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  • Writer's pictureJason R. Waller

As a Leader, Focus on What You Can Control

When I became a platoon leader in the US Army, there were 100 things that I could give my attention to. I had to slowly figure out what was worth my time, and the first step was in understanding what I could and couldn’t control. I had to relearn this lesson at every stage of my leadership journey, including in the business world.

When I was working as a manager at McKinsey & Company, I found a particularly helpful tool that I dubbed the “Spheres of Control.” It was one of the simplest but most helpful ways to think about where I was putting my energy. It was something I both used personally as a leader and taught to my clients.

Today, I still use it in my coaching. And now I’d like to share it with you.

Think in Terms of Three Spheres of Control

This approach is incredibly simple and endlessly useful. Right now, either through internal reflection or a quick scroll through your calendar, think about where your time goes.

Got it? Now categorize this time into things you can control, meaning that you have direct agency over and responsibility for the outcomes, things you can influence, meaning that you can nudge but not direct the outcomes, and things you can only observe, meaning that you have zero power to control the outcome.

Take stock of how much time you spend in the first category of “control” versus the last category of “observe.” Ideally, we leaders should spend most of our time on the things we can control, and much less time collectively on the things we can only influence or observe. In reality, though, this isn’t the case. We click “accept” on most of the meeting invites we see in our inbox, and we end up taking time away from the things we could and should be in control of.

Here’s a quick visual to help think through that share of time, which we’ll expand on below:

70%: What You Can Control

Spend more than 70% of your time on the things you can control. These are the tasks that are directly connected to your overarching goals as a leader. These are the actions that you own and are responsible for.

The easy test here is that you are accountable for the results. Another test is that you can direct and manage your team or others to achieve these results.

If you’re not spending the majority of your time here, ask yourself why. It makes sense that we focus our energy on the efforts that we can control, but what’s holding you back from making the same leap today? How is your calendar controlling you versus you controlling the calendar?

The hallmarks of spending on what you can control are:

  • Setting clear deliverables, being outcome- and goal-oriented with direct expectations

  • Connecting directly to goals, always asserting how the task ties into what matters

  • Enforcing high accountability, taking responsibility for what happens and doesn’t happen, and passing that down to others

20%: What You Can Influence

Almost all of your time should be spent on what you can control, but the key word here is “almost.” Aim for 20% of your time to be spent on areas that you can’t directly control, but still matter and can be influenced. This is about one in every five tasks or meetings.

While this is drastically lower than any share of energy you should be putting into the things you can control, it doesn’t mean that this should be zero. The trap of early leaders is to be pulled into every decision or every meeting that might matter, versus the one or two that do.

Separate yourself from the noise and review what you want to be influencing, as an outcome. In any business, even if you’re the CEO and the company is small, there are things outside of your control. Clients and partnerships can usually be influenced but not directly controlled.

If it matters and it’s worth your time, think about this typical approach to influencing what’s worthwhile:

  • Offering input and advice, meaning that your role isn’t to direct but to counsel

  • Participating in the dialog, whenever it makes sense to the goals and outcomes you know are important

  • Asking for updates and input, so that you can be pulled into the conversations that are really important

10%: What You Can Only Observe

Less than 10% of time, or one out of every ten meetings, should go into an area that you can’t control or influence. Let’s say that again — if you can’t control or influence the outcome, then it should be less than 10% of your time.

It’s an easy habit to click accept on an invite or reply to a thoughtful inquiry, but the overarching question is whether it really matters. If you’re a leader, then you need to be spending time on leading. Cut out the noise and scale back on the commitments until they reflect what you’re actually responsible for.

Another way to look at this is that more than 90% of your time should be spent on things where you can actually control or influence relevant outcomes. It’s easier said than done — when I was leading teams I would always feel the pull of the hustle, of “what else can I be doing in parallel.” The reality is that the most effective use of time for the less-than-10% of observing activities is:

  • Probing with questions, so that you can contribute your expertise and push the thinking

  • Prioritizing what matters, for only those things that have relevant “educational” value

  • Setting background processes, to keep the relevant information flowing without having to spend a lot of effort

Closing Thoughts

I never mentioned the idea of “important” or “urgent” in this context. That’s for another article. The reality is that, no matter how important or urgent a topic is, it doesn’t really matter unless you as a leader can control the outcome.

Too often I get pulled into the shiny objects that are only loosely related to my goals. But unless I can affect the end result, I find time and time again that they should have taken less of my time.

And this doesn’t mean 0% of my time. We need to keep our finger on the pulse of what’s happening. But it does mean that how we operate normally, in reactive mode, gives more weight to the things we can’t control. The next time you have a decision about where to spend your own time as a leader, ask yourself:

  • Am I spending 70% of my time on things I can control, meaning I have direct agency over and responsibility for the outcomes?

  • Am I spending 20% of my time on the things I can influence, meaning I can nudge but not direct the outcomes?

  • Am I spending 10% of my time on the things I can only observe, meaning I have zero power to control the outcome?

When we focus on what we can change, change becomes the outcome. When we focus on what we can’t change, that becomes the outcome, too.

Good luck on your journey.

Originally published in The Ascent

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