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The Circle of Control

Let’s talk a little bit about mindset and mental state for a minute. Embarking on changes to your health and nutrition leads to many positive physical and mental changes that greatly enrich your life, but it's also easy to feel overwhelmed, stressed and worried about them too. It’s natural for these thoughts and feelings to surface during changes to your routine or lifestyle. Recognising the signs and understanding how to navigate them can be useful when maintaining your mental well-being and focus.

If you sense these feelings of unease growing a useful exercise is to identify what is in your circle of control. That is to say, identify what factors you have complete control over, what you have limited control over and what you have no control over. By categorising experiences in this way you open the door to acknowledging what you can influence and what you have the power to deal with.

Now, this is most certainly easier said than done but by establishing this thought process and running through it when faced with a challenging situation or unexpected hurdle, you can help train yourself to accept, deal with, and overcome worrying and stressful situations to the best of your ability. The best part is, that this isn't limited to just nutrition, health or competition, your circle of control extends both situationally and generally to all aspects of life.

The Circle of Control

Here’s an example of a general day-to-day circle of control. When you think of each circle, you are trying to identify and bring your awareness to what is entirely in your control, what you have some influence over, and what is not under your control. By working through the diagram you can gain awareness of a situation and decide what needs action (what you can control) and what doesn't (what’s not in your control).

Let’s use emails as an example.

You have no control over when someone sends you an email, but you do have some control over when you read it (e.g. during business hours/after lunch/first thing in the morning) and you have total control over whether and when you answer it at all. That total control circle reflects your choice and realising you have that choice goes a long way to curbing worry and stress.

Taking the scheme a bit further and more in line with how I use it with my clients, here's a specific nutrition situation:

Setting the scene: You’re invited to a party at a local restaurant. You have a training session booked with your trainer that evening so will turn up a little later than the 6 pm start. The food is at 8 pm and you plan to be there by 7 pm. You’re in a fat loss phase at the moment.

You’re anticipating that not many people there are into fitness, on a diet or training like you, which could lead to some worry about awkward or challenging interactions.

Let's run through it, starting with what you can control: What you eat off the menu and how you react to the evening as a whole. You can choose anything you want from the menu, and you might have some control over any ‘healthy’ menus they have available if you wish. Acknowledging that you can choose what you want means whether you decide on the salad or the pizza, it’s the right choice for you. Both having a night off the diet or going full salad mode are perfectly valid and healthy choices. This is part of having a healthy response to the evening, you’re there to celebrate and enjoy and you can do it however you please - that’s on you.

If you are finding the thought of turning up and not knowing what’s available for food, this is partly under your control! You have the option to see if they publish the menu online or ask the host what sort of food they serve. If it’s not available, you run it back to your controllable options and remind yourself that you can enjoy the evening regardless of the menu.

You will only have some control over when you arrive. There is no accounting for traffic or car trouble or a training session that overruns, and you have no control over when the other guests arrive or leave.

The biggest factor, totally out of your control, is the other guests at the party. How they choose to react to your menu choices, what they eat or if they behave positively or negatively towards you is on them, your response is on you.

A good way to start working out your circle is to do it as a written exercise. You can download a worksheet here. Typically you can start by listing what you are in 100% control over, before considering what you have some input or influence over, finishing what is not within your control. It's totally normal for there to be many more items in the "some" and "no control" circles.

I give people the option to complete it backwards, starting with what they have no control over. These are usually easier to identify for a lot of people, particularly if you are already worried or stressed out those factors are right in the forefront of your mind. Starting with the uncontrollable lets you take ownership of the situation, and get your thoughts written out on paper. Being able to visualise it helps you to work backwards to find what you can control and the choices you have.

Give both ways a go and see which one works best for you.

The more often you think in these terms and are mindful of the impact you have, the more it becomes second nature to identify potential causes of stress and judge how best you can manage and respond to them. In short, what starts as a pen and paper exercise becomes a useful habit that helps to reduce feelings of worry and emphasises feelings of confidence and contentment when tackling what life throws at you.

If you’ve found this an interesting read and want to learn more about how this scheme and others like it can help you develop your health and nutrition email me at: To download a Circle of Control worksheet click here.

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