That recent article on the Low Information Diet (which I probably should have called the Low Irrelevant Information Diet) stirred up quite a debate. While some readers offered their double high-fives of agreement, others came out with pitchforks and torches, scolding both Adm Karpinsk and any who dared to agree with him for “Celebrating Ignorance”.
This response threw me off-balance, since the whole purpose of this blog, and most of my life in general these days, is supposed to be the opposite: Decreasing Ignorance, in the form of trying to educate the rich world about the consequences of our current lifestyle and its effect on the rest of the planet, and show an alternative way of living that leads to better results.
I can blame some of the misunderstanding on my own lack of skill – I try to write these things to be as clear as possible, and the success is measured by the percentage of people who write angry responses based on missing a key concept. And sure, we could dismiss a few other people as hopeless complainers who will whine about anything – there’s no changing their minds without a good set of boxing gloves. But among the intelligent dissenters, the biggest part of the chasm of misunderstanding seems to be coming from a hole in their grasp of the ideas of the Circle of Concern, versus the Circle of Control.
These terms come from Stephen Covey’s ridiculously powerful classic called The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It’s a book so old, so wise, and so essential that you are probably living a pointless life if you have not yet internalized its concepts. I first read this thing about 20 years ago, and I’ve reviewed it about ten times since then*. The concepts are so religiously ingrained in my mind at this point, and have proven to be accurate through so many real-life tests, that I tend to go into a mouth-frothing rant if I see someone not following them. Whether it happens in my comments section or at the table in my back yard surrounded by beers and fellow liberal-minded hippie do-gooders earnestly repeating conspiracy theories, the offense is equally severe.
So here it is in a nutshell: You will have a much better life, if you focus your mental and physical energy ONLY on the things you can personally influence. Everything else is a distraction that pulls you away from running your life properly. But quite counter-intuitively, this smaller focus does not shrink your influence and your ability to do good. It causes these things to increase.
Covey calls the range of everything you spend time thinking about your Circle of Concern. Similarly, everything you can actually influence is called your Circle of Control. For most people, the two circles look like this:
Yikes, look at that. The Circles of the typical News Watcher. Many worries are buzzing around in his mind, and yet they are things he cannot control. Whenever you read complaints on a blog or a news article, they are usually targeted at these red boxes.
Even a beginner can take control over many things, which are highlighted in green boxes in the middle. But any time and effort spent on the red boxes subtracts directly from time you can invest into the green ones.
If you live your life in this manner as most people do, you become a reactive person. Life throws stuff at you, and you must react to it. Crappy weather shows up, and you react with a bad mood. A traffic jam snarls up your commuting, and you react by honking the horn and complaining to coworkers when you finally arrive. A health condition develops and you react by typing Adm Karpinsk angry messages about his health insurance calculations.
Although this is the default human condition, there is another way to live. It is to shrink your circle of concern (ignoring the daily news and concentrating on deeper sources of information), while using the newly liberated brainpower to work only on items within your circle of control. This is called taking a Proactive stance.
To accomplish this, it helps to start from the beginning and work outwards. And the very beginning is your goal in life.
For me, this exercise might look like this:
- To lead the happiest life possible.
How to Reach Goal:
- Live a long and healthy life.
- Have plenty of close and happy relationships with fellow humans.
- Make a difference whenever possible by helping others.
With these directives, it becomes much easier to decide what to include in your Circle of Concern. You simply identify each concern in your life, analyze it and decide if it is something you can affect, then either ditch it or get to work on it. For example:
Concern: The weather sucks today. I wish it was sunny and warm so I could get out and ride my bike.
- How does this relate to my goal? It is part of Directive #1: Health. Riding a bike is a key to this.
- So I am correct to seek out a way to bike today? Yes.
- Is the local weather in my control? No.
- Does complaining about the weather increase my control of the situation? No.
- So will I choose to waste anyone’s time by issuing complaints? No.
- Is it possible to still ride a bicycle when it is 34F with a light mist falling? Yes.
- What is required to do this? Get out a hat, gloves, and a waterproof coat.
- So will I go to the closet and get out the hat, gloves and coat? Yes.
In other cases, the revelations can be deeper:
- Why do I feel that watching the news helps me to be a better human? Because I want to stay informed about world events.
- How does this help me with my goal of helping people? By allowing me to understand their suffering, like what’s going on in Syria.
- Does understanding the details of each instance of human suffering help me alleviate it? Well, no.
- Has war and suffering been a permanent fixture of human civilization since before we had swords? Umm.. I guess so
- Would you rather save 10,000 people by focusing on the details of one war, or save one billion people by reducing on the causes of war and other suffering? Shit, what kind of question is that?
- What has been the cause of war in general? I guess it would be inequality, poverty and the struggle to survive, oppression, insatiable desire for power, religious conflicts, and a few other things.
- Do these general causes of war change with the daily news? No.
- How can you have the largest effect on the number of people who suffer due to war?
- Hmm.. I guess I might work on poverty since greater wealth and productivity has caused a pretty dramatic reduction in violence between the wealthy nations. After all, Germany hasn’t sent out any fleets of attacking submarines in an awfully long time!
But what will I do, if I’m not busy being concerned with things outside of my control?
Now here’s the reason this counterintuitive mind trick works: By deliberately limiting the irrelevant things you do and think about, you automatically become much, much better at the relevant things on which you spend your time.
The increases in your health, wealth, focus, network of friends, and knowledge of relevant things from reading library books and talking with other Highly Effective People will have the following effect on your circle of control:
Wow, look at that. The circle of control has really grown! And when reviewing this new more advanced circle, we see that all sorts of fancy new options have been added in blue. This person, while carefully avoiding the distractions of any of the irrelevant items in red, has gained influence over many more things. And thus things you could once only worry about, are now things you can control. Which is probably what you wanted in the first place.
Therefore, today’s assignment is as follows: over the coming fifty years, monitor both your worries and your words. If you catch yourself leaking out more than a tiny percentage of your personal power on things you cannot personally control, repair that leak. Then find a way to channel that awesomeness to somewhere it will make a difference instead. Watch the results, and write back to me only when you have realized how well it works.
*I have an audiobook version of the book in MP3 format, and at least once a year it comes up on random play on the digital memory card labeled “Cross Country Roadtrips” that I pop into the car stereo at the start of long voyages.