In the classic book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (affiliate link), the grandfather of modern productivity, Stephen R. Covey, has some sage advice:
Focus on your area of influence.
It’s sensible. Why waste your time and energy on things that are outside of your control?
Still, I struggle with this — and I wonder if a lot of other people do, too.
I re-read the book recently and really reflected on this idea, because I thought it was especially important in this time in my life where I’m juggling so many things.
I think the conflict, for me, has to do with another trend I subscribe to in modern psychology and spirituality: the law of attraction.
What you focus your mind on grows.
I’ve experienced enough in my life to know without a doubt that this is true. If I focus my mind on something, good or bad, the universe seems to align toward it. There is cognitive science behind this, of course — giving your attention to something means your brain is keyed in to anything related to that issue, and you’re predisposed to spotting opportunities and connections. There’s a spiritual element to it, too, I think. From a Christian standpoint, maybe it’s that the Holy Spirit also gives His attention to where our attention is.
No matter how it works, positive thinking can change your life for the better. And that’s a powerful thing.
Maybe too powerful.
If you have the power to influence anything in your life merely by focusing on it, what isn’t inside your area of influence?
That said, I have come to realize there are two things that, even with positive thinking, are firmly outside my control: death and other people’s decisions. Those two things I can easily let go of, because I can’t directly influence them. Sure, I can stave off early death by taking good care of myself, but death comes when it comes. I can do my best to appreciate my loved ones while I have them, but still, death may take them before it takes me — and I can’t stop that. And I can try to control others into making different decisions, but that’s not influence, that’s manipulation (and why I approach copywriting from the standpoint of “how can we help the customer through this piece of writing?” instead of merely “persuasion tactics”).
So maybe the challenge today, decades after 7 Habits was written, isn’t so much “focusing on your area of influence,” it’s “choosing a more focused area of influence” or even “shrinking your area of influence.” I’m not in a position to stop climate change by galvanizing the public like Greta Thunberg, but I can influence my family to help in a small way by recycling and and not using so many single-use plastics. I can’t fix our broken political system, but I can influence the next four years in a small way by voting.