The Easiest Way to Get More Control Over Your Life

COVID-19 got you stressed and anxious? This might be why.

Circles of Concern and Circles of Control help us move from reactive to proactive.

There’s a lot going on right now that’s out of our control. This has caused many of us stress and anxiety. There are always things outside our control. But during COVID-19 it’s happening on a grand scale and it’s happening to everyone.

Feeling like we can’t control things is scary. It can also be demoralizing. We all want to feel like we can affect the world around us. It can also be very draining if, no matter how much effort we put in, nothing changes.

Here’s something you can control.

There is something you can control though, and that’s your focus. Where you put your attention matters. This article will show you how to shift your attention away from things you cannot control and onto things you can control. This will ease tension and anxiety and give you more control over your life. It will also likely increase your energy as you start to affect your life in ways that matter.

Lessons about control from 12 step recovery.

The lessons about control that I’ve learned from 12 step recovery have been life changing. I’ll share how those lessons apply during COVID-19. I’ll do that with some help from Stephen Covey’s concept of Circles of Concern and Control.

It’s one thing to think you understand which things you can and cannot control. But to truly grasp the difference can be quite challenging. I learned how to grasp that difference by going through the 12 steps of recovery. I gained “the wisdom to know the difference” between the things I can and cannot change (as suggested by the Serenity Prayer, a 12 step mainstay). I also learned how much I focused on things I can’t change.

Covey’s Circles of Concern and Control.

The graphic depicted here, inspired by Stephen Covey, shows Circles of Concern (brown circle) and Control (yellow circle). These illustrate the difference between what we can and cannot control. This graphic is helpful because it shows the shift in focus that’s necessary to have real impact on our lives. But, it doesn’t show how difficult it can be to make that shift.

His use of language is also helpful. He acknowledges that we have every right to be concerned about the things inside the brown circle. We just can’t control them. And that’s where we often make a mistake. We somehow think that that concern “should” mean those things are within our control. They’re not. It’s ok to be concerned about these things, we just can’t control them. Covey’s image also shows that the things in the circles don’t necessarily change when we shift our focus. It’s how much energy we put into them that changes.

Reactive vs proactive people.

Covey refers to the people who focus on the Circle of Concern (what they cannot control) as reactive people. People who focus on the Circle of Control (what they can control) are proactive.

Reactive people have large Circles of Concern and small Circles of Control. They spend a lot of their time and energy reacting to issues they can’t control. They don’t focus on the inner Circle of Control, where they can actually make a difference. The energy they could be spending on things they can control is wasted on areas where they have no control. This can increase anxiety even further. Proactive people have a small Circle of Concern and a large Circle of Control. They spend a lot of time and energy focused on issues that are within their control.

Focusing on the brown circle prevents focus on the yellow circle.

You may have found yourself being reactive rather than proactive during COVID-19, even if you’re not normally like that. This is a very difficult time because the enormity of this unprecedented situation. The point of this article is to show you that you can shift your focus away from things you cannot control and onto things you can. When you focus on the Circle of Concern, you’re taking attention and energy away from things you actually can control. This decreases your ability to have an effect on your life.

Focusing on the brown circle increases anxiety, tension and stress.

Things in the Circle of Concern are people, places and things other than yourself. When we keep our focus here, we prevent ourselves from putting our attention where it can actually do some good — in the Circle of Control.

Are you getting pissed off about what officials are saying or not saying about COVID-19? About what they’re doing or not doing? That is in your Circle of Concern not your Circle of Control. You can’t affect their actions.

If you focus on the global economy, the future, what’s going to happen after the quarantine lifts, then you’re being reactive rather than proactive. Being reactive means you’re not in charge of your life. This usually comes with lots of anxiety, stress and tension. It often prevents you from doing things that are within your control!

If you’re focused on what other people think of you, that’s in your Circle of Concern, not your Circle of Control. As much as you might try, you really can’t control what others think of you. Your actions are not the most important factors determining what others think of you (I know, that sucks, doesn’t it?). People have too many things that influence their perception for your actions to be the deciding factor in what they think of you. So choose your actions based on what feels right to you, not based on what others will think of you.

If you’re focused on what the media are doing or not doing, why we can’t get the toilet paper from the commercial market to the consumer market, or what the food supply is going to be then you’re probably in a state of anxiety. You can’t have any impact on those things, which can be incredibly frustrating. It’s tough to live a life in which you feel you have no impact.

You don’t have to live like that!

Focus on the yellow circle to ease anxiety, tension and stress.

The answer is not “If only things went my way.” It’s actually, “stop focusing on that stuff.” Shift the spotlight from the Circle of Concern to the Circle of Control. This will give you more control over your life, not just the perception of more control.

These are things you can control.

Your Circle of Control includes your thoughts, attitudes, behaviors and beliefs. You get to decide what you think about, what your attitude will be, how you’re going to act and what you believe.

An example might be deciding when you’re going to respond to others who contact you. Or even whether you’re going to respond at all. If you’re getting pissed off because somebody won’t stop texting or calling you, that’s on you. Other people’s behavior is in your Circle of Concern, not your Circle of Control. Your thoughts about their behavior are in your Circle of Control, as is your behavior. Maybe you’re thinking something like, “They shouldn’t call me so often.” If so, it’s that thought that’s causing you the problem, not them calling you so often. You could silence your phone or just not answer it. You can choose to respond to them, but you don’t have to. It may not feel like a choice, but it is. It’s your choice.

How 12 step recovery teaches us to respond.

When I first got into 12 step recovery, it was news to me that I didn’t have to respond to people. I felt like I absolutely had to respond to people. Immediately. When I first learned that this was a choice I was making, it was still very difficult for me to not respond. But it’s possible for you to stop responding to people immediately, and sometimes not at all. I’ve done it! In fact, I’m giving you permission right now. You do not have to respond to anyone who is causing you anxiety, resentment or pressure. Or for any other reason.

You get to decide how to live your life.

There will be consequences to your actions, to be sure. But you get to decide what those consequences mean to you. If it would be 100X worse for you to avoid calls than it would be to pick up the phone, then you can choose to do that. Understand though, that that’s a choice you’re making. It’s not the other person’s problem or responsibility. It’s yours. And your reaction is yours as well. It may not feel I like a choice, but it is.

We train people how to treat us.

I have made these kinds of changes myself, so I know it’s possible for you to change too. It may be a difficult journey, but remember — we train people how to treat us. You can retrain them. And when you do, you’re taking the focus out of the Circle of Concern and onto the Circle of Control by choosing how you respond. You’re moving from being reactive to proactive.

You’re in charge of who you stay connected with. If there are people who give you energy and make you feel loved, make sure to stay connected with them. If there are others who are toxic, drain your energy and/or make you anxious, spend less or no time with them.

Your time is yours.

Another thing that’s within your Circle of Control is what you spend your time on. Whatever it is you want to do, you’re in charge of structuring your time. Other people are not. Even if you’re scheduled to work, you don’t have to work. You might get fired, but that’s a choice you’re making. It may not feel like a choice, but it is.

Feeling like I have a choice about things is liberating compared to feeling like I have to do something. It makes me feel like I am in charge of my life. In fact, I am in charge of my life. That’s what this is all about!

The type and amount of info you take in are within your control.

The amount of information and the sources you’re seeking it from are up to you. You can limit your exposure to that information so that it won’t make you anxious. If you get upset every time you watch the news, turn it off. Or limit your exposure to it. Or seek other sources that are not sensationalized.

The safety precautions you take are your choice.

It’s also up to you what safety precautions you’re taking. Are you washing your hands regularly and thoroughly? Are you following social distancing guidelines? You’re in charge of these things, other people are not. These are all within your Circle of Control. If others are not following recommended safety procedures, stay away from them! Getting mad at them does not change anything, except your mood.

Try this exercise.

If you’re still unclear about what you can and cannot control. Try this: draw your own circles of Concern and Control. Include the things that are causing you anxiety and stress. Then compare what you have in your circles to what’s in the circles here. Adjust what’s in the your circles. Then adjust what you focus on.

What you focus on gets magnified.

Seek and ye shall find. If you are always looking for disaster, you’re going to find it. If you are always looking for blessings, you’re going to find them.

You get to decide where to focus your attention. Will it be on your Circle of Concern or your Circle of Control? Are you going to be reactive and probably live with anxiety, tension and stress? Or are you going to be proactive and focus on the things that you can control — like your attitudes, behaviors, thoughts, how you spend your time, who you connect with, the sources of information that you’re taking in, how much you’re sleeping, playing and working.

If you’re feeling lots of tension, anxiety and stress, move away from the Circle of Concern (the brown circle). Move into the Circle of Control (the yellow circle). This will increase your sense of control. You won’t be wasting time on things you cannot control. You’ll be exerting the most effort on the areas where you do have control.

Many people who have issues with control either have difficulty with healthy boundaries and/or they have an issue with addiction or compulsion. If you have difficulty with boundaries, you might want to check out this page on my website that has a bunch of free resources for those who need help with setting boundaries. If you have an issue with addiction or compulsion, you might want to check out this page on my website that has a bunch of free resources for those with addiction and compulsion issues.

Leave a Comment