How to be proactive at work by focusing on the things you can control

In the classic book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey writes about proactive people focusing their time and energy on things they can control and influence instead of the things they can’t.

Often, we can get caught up worrying about things going on in the world that impact us but we can’t change. Covey calls this the Circle of Concern, which are things we can neither control nor influence, things like:

  • The weather
  • The transport system
  • Strikes
  • Interest rates
  • A global pandemic
  • Things in the past.

Whilst we may care about these things and they can be important, to dwell on them too much can be unhelpful. Instead, we should turn our focus to things that we can control and influence. Here are some examples of these:

Things I can control:

  • My responses
  • My language
  • What I prioritise
  • What I say and how
  • Whether I put myself forward for an opportunity
  • Whether I speak up.

Things I can influence to some extent, but not control fully:

  • My personal brand – how people view me
  • Whether people feel able to confide in me confidentially
  • Individuals who value my opinion
  • Whether I get invited to speak at an event
  • If I get approached about an opportunity.

I have been reflecting on these distinctions in a work context. Often people I talk to have got stuck in particular ways of working and tolerate less than ideal situations, that they could change. This isn’t always easy and requires a change in behaviour, but the good news is that it is possible.

There are some things I can’t control, but can influence to some extent through my behaviour, both in the moment and based on my track record of behaviour. Let me share an example:

When I was new to coaching and growing my business, before I had got my website set up, I was getting clients through my network, referrals and LinkedIn. If someone got in touch with me interested in booking an exploratory call, I booked them in my diary (delighted), spent half an hour or more speaking to them and in some cases giving a free coaching session. At the end of the session, I talked them through my coaching programmes and prices. In some cases, they said they couldn’t afford that level of investment, so didn’t sign up for a coaching programme. Whilst it is always nice connecting with people, in business terms those calls weren’t a good use of my time.

I now ensure potential coachees are able to access information about my programmes and prices up front. I signpost them to my website and check they are comfortable with my rates before booking a call to explore our fit.

I can’t control other people, but I have influenced a greater conversion rate from exploratory call to coachee by being more proactive and structured and being less hopeful that everyone can and will work with me. I can control my actions – the information I provide, being thorough with the process. Resisting the urge to say yes to every call ensuring I focus my time on the right things.

“I can’t control other people. I can control my actions.”

How might this apply in your work? Are there some elements of your work life that you would like to change? Perhaps you would like to be treated differently or get access to different opportunities. How could you use these principles to help you?

Observe yourself in the coming days and weeks:

  • Where are you focusing your time and energy? Is it on things you can control, influence, or neither?
  • How can you use factors you can control to influence things for the better?

My earlier blog How can I overcome my fixed mindset and change for the better? also focuses on making a change.

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