Circles of Control

"Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.
Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.
Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions—in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing.”
~ Epictetus ~
(Greek Stoic philosopher - 55 – 135 AD)

“…At the head of all understanding – is realizing what is and what cannot be, and the consoling of what is not in our power to change.”
~ Solomon ibn Gabirol ~
(11th-century Jewish philosopher)

"Blessed is he, who has learned to bear what he cannot change,
and to give up with dignity, what he cannot save.”
~ Friedrich von Schiller ~
(German poet, philosopher, physician, historian & playwright: 1759 – 1805)

These profound quotes all tell us the same thing…to focus on the things we can change and to accept and let go of the things we cannot change.

We have heard that advice over and over again and we know it to be wise advice. The difficulty is that it is not as easy to do it, as it is to say it. When we find ourselves in a crisis our behaviour, thoughts and emotions are often in chaos. We feel out of control and so feel helpless and hopeless. It’s extremely unsettling and can lead to high levels of anxiety and depression.

One of the tools that can help us to bounce back – to be resilient - is the Model of the ‘Circles of Control, Influence and Concern’.

This model is based on Stephen Covey’s “Circle of Concern, Circle of Influence”, which looks at where we focus our time and energy. As Stephen Coveys writes in his book ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’, we each have a wide range of concerns (things we worry about or that bother us), like our health, our children, problems at work, the national debt, nuclear war. We can separate these concerns from things in which we have no particular mental or emotional involvement (outside things going on that we don’t care about) by creating a ‘Circle of Concern’”.

This gives us a Circle of Concern and a Circle of No Concern.

circle of concernWhen we look at the things within our circle of concern, we can see that there are some things over which we have no real control and others that we can do something about.

The things we can do something about, Stephen Covey calls our “circle of influence” and he draws it as a smaller circle within the circle of concern.


circle of influenceThe model then gives us the first step to finding a solution to our problem. Within our circle of influence we can:

  • Change our habits (behaviour/ thinking), or
  • Change our methods of influence, or
  • Change our attitude towards the problems over which we have no control (accept the problems and learn to live with them, even though we don’t like them).

When we are no longer able to change a situation - we are challenged to change ourselves.

Viktor Frankl (Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor - 1905 – 1997)

circle of controlStephen Covey’s model has since been adapted to include a third circle – the Circle of Control and looks like this.

You can download a poster of it here.

The inner circle is known as the Circle of Control. This encompasses those circumstances/issues/problems that we have direct control over. This includes problems involving our own behaviour and thoughts. (Although we don’t have the power to control all of the thoughts that come into our minds, we do have the power to choose whether or not to allow them to stay.  Thoughts come and go.  What we choose to linger on is a big part of what creates our reality). 

The middle circle is the Circle of Influence. This encompasses those circumstances/issues/problems that we have indirect control over. This includes problems involving other people’s behaviour. We can’t directly control them, but there’s a good chance that we can have an impact or influence on them by our own actions and choices.

The outside circle is the Circle of Concern. It is also known as the circle of ‘no control’. This encompasses the wide range of circumstances/issues/problems we have, but over which we have no control. This includes problems we can do nothing about, such as our past or situational realities. It’s the biggest circle because there are so many things that we have no power to change.

If we put our time and energy into worrying about the things that are in our circle of concern we will continue to feel out of control and helpless. But if we put our time and energy into our circle of influence and our circle of control we will give ourselves a sense of agency and feel more in control. So this is where we need to focus our time and energy.

When we can’t change our circumstances, there is no point in investing time and energy trying to do that. But all is not lost, because we do still retain our capacity to change our attitude towards it.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms
- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.

Viktor Frankl (Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor - 1905 – 1997)

circle of concernThe image here is an example of the sorts of circumstances/issues/problems that would fall into each circle.

You can download a poster of it here.

Of course, each person’s circles of control, influence and concern will be personal and some of the items may go either way. For example:

  • For some people, the time you go to bed and what you eat may be things that are in your control, but for others (children at boarding school and elderly people living in care homes), the time you go to bed and what you eat are out of your control.
  • If you are a spectator, a sports match is out of your control, but if you are an umpire you can influence the sports match by controlling how the game is played.
  • If you are not involved in politics then Government policy is out of your control, but if you’re a politician you can influence government policy.

Resilience is all about choosing your Locus of Control and expanding your Circle of Influence.

You can use the ‘Circles of Control, Influence and Concern” tool to help you to do this by following the instructions below:


This activity can be done individually or as a group.

  1. Print out the “Circles of Control” poster.

  2. On small sticky notes, or pieces of paper, write down all the circumstances/issues/problems that are bothering you and put them in the Circle of Concern circle.

    At this stage you may have a lot of stress and anxiety over the things you’ve written down and may feel you don’t have any control over them. Having no control can be alarming.

  3. Look at all the things you’ve written down and decide which things you can actively control. Move all the sticky notes with the things that you can actively control from the outer, big Circle of Concern into the small Circle of Control.

    At this point, you may think that there aren’t many items that you can actively control. Maybe that’s true - you can’t control them, so ask yourself, “Can I influence them?”

  4. Think about ways you might be able to influence the things that are still in your Circle of Concern.

    E.g. could you develop a better relationship with the person outside of the team who’s making impossible demands and get to the root cause of their behaviour?

    Go through all the notes that are still in your Circle of Concern and try to move them into the Circle of Influence.

    As you explore these further, and think about them differently, you might find that some of the concerns can go straight into the Circle of Control.

  5. When you have worked with the sticky notes until you can’t move anything anymore, write the circumstances/issues/problems onto the actual poster and put the poster up in a place where you can easily see it every day. (The inside of a cupboard door that you open every day is a useful place to put your poster if you don’t want anyone else to see it).

  6. Your poster will then be a daily reminder of just how much you can control and where you need to focus your time and energy.

In short, the “Circles of Control, Influence and Concern” model reminds you that:

If you cannot control it, do not get stressed about it.
If you cannot influence it, do not get upset about it.
Focus on what you can change, not on what you cannot.

It may be helpful to remember the Serenity Prayer while you do this exercise:

The Serenity Prayer is a prayer written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971). It is commonly quoted as:

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.

Reinhold Niebuhr

And just for fun…

The philosopher W.W. Bartley juxtaposes without comment Niebuhr's prayer with a Mother Goose rhyme (1695) expressing a similar sentiment:

For every ailment under the sun
There is a remedy, or there is none;
If there be one, try to find it;
If there be none, never mind it.

You can use the Circles of Control, Influence and Concern tool to help you gain control of your life in general, or on just one specific aspect (e.g. your business).

While you do this exercise you might find it helpful to read the following articles:

If there's a remedy when trouble strikes, what reason is there for dejection?
And if there is no help for it, what use is there in being glum?

Shantideva (8th-century Indian Buddhist scholar of the ancient Nalanda University)