Where Do You Choose To Focus?


A simple but powerful model for reducing stress and building resilience.

It was early in my career that a very wise person introduced me to Stephen Covey’s Circle of Influence and Circle of Concern (Thank you Vicki McLachlan!). This simple model has helped me immensely at various times throughout my life, and I’ve been privileged to be able to use it to help others, particularly those in leadership roles.

But first, the model.
Stephen Covey introduces the Circle of Influence and Circle of Concern during Habit 1 of his 1989 bestselling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Habit 1 is to be proactive, and Covey argues that proactive people apply their focus within the circle of influence, while those that are reactive, focus within their circle of concern. He also argues that those with a proactive focus enjoy higher levels of resilience and reduced stress across their lives.

Let me put this into my own words.
Here is the Circle of Influence and Circle of Concern. As you can see, one is a subset of the other.

Circle of Inf 1

The circle of concern represents everything that concerns you – whatever is stressing you out, frustrating you, annoying you, waking you at 3am, etc.

The circle of influence contains those things within your circle of concern that you can ACTUALLY DO SOMETHING ABOUT. It represents the stuff you have some influence or control over.

Common sense would tell us that spending time worrying about things we can do nothing about is a waste of our resources and energy. In-fact, the more we are able to place our focus within the circle of influence, the bigger that circle grows, until almost all the things we are concerned with are within our influence or control in some way. Our circles start to look like this:

Circle of Inf 2

How is this possible? Well for two reasons – firstly, as we spend more time TAKING ACTION on the things we can change, we simply have less time to dedicate to worrying about the things we can’t. We start to LET THEM GO. Secondly, the more time we spend taking action on things we can influence, the better we get at influencing in general. Our confidence grows, and we realise we can have influence over more than we first thought. People who can achieve this outcome really are taking control of their own destiny and enjoying a lot less stress as a consequence.


However, among the avalanche of issues and concerns that tend to come our way on a regular basis, it’s easy to begin feeling overwhelmed and/or powerless, particularly when the things we cannot control are having a significant impact on our lives. Here’s what it looks like when our focus is primarily on those issues we have no influence over:

Circle of Inf 5

This is a very stressful place to be. At its worst, the circle of influence can all but disappear, leaving the person to feel completely powerless to take control of their present or future.

If you find yourself in a situation to help a person in this state, start by finding one thing they can take action on, and get them to follow through. Then identify another, then another. Little by little, their circle of influence will start to grow.

A simple exercise

So how can you use this model to drive a more proactive approach, and hence reduce stress in your life? Use it to take a snapshot of your current situation. I often recommend the following simple exercise:

1.          Write yourself a list of all the things that are currently in your circle of concern – don’t hold
             back, no matter how silly or irrelevant it may seem, if it’s concerning you then get it down.

2.         Go through the list and identify all the items you have some influence or control over.

3.         Reflect on the balance – are most of your items in the circle of influence, or outside of it?

4.         Prioritise those items you have some influence over and address the top five. Are you taking
            action on these things? If not, make a plan and start implementing it.

This is a very basic exercise that I have seen reduce a huge amount of stress from people, particularly those who are feeling overwhelmed. You can use it once, or repeat it at regular intervals to monitor your progress. Ideally over time you want to aim for less and less items popping up on the ‘can’t influence’ part of the list. 


I believe this model is particularly relevant and useful for those in leadership positions, especially those with direct reports. Today’s leaders are coming under more pressure and demands than ever before. Their ability to discriminate between where to place their focus is critical to their success. Further to this, people look to their leaders, particularly in times of volatility or change, to provide the steady hand and appear to be calmly in control. Therefore, resilience for a leader is a crucial characteristic to allow them to effectively lead.

Some other examples

A few years back I found myself in the unenviable position of being part of a process to close down a manufacturing operation and hence make a number of great people redundant. This is a classic situation where people feel a lack of control over the decisions that are being made that will directly affect their livelihood and future. And fair enough! However, what people can influence is how ready they are to take that next step. This is why we put significant time and effort into running CV and Interviewing Skills workshops, and providing financial advice through our EAP provider, so that these people had something tangible and useful to place focus on during a very turbulent time. These are little things, yes, but little things can create a start for people to feel less helpless.

We saw similar issues play out during the Canterbury earthquakes. Many people became terrified of the “next earthquake”, something they of course had absolutely no control over. Someone very close to me was one of those suffering from this anxiety. By helping her to focus on the things she could take action on (creating an “earthquake preparedness kit”, securing her pictures, furniture and nic-nacs around the home and having a plan to meet up with others should another earthquake hit), helped her to focus her attention and reduce some of that anxiety.


The concepts of proactivity and where we chose to place our focus are universal, as are the issues of stress, anxiety and lack of resilience. I’ve found Covey’s model instrumental in my life around these issues, and I’ve seen its powerful impact on others. I hope you find it valuable too, in deciding where to place your focus.

Marie Johnston