In this article, I discuss a model I use to help clients whose goal is to reduce or eliminate behaviours which are having negative effects on their lives.


Estimated reading time: 4 minutes.

In my work as a Calgary psychologist and a Cochrane psychologist, I sometimes work with clients whose goal is to reduce or eliminate behaviours which are having negative effects on their lives. Among the behaviours are drug and alcohol use, gambling, eating issues (binge eating or bingeing and purging), viewing pornography and cheating on one’s partner in a relationship.

When working with these clients, I typically start by having them gain an understanding of the causes of their issues by using a vivid pictorial model. This model also provides directions for steps clients can take to address their issues. Each of these steps makes more sense to clients when the steps are framed in the context of the model. In the following sections, I will discuss how I use this model with clients in helping them to address their problematic behaviours.

The first step in using the model: Draw three circles and four quadrants

I introduce the circle model to clients by drawing three circles on a blank sheet of paper. I start with the small ‘inner circle’ in the middle of the page. Surrounding the inner circle I draw the ‘middle circle’. Then outside of the middle circle I draw the ‘outer circle’. Then I draw a vertical and horizontal line down the middle of the page so that there are four quadrants.

The second step: Label the three circles and the four quadrants

I then label the three circles and the four quadrants. The small inner circle refers to the behaviour whose frequency you want to reduce. The larger middle circle surrounding the inner circle contains factors which increase the likelihood that you will choose to engage in the inner-circle behaviour. The outer circle which surrounds the middle circle contains factors which decrease the likelihood that you will choose to engage in the inner-circle behaviour.

The four quadrants refer to four categories of middle and outer circle factors: Situations, behaviours/activities, emotions and thoughts. The middle circle contains situations, behaviours/activities, emotions and thoughts which increase the likelihood that you will choose to engage in the inner-circle behaviour. The outer circle contains situations, behaviours/activities, emotions and thoughts which decrease the likelihood that you will choose to engage in the inner-circle behaviour. The situations quadrant is in the top left of the page, the behaviours/activities quadrant is in the top right, the emotions quadrant is in the bottom left and the thoughts quadrant is in the bottom right.

The third step: List middle- and outer-circle factors in each quadrant

I next ask my client to list middle- and outer-circle factors in each of the four quadrants. I will illustrate this process by using drinking alcohol as an example inner-circle behaviour.

First are examples of middle circle factors in each quadrant: (1) Situations–spending time with friends who drink; (2) Activities–watching a hockey game at home; (3) Emotions–stress and boredom; (4) Thoughts–thinking about the things I like about drinking alcohol.

Now here are examples of outer circle factors in each quadrant: (1) Situations–spending time with friends who don’t drink; (2) Activities–going for a walk; (3) Emotions–feeling relaxed and engaged/interested; (4) Thoughts–thinking about the bad aspects of drinking alcohol and the good aspects of staying sober.

The next steps: Use the information from your completed model to address your problem behaviour

Once you’ve listed several factors in the middle and outer circles in each of the four quadrants, you are ready to use the information from your completed circle model to address your problem behaviour. To do this effectively, focus on two goals: (1) Spending as much time in the outer circle as possible and as little time in the middle circle as possible; and (2) When you find yourself in the middle circle at a given time, identify steps you can take to move from the middle circle to the outer circle rather than from the middle circle to the inner circle.

Using the example I discussed earlier, you could spend as much time in the outer circle and as little time in the middle circle as possible by doing the following: (1) Spending time with your friends who drink rather than with your friends who don’t drink; (2) Going for a walk rather than watching a hockey game at home on TV; (3) Taking steps to feel relaxed and engaged/interested rather than feeling stressed and bored; (4) Thinking about the bad aspects of drinking alcohol and the good aspects of staying sober rather than thinking about the things you like about drinking alcohol.

Using this same example, steps you can take to move from the middle circle to the outer circle rather than from the middle circle to the inner circle include the following: (1) If you are in a middle circle situation, move to an outer circle situation (e.g., if you are currently with friends who drink, get out of that situation into a situation with friends who do not drink); (2) If you are currently engaging in a middle circle behaviour or activity, stop doing this and engage in an outer circle behaviour or activity (e.g., if you are currently watching a hockey game on TV at home, stop doing so and go for a walk); (3) If you are currently experiencing one or more middle circle emotions, take steps to help you experience outer circle emotions (e.g., if you are currently stressed, engage in an activity to help you relax; if you are currently bored, engage in activity to help you feel engaged and interested); (4) If you are currently thinking middle circle thoughts, think instead of outer circle thoughts (e.g., if you are currently thinking about the things you like about drinking alcohol, think instead of the bad aspects of drinking alcohol and the good aspects of staying sober).

The more you practice using the circle model in this way, the more you will develop the habits necessary to help you address your problematic behaviours. A psychologist who specializes in cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) can help you to implement the ideas from this article.

May you spend as much time in the outer circle as possible,

Dr. Pat