ourselves. The more we tend to ourselves—mind, body, and spirit—the greater our capacity to influence others and meaningful causes."
Again, writing down your concerns and your life goals can help make the circle feel more clear. "If one has a goal of becoming a teacher but currently holds no credentials to do so, one can first recognize what is within their Circle of Influence may simply be to submit an application for a teaching program," says Chum.
It's also important to note that while you may not be able to control everything, there may be others who can have more of an impact on something that falls outside of your circle. In these cases, it may be beneficial to sync up with others to achieve shared goals.
"Don't be afraid to reach out and share your passions with others," says Grosso. "Start a Slack channel, work group, or virtual Zoom meeting to share visions and goals."
The bottom line.
It might take a little bit of soul-searching to figure out what exactly falls into your Circle of Influence, but once you do, you can start directly targeting some of your most addressable concerns. In turn, this will alleviate some of your stress and allow you to have a meaningful impact on the world without risking burnout.
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Carina Wolff is a freelance writer and blogger who covers food, health and wellness. Her bylines have appeared in Bustle, Reader’s Digest, FabFitFun, and more. Carina has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and psychology from New York University. She is the author of two cookbooks and runs a clean-eating food blog called Kale Me Maybe. When she's not writing and cooking, you can find her reading, hiking, or at the beach.