Worry About the Things You Can Control

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen Covey. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here .

How do you stop worrying about the things you can’t control? How do you prevent external factors you can’t influence from affecting your mental and emotional state?

Many people let their minds be consumed by the things they have no control over. They let external factors dictate their internal state. But worrying about the things they cannot control causes them unnecessary stress and reinforces feelings of victimization.

Here is why you should only worry about the things you can control (otherwise, you’d just be spinning your wheels with pointless stress).

Worry About the Things You Can Control

Taking control of your life requires you to be in control of your thoughts and actions—and that means recognizing that you have control of those things, which is a two-part process. 

First, understand that you are not your thoughts, moods, or feelings. According to Covey, although you may think that your thoughts and emotions are expressions of your identity, they are merely expressions of your reactions to events and circumstances. Additionally, you react to your interpretation of what’s happening, and that is influenced by your paradigms—which are malleable. Change your paradigms, change how you interpret life, change how you feel.

Second, you are not your circumstances or your conditioning. Society and popular culture often tell us that we are the products of our upbringing, environment, era, culture, and other external influences. However, this view is based on determinism, which says that you are who you are and do what you do because you’re reacting to the given stimuli. That stimuli may be: 

  • Genetic, meaning that your DNA dictates your temperament and other traits. This is the “nature” side of nature vs. nurture. According to this theory, you’re hardwired to be the way you are. 
  • Psychic, meaning that your parents, upbringing, and experiences make you who you are. This is the “nurture” side of nature vs. nurture. 
  • Environmental, meaning that you’re a victim of the people and environment around you. These forces create your situation, and there’s no escaping your situation. 

The Circle of Concern

Understanding that we always have the power to choose our thoughts, feelings, and actions makes it clear that every situation presents a choice between being reactive or proactive.

  • If you’re reactive, your conditioning dictates how you respond to people and circumstances. This is the outside-in approach: External factors affect how you feel inside. Your physical environment (e.g. the weather) and social environment (e.g. how people treat you) determine how you feel and act. 
  • If you’re proactive, you decide how you’ll respond to create the results you want. With this inside-out paradigm, you mindfully choose your thoughts and actions based on values you’ve chosen, cultivated, and internalized. You’re still subject to rain and your boss’s bad mood, but you suppress your reactive emotional impulses when you react.

Covey describes proactivity as focusing only on issues you can impact. Put another way, don’t waste your energy worrying about problems you can’t affect—worry about the things you can control.

Covey illustrates this by drawing a “Circle of Concern” around all of your thoughts and worries. Some of those thoughts and worries are within a smaller circle, inside the Circle of Concern—this is the Circle of Influence, which contains all the things that you can actually do something about. For example, the housing market slump is in your Circle of Concern, whereas your upcoming mortgage payment is in your Circle of Influence. 

Covey asserts that reactive people focus on issues outside their Circle of Influence.

By contrast, proactive people spend their time and energy only on their Circle of Influence. Furthermore, they actually expand their Circle of Influence because, by definition, proactive people recognize and address the issues in front of them.


Proactivity Doesn’t Guarantee Results

When it comes to your Circle of Influence, Covey makes an important, implicit distinction between the things you can affect and the things you can control. By his definition, you move a concern into your Circle of Influence by coming up with a plan to address it, though there’s no way to guarantee the outcome. This suggests that proactivity’s greater virtue is in the psychological relief of tackling an issue and putting it to bed, rather than the actual results of the action. 

For instance, a proactive person can influence their daughter’s grades by helping her study and working with her to create a schedule. However, they can’t force their daughter to focus or stick to the schedule. Ultimately, there is no way to control their daughter’s behavior or performance in school, but a proactive person is still motivated to take the steps available to influence the situation. 
Worry About the Things You Can Control

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" at Shortform . Learn the book's critical concepts in 20 minutes or less .

Here's what you'll find in our full The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People summary :

  • How to prioritize the hundred tasks you have to focus on the one or two that really matter
  • The right way to resolve every disagreement and argument
  • How to avoid burning out and succeed over 20+ years

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *