Circles of concern and control

This is part of my series on Mental Models about Productivity

This blog post offers an unorthodox discussion of the circles of concern and control (see “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”). Everything else you read will explain what the circles are and exhort you to stay within the circle of control. But none of them delve into the underlying issues that continually propel you into the circle of concern. And they never explore material strategies to keep you in the circle of control.

That’s where this blog post is different. And 10X better.

Let’s get started.

Basic Principles

I can direct my focus in one of two places:

My Circle of concern has an enormous area and encompasses everything I worry about. Right now, my worry-box overflows with fears of the Covid-19 outbreak and how my housebound family members can peacefully co-exist. The 2020 presidential race. Rising unemployment and a looming recession, or depression! The recent passing of my father-in-law. And drama at work — the board of directors fired the CEO, and a private equity firm acquired the company.

My Circle of control has a tiny area and includes things like what time I get up, how many fruits and vegetables I eat, how well I do my job, my attitude toward others, and progress I make toward long-term goals.

Obviously, I should spend my time within the circle of control.

But why?

The Goal

This may sound dumb, but my goal is to get what I want.

In the short-term, I want to do my job and stay employed, improve my health, publish blog posts regularly, maintain my energy levels, and spend time with my family.

Long-term, I want to become financially independent and write professionally.

But a couple obstacles block my path.

Two Massive Obstacles

1. The Discomfort is that uncomfortable feeling I get when I’m stuck on something. It could be a computer issue, a project for work, or when I put together my kid’s Ikea furniture and discover the included allen wrench is the wrong size. In each instance, I curse and ask, What the hell do I do now? In this moment, The Discomfort whispers, This sucks. You need a break. Do something that feels good!

The Discomfort also strolls in whenever I need to do something difficult, e.g., exercise, have an uncomfortable conversation, or practice a new skill. It soothes, Hard work pays off later; fun pays off now! Besides, you’ll feel motivated after you indulge in a diversion or two. You deserve it.

The Discomfort continuously nudges me out of my circle of control. It sings, Do it later, when you’re feeling better. But it’s a lie: I won’t feel better afterward. I’ll feel worse.

2. Tractor Beams draw me out of my circle of control. My biggest ones are the news, social media, and TV shows. Unlike The Discomfort, with its soothing serenade, Tractor Beams are a consortium of screeching auctioneers, hellbent on keeping me in the circle of concern. They appeal to my FOMO (fear of missing out) and rattle off tantalizing ideas, gossip, and memes that will “never be seen again.” These loudmouths prattle on about the news, world affairs, and how I’m the only person not “informed.” And they enumerate this month’s string of Netflix releases and show me visions of how I’m the only person at work who didn’t binge the latest series about big cats and murder.

Most of all, Tractor Beams hide the truth that no productive person watches all the TV shows, consumes all the news, and keeps up on all the social media. They cast a spell to make me forget that everyone says, No, to most of this stuff.

The Discomfort and numerous Tractor Beams present real challenges for me. These distractors cause me to procrastinate and not finish projects on time. And I feel miserable the whole time.

Luckily, I discovered some practices that limit their power.

Pen and notepad

The 12 Practices

1. One “Big Rock” to move — Each weekday, I identify one thing to accomplish.

2. “Big Rock” To-Do List — The “Big Rock” has subtasks, dependencies, etc. I track them in a To-Do list on the left side of my legal pad, using a blue pen. This list is my circle of control during work hours, and everything else moves to the circle of concern.

3. Miscellaneous To-Do List — I record other To-Do items in a second list on the right half of my legal pad, e.g., schedule a dentist appointment, call Mom, or buy frozen blueberries. I use a green pen for these. By the end of the day, this list is usually twice as long as the “Big Rock” To-Do list.

When The Discomfort tempts me to stop working and jump on a non-critical task (e.g., reorganize my bookshelves or check my credit report), I just add the item to my Miscellaneous To-Do list and continue working.

4. Morning Reckoning — Every morning, I grab my notepad, tear off yesterday’s sheet, and start with a blank page.

First, I create my “Big Rock” To-Do list. It’s usually pretty short but may grow throughout the day.

Next, I process yesterday’s Miscellaneous list. I copy a few items to today’s Miscellaneous list (e.g., call Mom). And I move the rest to a Google Doc. For example, the item “Upgrade my phone’s operating system” would be added to the Google Doc titled Security & Privacy. Other Google Docs include Career Plan, Electronic Backups, House Maintenance, Get Organized, and Emergency Preparedness.

5. Weekend Tasks — Each weekend, I spend two hours working through items in my Google Docs.

6. 30-minute chunks — I break my day into 30-minute slices that begin at the top of the hour and bottom of the hour, e.g., 10:00, 10:30, 11:00, etc.

I don’t plan the time-blocks in advance but handle them as they come. For example, at 10:00 am, I decide what to work on for the next 30 minutes. I may feel the pull of Tractor Beams, but I ignore them until the time slice ends.

At 10:30, I decide how to spend the next half hour.

I devote most of my time slices to tackling items on my “Big Rock” list, but I spend at least one slice checking off items on my Miscellaneous list. And if I feel tired, or just need a break, I’ll spend a slice on Twitter, YouTube, or the news. This way, I don’t feel guilty about taking a break, and the break has a limit.

Note: I often walk for two minutes at the end my slices.

7. Manage my emotional state — Negative feelings (e.g., anger, anxiousness, or despair) amplify The Discomfort’s power tenfold. So, I strive to avoid media that induces these feelings.

For example, with the current Covid-19 outbreak, the White House holds daily press briefings. I watched several of them and always walked away with a mixture of anger (people died because of the administration’s incompetence) and despondency (more people will die because the powers-that-be are distracted by re-election and TV ratings). But in the last three days, I avoided these briefings and nearly all Covid-19 news. My mood improved, and The Discomfort’s volume decreased.

8. When I feel stuck — The Discomfort hits me the hardest when I feel stuck. It tempts me to stop working and find entertainment. I combat this by pulling out my second notepad, where I brainstorm ideas and take notes, and write down these questions:

  • What am I stuck on?
  • What is the expected outcome?
  • What questions do I have?
  • What is the easiest question to resolve?
  • What is the first step to answer that question?

Sounds tedious, right? But it helps me not feel overwhelmed and limits The Discomfort’s power.

9. The “I will not do” list — My list has two items: No Facebook and No Reddit.

Reddit offers endless amusement thanks to its near-infinite number of subreddits. It’s also a massive timesink. I feel embarrassed by how much time I spent on it. Facebook is the opposite: it has a finite number of posts, but a high concentration of them are rage-inducing fabrications. And The Discomfort feasts on anger. I can’t focus on work once I get worked up.

Life is better without these tractor beams.

10. Gratitude List — A calendar event reminds me each morning to write down one thing I feel grateful for. When I consistently do this, I feel better about life, which curbs The Discomfort’s influence.

11. Phone calls — I avoid feeling irritated when I ignore phone calls from unknown callers, which includes pesky telemarketers and robocalls. In fact, during working hours, ignore all phone calls except for my wife’s.

12. Email — Calendar events remind me to check my email at 9:00 am and 3:00 pm each day. I add items to my “Big Rock” and Miscellaneous lists for things that require further action, flag/star important messages, archive everything, and close my email client. The entire process takes two minutes.

This routine limits how much time I spend on email. And keeping my email client closed for the majority of the day prevents my focus from being interrupted by that soft ding every time a new email arrives.


This is the part where I am supposed to send you off with some Tony-Robbins-style motivational advice. But I have none. Sorry.

Instead, I’ll tell you the truth: I have a tough time keeping my focus on my circle of concern. It’s the most challenging thing I strive to do. More challenging than giving up potato chips. More challenging than fasting for 24 hours.

But it’s worth doing. Because the alternative is a world where I lose my job, my house, and eventually, my family. And I can’t bear to even think about that.