Julian B. Rotter developed the locus of control concept in 1954 as part of his social-learning theory of personality. Stephen R. Covey popularized the idea in 1989 with his best-selling The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Like Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Covey believes that we filter our experiences before they reach our consciousness. “Between stimulus and response,” he writes, “man has the freedom to choose.” Our self-awareness, imagination, conscience, and independent will give us the power to select how we’ll respond to each situation in life.

Covey says there are two types of people: proactive and reactive.

  • Proactive people recognize that they’re responsible for how they respond to outside stimuli. In Rotter’s terms, they have an internal locus of control. They don’t blame circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their state. They believe their existence is largely a product of personal choice derived from personal values.
  • Reactive people believe their condition is a product of their physical and social environments. They have an external locus of control. Their moods are based on the moods of others, or upon the things that happen to them. They allow the outside world to control their internal existence.

To illustrate the difference between proactive and reactive people, Covey discusses how we focus our time and energy.

We each have a wide range of concerns: our health, our family, our jobs, our friends; world affairs, the plight of the poor, the threat of terrorism, the state of the environment. All of these fall into what Covey calls our Circle of Concern.

Within our Circle of Concern, there’s a subset of things over which we have actual, direct control: how much we exercise, what time we go to bed, whether we get to work on time; what we eat, where we live, with whom we socialize. These things fall into what Covey calls our Circle of Influence, which sits inside our Circle of Concern.

According to Covey, proactive people focus their efforts in the Circle of Influence. They spend their time and energy on things they can change. This has two effects. First, proactive people actually do affect change in their lives; and as they do so, their Circle of Influence expands.

On the other hand, reactive people tend to focus on their Circle of Concern. They spend their time and energy on things they’re unable to influence (or can influence only with great difficulty). They try to change other people, to correct social injustices, to shift thought patterns of states or nations. Their efforts are largely frustrating and futile. What’s more, as they focus on their Circle of Concern, their Circle of Influence begins to shrink from neglect.

Any time you shift your attention from your Circle of Influence to your Circle of Concern, you allow outside forces to control you. You place your happiness and well-being in the hands of others. If you don’t act for yourself, you’re doomed to be acted upon.

But what about about luck? Aren’t there times when we really are at the mercy of the world around us? Of course. But our responses are always our own. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can hurt you without your consent.” Covey agrees:

It’s not what happens to us, but our response to what happens to us that hurts us. Of course, things can hurt us physically or economically and can cause sorrow. But our character, our basic identity, does not have to be hurt at all. In fact, our most difficult experiences become the crucibles that forge our character.

Shit happens. Shit happens to everyone. Ultimately, who we are and what we become is determined not by the shit that happens to us, but how we respond to that shit. Remember Reinhold Niebuhr‘s famous serenity prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Most people are reactive. It’s likely that you’re reactive too — at least to some degree. Don’t fret. I’m reactive also. But with time and effort, I’ve managed to shift from an external locus of control to one that’s primarily internal. You can too.

Focus on the things you can control. Use that control to remove constraints and complications from your life. Strengthen and stretch your Circle of Influence. This is the only path to changing your Circle of Concern. You have no control over the hand you’re dealt, but you can choose how to play the cards.

Here’s a simple exercise from Seven Habits: For thirty days, commit to working only on your Circle of Influence. How? Keep your commitments, to yourself and others. Don’t judge or criticize other people, but turn your attention inward. Don’t argue. Don’t make excuses. When you make a mistake, accept responsibility and fix it. Don’t blame or accuse. When you catch yourself thinking “I have to…” or “If only…”, stop yourself and choose to reframe the thought in a more positive light. As far as possible, accept responsibility for your circumstances, actions, and feelings.

5 Replies to “Becoming Proactive”

  1. Debs says:

    Thanks for the reminder. It’s been many years since I read that book. I often recite the serenity prayer though when I find myself frustrated about a particular situation. Happy Memorial Day 🙂

  2. Chris says:

    Good stuff J.D.! I just started reading Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, which touches on this. I’m enjoying the philosophy of focusing your efforts on the “Circle of Influence” rather than the “Circle of Concern”, which I something I learned from years of participating in a group that used the Serenity Prayer, so I feel it’s simply re-framed.

    In the same vein, the Stoics think you should only concern yourself with achieving your internal goals, that you have control over, because it will greatly increases your external performance (which is the end result most people want). Would love to hear your thoughts on that.

  3. Mark A. says:

    This post is a good compliment to Harry Browne’s book “How I Found Freedom In An Unfree World,” which I read for the first time recently. Its theme is also focusing on what we can control and largely ignoring the rest. It has kind of taken any enjoyment out of reading the New York Times on Sunday mornings, though. 🙂

  4. Patricia says:

    In 1989, Covey’s book had a huge impact on me as I worked hard on all of the 7 Habits. I came to realize the only person I can change is me – I needed to move as far as I could to an internal locus of control. Just one example: ‘between stimulus and response there is a choice’ got me to mindfully decide beforehand how to react to a boss’s chronic bullying (I wasn’t the only one being bullied). It was very tough to put into practice at first, she was obviously confused by my change in behaviour and tried even harder to set me off, but it took less time than I expected to improve things considerably. Eventually I was even asked for feedback on some of her decisions that effected myself and others! My Circle of Influence definitely expanded dramatically there and elsewhere after my shift to an internal locus of control.

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