Two Circles of Lasting Behavior Change

I keep coming back to the question of how to balance quick wins with long-lasting and sustainable personal change. This essay combines two mental models to help answer this question.

When I asked Sophia to fully settle into the responsibility of being an entrepreneur during our one-on-one coaching session, she began to cry. This was it: she was about to take maximum ownership of her career, striking out as an entrepreneur. Removing herself from her cushy role in venture capital was not only uncomfortable—it defied the expectations of her parents, who had devoted their lives to seeing her succeed in a secure career. When she left that security behind, it would be a shock to their expectations.

I had first met Sophia years ago when we were both venture investors; she was working for a reputable fund in London. Fast forward three years, I received a message from Sophia asking if we could do some coaching work together. She revealed that she had resolved to found her own firm, but recognized that to view herself as an entrepreneur, she’d need to embark on her own journey of change.

By that point, I had been a change practitioner for some years, both in depth as a coach and at scale with Journey. Journey is an app that helps you focus on your long-term goals and turn them into action. In my work, I keep coming back to the question of how to balance quick wins with long-lasting and sustainable personal change. I’ve noticed that, as my experience in facilitating change has grown, the more simple my mental models become. And the simpler my models become, the more they can reflect the complex realities of our lives.

I wanted to share Sophia’s story to help illustrate some straightforward change frameworks that anyone can apply. I’m going to combine two models to help answer one question: how can you make personal change easy, yet sustainable?

The Circle Of Influence

When Sophia arrived on the venture scene, she was hell-bent on changing the diversity problem within venture for good. As a second generation immigrant woman who had grown up shouldering high expectations from her Eastern European family, she gave all she had for her career. When she reached out to me, she had already made a name for herself: leading sought-after deals in the European early stage ecosystem and making friends with some of the top investors out there. She was a rising star by any measure. But for the next step in her journey, she’d need a new mindset.

As we began our work, Sophia shared that she had already identified the areas in her life and work on which she should focus.

You may be familiar with the work of Stephen Covey—in particular his 1989 bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In The 7 Habits, Covey’s central message is that challenges and concerns can best be dealt with through proactivity. That means: accepting full responsibility for your situation and taking intentional action. Covey used a system of concentric circles, nested within one another, to illustrate his theory. These are the Circle of Concern, the Circle of Influence, and the Circle of Control.

The Circle of Control, Influence and Concern: a mental model to identify your scope of action.

The Circle of Concern contains every challenge that catches your attention, both at work and in life at large. Within this circle are many challenges you face that you likely do not have direct or indirect influence over, ranging from climate change and pandemics to gossip in the media.

Within the Circle of Concern is the Circle of Influence: challenges you face that you can’t change directly, but may be able to influence indirectly, such as looking after the health of those around you, or supporting a charity.

Making up the innermost circle, the Circle of Control contains, as you’d expect, those things you have direct control over. These might include the time you apportion to work, the things you eat, the time you go to bed or your exercise regime.

Covey’s message is that your task is to figure out what elements of your life belong inside that Circle of Control. His central thesis is that people tend to have a great deal more control over their lives—and consequently, more power over their circumstances—than they believe.

With this insight also comes the realization that you can take way more responsibility than you might have previously felt comfortable with.

All of this was directly applicable to Sophia’s situation: in focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion in venture, she had picked one of the hairiest challenges the venture community could have offered. Soon she realized, diversity was not a game she could win on her own. Joining a group of investors and entrepreneurs, she became deeply engaged in a community focused on increasing the career prospects of diverse talent in venture. In doing so, she moved these diversity challenges from her Circle of Concern to her Circle of Influence.

After two years of community building, the rewards were coming in: other top investment funds were knocking on her door trying to hire her. She saw herself rising to partner level in just a few years. Ultimately, she realized, she had to take matters into her own hands. She decided to leave the investment side.

At this point, she moved from the Circle of Influence to the Circle of Control: while she could influence the lives of others through her investing and community work, she could fully control her own career decisions.

Putting It Into Practice

You can put this mental model into practice for yourself in just a few minutes, so get a large sheet of paper and a pen. But before you get started, think about an issue in your life that you want to change.

  1. Begin by drawing a large circle: this is your Circle of Concern.Write down your areas of concern on sticky notes, and arrange them within the Circle of Concern.

    For Sophia, this circle would contain the topics diversity, climate change and income inequality.

  2. Within your Circle of Concern, draw a smaller circle: your Circle of Control. Leave plenty of space between the circles, as we are going to do some rearranging work later

  3. Spend some time considering which areas of concern you can control. Move the corresponding sticky notes into the Circle of Control.

    In Sophia’s case, she was able to control her actions in navigating team dynamics within her investment team, growing her network, working on deals and, ultimately, deciding on whether to stay or leave the firm.

  4. It’s now critical to sort out as much of the grey area—your Circle of Influence—as possible. This comprises the next segment of the exercise.

    Draw a third circle between the Circle of Concern and the Circle of Control, making your Circle of Influence.

  5. Consider how you might go about influencing areas of concern you believe to be completely outside of your control. Perhaps you won’t be able to fully control those areas of concern—but how might you influence them?

    Break down the issues in your Circle of Influence into their components and drivers until you can start to clearly move them into either Control or Concern territory.

Sophia identified two main topics that she could move from “influence” to “control”: she realized she could lead by example in her venture firm; and most importantly, she decided to take matters into her own hands by contributing her network and audience to the diversity initiative she had joined.

Ultimately, it’s important to be able to give up the need to worry about things that lie outside your control. Doing so will help you live a more peaceful life. We need to give ourselves permission to focus on controlling our contribution over controlling our outcomes. It can, of course, be difficult to make such a transition, and is easier said than done. Many of us are accustomed to wishing to control every aspect of our lives—yet we readily concede that such desires are futile.

I should note that this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about larger societal, geopolitical or climate issues. But it does mean your focus should be on how you can contribute.

Photo by Hello I'm Nik / Unsplash

Identifying A New You

Sophia and I began working together just as she was about to hand in her notice at her venture capital fund. After establishing her Circle of Influence, she felt she had a good handle on the things she needed to focus on; the elements required for change were in place.

But the deepest, most challenging step in her transformation was yet to come: fully stepping into her new identity as an entrepreneur. Talking to her family about her decision and letting go of her feelings of guilt and shame for leaving a safe, well paid, high profile job by the wayside. Stepping into this new identity entailed transforming not only her professional roles but also her identity as a daughter. Doing this work took some of the practices outlined in this article as well as embodiment and systemic constellation work.

The mental model for behavior change that we used was developed by bestselling author James Clear. His concept is that in order to build lasting habits, it is necessary to create a new identity—the theory being that your current behaviors are a product of your current identity.

Central to this process are the fundamental beliefs about yourself that you carry with you. If you begin to believe new things about yourself, new habits can be formed and maintained. While many people begin the habit-changing process by focusing on what they want to achieve, Clear’s approach starts by focusing on who we wish to become.

Like Covey, Clear uses a system of three concentric circles to illustrate his process: the largest, outer layer represents Outcomes; the second layer represents Processes; and the innermost layer is your Identity.

The outermost circle, Outcomes, comprises the individual goals you want to achieve. These could range from achieving series B funding for your startup, to running your first 10-kilometer race.

Again, Sophia needed to control her contribution to outcomes. That’s because even if you have externally committed to outcomes, like so many of my coaching clients have to their teams, customers and investors, ultimately you will come back to asking yourself “what can I do to make this happen?” That’s focusing on contribution—so you might as well start there. Sophia had already made an important decision on the outcome level: she was going to leave her role in investing.

The second layer in is the Process layer. This concerns the changes you need to make—or the habits you need to form—in order to achieve your outcomes. For example, if you were aiming to run your first 10k race, you might commit to begin your training by running a short distance every morning. That would be one of your Processes.

In Sophia’s case, she had started researching business opportunities and meeting potential cofounders for her business. In adopting a new routine, she was moving from outcomes-based change to process-based change.

The central layer, Identity, sits at the heart of this theory of habit-forming, and is where you change your beliefs about yourself. To take our running example: you might not have previously considered yourself to be a runner, but now you’ve chosen to compete in a 10k. Therefore, this stage of this process is where you will recast your self-identity—in this case by identifying yourself as a runner.

As a runner, now you don’t need to remind yourself about that daily run: it is part of being yourself; it is simply what a runner does. For Sophia, she shifted her mindset from from that of an investor researching opportunities, to fully stepping into the reality of being an entrepreneur. This entailed clearing some emotional barriers around family expectations. We also worked through deeply held beliefs about being good enough to bet on herself. This was what enabled her to ultimately take her leap.

My thesis is that, the further you are to the outside of the circle, the easier it is to realize quick wins. When you are getting started, those goals are important: you will need quick wins to keep motivated early on. But in order to get serious about long-term personal change, making it sustainable and long-lasting, you want to focus on identity-level change.

Great, But How Do You Actually Achieve Identity-Level Change?

Honestly, it’s not as challenging as it might sound. Effecting identity-level change boils down to asking the question “who do you want to be?” That is to say, what sort of person could espouse the principles you stand for, or achieve the goals that you want to attain? And note that this aspirational identity could apply to teams just as much as it might apply to you personally.

If you don’t know where to begin, reverse-engineer the process: take the results you want to see, and think about the sort of person who could achieve those results. Then, identify the smallest first step that is within your control. Lastly, identify the steps that will help create the necessary space in your life to realize this change.

How did this look like for Sophia - in a simplified way? On her quest to become a founder, these were the steps she took:

  • Define identity: "Become the type of person who not only sees but captures business opportunities."

  • Identify small win: "This week, build a list of possible co-founders and write up my top business opportunities in a document."

  • Create space for change: "Scale down my current role or leave my job alltogether."

Granted, this was a major life transition for Sophia. Not always will you have to quit your job to step into a new identity: In my coaching work, this work often takes the form of a founder owning the identity of a CEO. In doing so, we would work out how exactly this plays out in his team leadership, communication to her entire company and managing key shareholders. Another example I have recently both gone through myself and worked on with two clients is stepping into the parenting role alongside the entrepreneur's role. Owning these identities entailed finding new routines, communicating clearly to family, team and investors and exploring new self-care practices. All that to say: this applies to major and minor changes in life, and you can try it out regardless of where you stand in your journey.

How The Frameworks Converge

If you want to achieve sustained personal change but are worried about getting things started, here’s your formula:

  1. First, limit the scope to what you can control. Let go of the need to control things that are outside your immediate area of impact. Again, the focus should be contribution over outcomes.

  2. Second, begin with low-barrier changes where it is easy to create small wins.

  3. Finally, lead with identity-level change that is going to last.

Coaching is about transforming identities. While I do work on a lot of tactical questions around building, growing and leading high growth businesses, the core of my work are these more subtle identity shifts.

The more I decode the nature of personal change, the more I realize how the most simple models and questions can work wonders.

Today, Sophia is the CEO of her own company, with dozens of employees, and she is nearing profitability. She has truly mastered the process of focusing, letting go and transforming her identity. Whenever I think of her story, I am reminded of the Serenity Prayer:

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

Contribute where you can, and stop worrying about things you cannot control. These are core principles for anyone seeking a fulfilled life.