In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey explains the first habit – Be Proactive – with the image of 2 Circles.

The first is the Circle of Concern. The second is the Circle of Influence.

This simple model forces us to think about where we choose to focus our time and energy.  According to one interpreter, “The vast majority of people focus too much time and energy outside of their Circle of Influence, in their Circle of Concern. Such people typically worry about things they cannot control… Preoccupying yourself with issues like that is a huge waste of time and energy.

“Those who choose to focus their time and energy in the Circle of Influence are not only happier, they are the movers and shakers of the world.  Rather than spending hours pouring over the news and worrying themselves into a fit of despair or helplessness, they are making a difference by focusing on the aspects of their lives they can actually control.  By pouring energy into our Circle of Influence, we are actually able to expand it.  Conversely, when we focus on the negative aspects of life, we cause our circle to shrink.”

Covey notes that highly effective people think and act primarily within their Circle of Influence. They forget about the things over which they have no control, preferring to focus their time and energy on issues where they can actually make a difference.

So, don’t focus on your Circle of Concern. Focus on your Circle of Influence. The advice makes sense.

But those of us from the activist tradition may feel some discomfort. It seems contrary to the spirit represented by Lenin’s question: What is to be done? Does this mean we should we be asking instead: What can we do?

But wouldn’t it be wrong to limit ourselves to what we can do, and give up on what we care about or dream about, if we can’t do anything about them yet?

I have used Stephen Covey’s 2 circles to good effect  in many workshops I have facilitated, especially for social activists.

We activists usually have a much bigger circle of concern than our circle of influence. In fact it is a rare person whose circle of influence is bigger than his/her circle of concern.

One problem with many workshops, especially in advocacy, is that they tend to expand our circle of concern, without expanding our circle of influence. We spend most of our time and energy analyzing issues, and often end with little time and energy left to discuss what are realistic courses of action.

If we don’t expand our circle of influence , expanding our circle of concern will increase our sense of “learned helplessness.”

Hence workshops should not only lead to a better understanding of issues. They should devote enough time to strategies and tactics, methods of work, and also networks and resources that we can harness. We need to share stories of how others have effectively addressed these issues, and lessons learned from success and failure.

I usually add a third smaller circle – our center of focus. This is the specific lens through which we look at issues in our circle of concern. We also address these issues and expand our circle of influence from a specific identity and focus. For example, as a secular political activist, or a faith-based community organizer, or a popular educator.