Do you ever feel stressed, anxious or overwhelmed? I’ll confess – I do, at times.

Sometimes my clients describe their stress or the breadth of their worries with telling metaphors like – “it’s like trying to herd cats” or “counting pebbles on the beach”.

So, I’d like to share a concept called circles of control and an exercise that I use myself, and with my leadership coaching clients to enable them to embrace their capabilities and release what does not serve them.

Circles of control is a concept that helps individuals better understand the things they can control in their lives and those they cannot. It is a helpful tool for managing the stress, anxiety, and frustration caused by situations that are beyond our control, by helping us to prioritise our focus and energy.

This work is derived from that of Stephen Covey, who introduced the concept of “Circles of Concern” in his best-selling book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” Covey defined the circle of concern as the things we care about – our worries, fears, hopes, dreams, and aspirations. It includes everything that matters to us, ranging from global issues like poverty and climate change to personal issues like relationships, health, and finances. Our circle of influence contains the things we can control, such as our thoughts, actions, attitudes, knowledge, abilities and skills.

I’d like to concentrate on recognising what is in our control and what is outside it, and how we can take control, rather than feel overwhelmed.

Circles of Control

Circles of control is a visualisation tool that helps us to categorise different elements of our lives into separate circles, each representing the extent to which we have control over them. This is a way to identify and manage your thoughts, actions, and emotions, to focus on what you can control and let go of what you cannot control.

  1. The first circle represents things that are within our control: our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. We have the power to change these elements, and we can take actions to influence them, positively.
  2. The second circle represents things that are partially within our control – which we can take some actions to influence. These include things like our relationships, other people’s behaviour, work, and health.
  3. The area beyond them represents everything else – things entirely outside of our control, like the weather, the economy, the actions of others, and natural disasters. We have no power over these elements, and they are not influenced by our actions.

Here is an exercise to help you identify and prioritise your concerns.

Using the Circles of Control Model: An Exercise

Give yourself 10 minutes to take a sheet of paper and sketch out a diagram like this:

Step 1: Identify your concerns

List 3-5 worries at the moment – things that are causing you stress: work, relationships, health, finances; worrying about what’s going to happen, etc.

Step 2: Categorise your concerns

Divide your concerns into the three areas – in your control, influence, and ‘everything else’. Be honest. Do you have :

  • Complete control over it? You can resolve it on your own without needing anyone else’s help. Put it under ‘THINGS I CAN CONTROL’.
  • Partial control to influence the concern, or influence someone to affect the outcome. Put it under ‘THINGS I CAN INFLUENCE’.
  • Or is it completely outside your control or influence? There is nothing you can do or say that could directly impact this. File it under “EVERYTHING ELSE…”.

Step 3: Focus on your circle of control

You can have the most impact here, so spend your time and energy on these.

  • Identify an action(however small) you can take for each area/item.
  • Take one action today, to instantly feel better.

Step 4: Expand your circle of influence

Identifying the things you can influence and taking action helps to expand your circle. For example, if you are concerned about climate change, you can reduce your carbon footprint and encourage others to do the same.

  • Write down the steps you will take and exactly when you will do them.

Step 5: Let go of the rest

Finally, and most importantly: let go of everything else! I know for many of us (myself included) this can be “easier said than done”, however, it’s important to remember that allocating time and energy here doesn’t usually bring about positive outcome – it’s akin to a waste of energy.

  • Strike through each item in the “Everything Else” area. If that feels too difficult – make a note beside each entry “not in my control” to remind you this is not something you can influence or control at the moment.
  • Consider how it feels to let go of the things you have no control over.

There is no point in worrying about the things that you cannot control or influence. Instead, focus on the things that you can control, and take action to make a positive change.

Once you have an understanding of these circles, you can start to use them to manage any feelings of overwhelm, stress or anxiety.


To use circles of control effectively, in brief:

  • Focus on the elements within your control. For example, if you are feeling stressed, you can take steps to manage your thoughts and emotions, such as practising mindfulness or deep breathing exercises.
  • Accept that you may have some influence, but some things are only partially within your control. For example, you may be able to improve your relationship with your partner by communicating effectively, but you cannot control their actions or feelings.
  • Let go of the rest: Recognise that some things are outside your control that you cannot influence at all. Accepting this fact can help you let go of the stress and anxiety. For example, you cannot control the weather, so there is no point in worrying about it.
  • Prioritise your energy: Focus your energy on the things within your control and those that you have some influence over. This will help you make the most significant positive impact on your life.
  • Practise gratitude: Focus on the things that you are grateful for in your life. This can help you feel more positive and reduce stress and anxiety.

By focusing on what is within our control and sphere of influence and accepting that there are some things that we can let go, we can reduce stress and focus on what matters most. We can prioritise our energy and make positive changes in our lives. So, focus on the first circle, accept the second circle –and take action on those. Let go of the rest to live a more peaceful and fulfilling life.


Please feel free to download this comprehensive resource Designing Your Leadership Self-Reflection Practice – Guided Writing Prompts – packed with tips, tools, and guided prompts to launch your leadership self-reflection practice as you continue to strengthen your leadership.

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