What you focus on grows…. and where you put your attention, action follows.

Elin Enfors-Kautsky at Prosperous Planet states in the first part of her white paper that “we live in the Anthropocene, where the interacting exponential change in our societies, in the economy, in the technosphere, and in the environment, creates a world that is radically different from the one we used to live in until quite recently”. Just looking back ten days this becomes abundantly clear. We have for a while lived in a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous and have struggled in finding approaches and mindsets needed to cope with this new normal, while still navigating towards a sustainable future. And now, to top this off, there is a pandemic out there and it’s threatening our health and everyday lives.

Working in the field of change management, I am not surprised that people are feeling scared and worried, I feel scared myself. I crave certainty; to know what will happen next, to know what decisions to take, to know which path might be the better one. Though I am aware that there are certain things I can influence and other things I cannot. I find that the model of “Circle of Concern vs Circle of Control” (below and here) gives me solace in times when I feel scared and lost. It helps me identify areas I can take control over and influence, and clarifies which areas I need to stop wasting my energy on.

This is how I use the model:

  • On a large sheet of paper, draw a big circle, this is the Circle of Concern.
  • I write the areas of concern about a certain matter or situation on post its and put them in the circle. These will be things that are affecting how I feel. Right now that includes, for example, the rising death toll in Italy, and the warning about a potential spike in Corona cases in Swedish hospitals in the coming weeks.
  • Then I draw another smaller circle in the middle of the first circle, this is the Circle of Control. Here I move the post to situations I can control and directly affect. Like how I commute to work, or how I socialize with my aging parents.
  • Sometimes I feel there aren’t many items that I can actively control. This can cause stress and anxiety as having no control is alarming.
  • So, I draw another circle in between the first two – between the circles of Concern and Control. This is the Circle of Influence.
  • Now I look at the ways I could influence some of the things that are out of my control.
  • I go through all the posts that are in the Circle of Concern to see whether I can move some of them into the Circle of Influence. For example, while I will not be able to influence the death toll in Italy, I can, through my own actions have an influence on the rate at which the virus spreads in Sweden.

Circles of Influence is a great tool for resilience, which is about dealing with change and still continuing to develop. If I feel out of control I will try and find out if I can have more agency about them. For the things I simply can’t control, I need to stop focusing so much on them directly.

This tool is equally useful for other sustainability challenges as well, which sometimes feel overwhelming. Take for example climate change. I am concerned both about the extreme wildfires in Australia and what will happen in Bangladesh as the sea level continues to rise. But neither of those things are within my control, so I put those in the outer circle. There are, however, a great deal that I can do to address our common climate future, ranging from choices I can make in my everyday life and have full control over, like what I eat and how I travel, to what I can influence at broader scales through political action, partaking in the societal discourse, and supporting companies working on climate innovation, etc.

Often it turns out, I realize I can influence more than I think, or I can change my attitude and my response. By thinking about my worries it gives me a chance to understand and identify where my stress comes from, and lowers the risk of letting the stress pacify me and prevent action. When I get to the bit about the ways I can move things into the Circle of Control, I feel empowered. The emotional journey when I realize I can influence something I was really worried about and felt I couldn’t control is really motivating, energizing and empowering!

Try the model out, how does it work for you?

Designer & Facilitator of Change Processes