Understanding Yourself: Focussing your Time and Energy

Find out more about focussing your time and energy to help support you when you’re studying and you've got lots of things to do and lots to think about!

Each month we publish an article which represents a new opportunity to focus on your personal and professional development to support your studies, work and life. In this article we would like to introduce to you an exercise called the ‘Circle of Control, Influence and Concern’ to support you when you’re studying and have lots of things to do and think about.

Circle of Control, Influence and Concern

We can often spend many minutes, hours or even days dwelling upon things we can’t control. An excessive focus on the factors we can’t control, while neglecting to think about the things we are able to change, can lead to overwhelm. We might feel out of control and have decreased confidence – all of which can impact our studies.

If you want to regain control in your studies or life and feel more effective, it can help to look at the situation or issue and break things down into what you can or can’t control. 

Stephen Covey’s “Circle of Concern, Circle of Influence” looks at where we focus our time and energy and can help us to work on the things we can do something about, rather than worry or be concerned about the things we can’t influence or control. It’s important not to expect that we can control things that aren’t actually totally under our control – often far easier said than done!

So how does it work…

  • The Circle of Control represents everything we have total control over.
  • The Circle of Influence represents everything we have some control of or we can affect things somehow. 
  • The Circle of Concern represents everything that troubles or concerns us. We don’t have any or very little control or influence over these issues.

You can read more about this in Stephen Covey’s book ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ – access the e-book here via the OU Library

You can use this approach to help you when:

  1. You feel anxious or start getting worried over external events, to help you change your mindset to focus on things within your control. 
  2. You feel overwhelmed to start identifying your focus and priorities. It will allow you to stay focused on what’s important to you. 
  3. You experience anything unplanned or uncontrollable to simply focus on what you can influence and control.

There are a number of benefits to being able to identify and concentrate on your circle of control. It can support you to adopt helpful beliefs and attitudes about events and take positive action in pursuit of a worthwhile goal as well as:

  • Increasing your focus on your thoughts, word and actions
  • Increasing your productivity by limiting your distractions
  • Developing your self-confidence
  • Developing a positive mind-set
  • Improving your mental well-being

Here’s a short four step activity to help you…

Step One 

Make a list of all the ‘things’ that occupy your mind. These could be things you are thinking about, things you have to do, worries or problems.

Step Two

Have a look at the diagram and information below.

Circle of Control (total control)

Worries/issues I can control and therefore do something about


My thoughts

My words

My actions/behaviour

My reactions

My decisions/choices

My attitude/mindset

My values

My work ethic/commitment levels

Circle of Influence (some control)

Worries/issues I can influence


My productivity

How others see me

Other people’s choices

Other people’s actions

Other people’s thoughts

Where I work

My reputation

My commitments/engagements

Circle of Concern (no control)

Worries/issues I cannot control or influence  


The weather

Sports results 

World events/threat of war/Covid-19


Where you were born

Past decisions/behaviours

The media/social media

Step Three

Drawing the diagram out, look at your list and then place each item in one of the three areas. In the centre if you have control, in the inner ring if you have some control or influence, and in the outer ring of the circle if you have no control or influence.

Step Four

Reflect on where you have placed all the things on your list and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is interesting or surprising about what you see?
  • Do any of your circles have noticeably more or fewer items in them than the others?
  • Which were easiest to think of answers for?
  • Which circles do you tend to think about the most when you’re feeling concerned or overwhelmed?
  • How has this exercise helped you?
  • Is there anything in the ‘influence’ circle/ring you can move to the ‘control’ circle/ring?
  • What will you do differently now as a result of completing this exercise?
  • What action(s) will you take in the next couple of days?


You can use this as a visual self-coaching tool to support your studies and see where you’re spending your time and energy. You don’t have to try to ignore the items in your outer circle (circle of concern), instead acknowledge them and then focus on the items in your inner circle (circle of control) where you could be spending your time most productively.

This tool can be applied to almost any situation or feeling you’re experiencing. It can be an empowering way to manage your thoughts, feeling emotions and actions. 

Thanks for reading!

We hope you have enjoyed this article. We welcome comments, questions and chat about the article and activities.  

If there’s anything you’d particularly like to see in these self-coaching features, please let us know.

Look out for more articles from the PLA Service in the coming months –  we look forward to seeing you again soon

The Open University (OU) has set an ambitious Access and Participation Strategy with progressive targets over the next 5 years to tackle inequalities. The OU has many areas in which we need to improve and do better, and one focus is on the degree outcomes between students from underrepresented groups and the wider student body. 

To help address this, we have set up a dedicated team providing personalised coaching and mentoring to our students. This service is known as the Personal Learning Advice Service. 

Students who are eligible for coaching are contacted directly by us and cannot currently self-refer. We are a new service, and we are currently delivering and evaluating pilot projects with small groups of students at the OU. We worked with the OU Students Association in designing and setting up this support for students.  

If you would like to know more, please email PLA-Services@open.ac.uk

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