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Big Ideas

Worry Only About the Problems in Your Circle of Influence

Stop spinning your wheels. By concentrating only on the stuff that you can  influence directly, setting priorities and making progress becomes simpler

The author and leadership guru Stephen Covey encourages us to only focus on concerns that we have control over. He outlines the “circle of concerns” as all of the stuff that worries us – and then a smaller “circle of influence” (within the larger “circle of concerns”) that only contains stuff that we can actually control.
His point, of course, is that we should only spend our energy on stuff that we can do something about. Focus only on problems that lie within your “circle of influence.”
Easy to say, HARD TO DO! As creative people, our passion for our work makes it more difficult to worry selectively. Why? The more passionate you are, the more protective and perfection-driven you become. Any concern becomes exaggerated just based on your beautiful vision being obstructed. Regardless of whether or not you have influence, you will want to tackle every problem as it emerges.
This tendency is dangerous. Your energy becomes fractured as you start to obsess over details and situations that are beyond your control. Ultimately, your ideas and projects suffer.

When faced with a problem, here are a few questions that all creative leaders should ask themselves:

Is this REALLY in your circle of influence?

Many designers will argue with printers over an error that was made during production. Most of the time, the error can be fixed. But sometimes, due to a hard deadline, resources, and the limitations of the machinery, ink, and paper, the right answer is to work around the error. Rather than obsess, time is better spent on changes that can still be made. Nevertheless, many projects suffer because a concern OUTSIDE of the circle of influence becomes the center of attention. The best practice here is to ask yourself, “what is the percentage likelihood that this problem can be reversed with further discussion?” If the chance of resolution is less than 10% then you need to cut your losses! Yes, attaining your perfect vision is nice, but not at the expense of maintaining momentum.

Is this even WORTH your influence?

If you can focus on just the “circle of influence,” then you’re in good shape! But this doesn’t necessarily mean solving every problem. You have limited energy. Challenge your judgments on whether or not these concerns are really worthy of your time. Perhaps it is a concern about a competitor. While you could spend time and advertising dollars to quell your anxiety, perhaps the right answer is to focus on your own customers instead? Just because you can fix something doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

If you can’t delineate your “circle of influence,” get help.

Often times you’ll find yourself unsure of whether or not an item is under your control. A number of internet entrepreneurs I know lament when they find another site copying their design or marketing. The new entrepreneurs become angry and retaliatory, firing off multiple emails and discussing to no end.  In contrast, the more experienced entrepreneurs understand that the back-and-forth that will ensue will simply waste their energy without much to show for it. If you’re too immersed in a problem to be objective, get some perspective from those around you!

In his bestselling book The Power of Now, spiritual teacher Eckart Tolle writes, “Ultimately… there are no problems. Only situations – to be dealt with now, or to be left alone and accepted as part of the present moment until they change or can be dealt with.” Great creative leaders are passionate about their work without allowing their perfectionism and/or anxiety to compromise their judgment. Challenge yourself to only worry about problems that you can solve.

More Posts by Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is the Chief Product Officer at Adobe and is the co-founder of 99U and Behance. He has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and is the author of The Messy Middle and the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.

Comments (16)
  • Jonathan Patterson

    Great advice. It’s so difficult to divorce one’s self from matters out of their control. I think I’ve made good progress!

  • Nenad

    This just came at the right time… I was justing reading this too pass the time while worrying about a difficult client of mine… Thanks for the reminder, after all I have sent the emails and the materials, and its up to him how he responds.

    Thank you!

  • natedog

    It’s funny that Covey’s been coming up. Didn’t expect much from his book as it’s a bit long winded. But kind of dug the thing when I finished it just last week, especially this part you describe. I really liked the story he had with his kid taking care of the lawn. Reminded me of how much we really need to make sure we are treating our employees like the adults that they are and they should have a part in actually bossing us around. You might like my post about that.

  • Alex Nautilus

    The world is full of problems. Let’s concentrate on the subjects closer to ourselfs first.

  • marko Miladinovic

    Agree, so many hours left on something for no reason! I remember once, that we tried to fix our printer for about 3 hours and we ware in the middle of deadline rush, instead going to the printshop next door.

  • Media Designer

    Very well put. And Jonathan, I like your point about ‘divorce’ because it implies there being a marriage. If you’re married to a project, you could be being unfaithful to the real issue.
    Oh the analogy could go on so much further…!

  • sergey

    Stephen Covey.. 7 habits of highly effective people.. thÑ? whole idea is taken from that book

  • Rhett

    most of the time yes, nicely put. to offer a different perspective, how do you know, for sure, what’s possible for you unless you try? failing is learning, learning is growth. imagine the issues that would not be tackled if individuals estimated their sphere of ‘influence’ conservatively.

    to attempt the impossible can be naive, heroic, profound and beautiful.

  • illtrax

    I almost agree with Rhett’s comment ‘how do you know, for sure, what’s possible for you unless you try? failing is learning, learning is growth.’ But I am sure the article was leaning towards concentrating on the issues you CAN fix. It’s doesn’t say don’t try, it states the simple fact that if it is not worth your energy then cut your losses. I have lost count the amount of times at past jobs where minor issues where toiled over for hours or days allowing major issues to fall by the wayside. This was a contributing factor that lead me to leaving my last job. Inefficiency not only kills time, it can also kill creativity.

  • svein Meek

    Well. Its from the book, but what a great book. You should all get it and read it. I think it´s good that ideas like this are brought to public in articles like this.

  • Abhijit Shirsath

    Interesting article!

  • jody

    This is the most small minded and self-serving blog post I have heard all week. It sounds like a good way to help narrow the worldview of the kinds of privileged people who have the luxury to read self help books. A nice way of justifying doing not very much.

    As individuals perhaps we can only manage to solve a small local problems – but big problems take more imagination and drive. Without people who will try a little harder to solve the bigger problems we admitting defeat before we even try. Yes, its easier not to worry about things that are not at your doorstep – it does not mean that you are not implicated and have a moral responsibility to try a little harder!

  • John Hunter

    I agree focusing your efforts sensibly benefits greatly from being aware of your circle of influence. You should remember, while doing this, that there is a temporal component to your circle of influence. I may have a very low chance of success on the current issue. But certain actions can build the understanding that will allow you later to have more influence. Thinking beyond the short term is a very powerful, and much under-practiced, strategy.

  • Jacqueline K

    Wow! I needed that, really. Just in time, this article appeared to me! Thank you!

  • Peter Bagi

    great tip! Just in time actually. Thank you

  • Claboard

    Very helpful points.. Keep it up , it’s needed.

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