Dealing With Uncertainty
The world remains an uncertain place right now, and as we start to emerge from lockdown many of my clients are experiencing anxiety. Worry over the future, worry over their ability to cope with the pace of work, and more. In the last 14 months we have had more and more things taken out of our control therefore its no wonder that we find ourselves stuck in our circle of concern.
The Circle of Control, Influence and Concern
I have been a practitioner of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People for over 15 years. I’m not sure you ever truly master the habits; I admit they still take effort every single day, but the lessons I learned changed my life for the better so I am always keen to share them with my clients.
The world around us is made up of only two factors: The things we can control and the things we can’t. Everything falls into these two categories. From the people and objects in our environment to the problems we face each day. Stephen R. Covey referred to these in his book – The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. His explanation used two circles, the circle of concern and the circle of influence
The circle of concern covers everything in our life that affects us. The circle of influence, on the other hand, includes everything within our life that we can impact or effect.
We can influence a lot of different aspects of our lives, but not everything. We don’t have control over the weather. And we don’t have control over whether or not our boss comes to work angry because of a fight with their partner.
The Difference Between Influence and Control
It’s important to understand the difference between what we control and what we influence. To control means that we have complete authority over the action. The only thing we have complete control of is ourselves, our behaviours and our choices. For example, we can control whether or not we eat a donut. What we don’t control are the outcomes of our actions, there are natural consequences (good or bad) for every action we take.
But I can’t control whether or not my friend Tracey eats a donut. I might be able to convince her not to eat it. Or she might be inspired when she sees me resisting the donut. I can influence Tracey, but I can’t control her. This also means that no one has the power to control you, they can heavily influence you; i.e. present consequences that appear devastating to the point where we will do anything they want; but it is still always your choice.
Influencing means we can impact something, but can’t guarantee the outcome.
Why Do We Worry?
We’re all familiar with that feeling. Something has gone wrong and we’re not sure how it’s going to work out. That uncertainty is what creates the discomfort. We don’t know if we’re going to be okay or not.
It’s a horrible and often unnecessary feeling.
According to Dr. Seth Gillihan from Psychology Today, the main reason that we continue to worry in uncertain moments is simple. In the past, we’ve worried about something and everything has turned out okay. The result is our brain pairing that feeling of worry with a positive outcome. The brain becomes convinced that worrying helps us get the result that we want.
And sometimes it can. That dreadful feeling can certainly motivate us into action and might help solve the problem.
It reminds me of the fight or flight response that the human body takes towards fear. If we compare them, it seems likely that we evolved to experience worry in order to push us towards action when we need it.
But just like the fight or flight fear response, it often doesn’t help at all in our modern lives. Worse than that, it actually makes our lives harder. Severe worry is stressful. It prevents us from resting and relaxing. It hinders our ability to go about our day and take care of our lives. It takes control of our thoughts and saps our energy.
What Can I do?
Focus on Things You Can Control
It seems pretty clear now that most of our time and energy should be spent on things within our circle of control and influence.
But the circle of concern should be ignored. We should aim for it to have no power over us. Easier said than done of course.
This attitude isn’t just appropriate for combating worry. It’s also a solid principle to take into all areas of your life. After all, what better way to be productive than to cut out the time spent on things that you have minimal control over.
You can find the first step to solving almost any problem, by asking ‘what can I control?’. I love this approach, not just because of how comforting it can be, but also because it has several other benefits:
It Promotes Proactivity
A proactive mindset involves being aware of what you want out of life and the kinds of behaviours that are important to get there. In the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey’s 2nd Habit is ‘Begin with the End in Mind’ which teaches us that rather than react to situations we can stop and pause. In this pause consider what you want to achieve and then choose your response and behaviours to help influence the outcome you want.
Imagine you are late for work driving through heavy traffic. The reactive response might be to get very frustrated, worked up and start beeping your horn at people. If you choose that response, how might that effect the rest of your day? Instead focus on what you can influence, perhaps call ahead to let someone know you are running a little late and then focus on getting there as safely and calmly as you can so that your day can only get better.
The ability to recognise and ignore the things that you can’t control and look for tiny ways to influence is an important step towards developing proactivity.
Improves Your Frame of Mind
The hardest part of worrying about uncertain situations is the point where you start to spiral. Your mind runs away with the worst-case scenario and you feel worse and worse.
This is where determining a course of action within your control helps significantly. In my experience, actually doing something productive forces you to focus on that activity and interrupts the spiral. It also allows you to ease some of the pent-up tension through activity.
Of course, the most important benefit of worrying less is simple – happiness. And that at least, is something worth pursuing. So, take a moment to think. How much time do you spend in your circle of control or influence?
“If there is no solution to the problem then don’t waste time worrying about it. If there is a solution to the problem then don’t waste time worrying about it.” ― The Dalai Lama