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Determine What You Can Control
4th February 2022 • The Science of Self • Peter Hollins
00:00:00 00:06:31

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Have a healthy attitude toward control—though there are things in life we never have control over, we are always in charge of our own reactions and actions. Try the Stoic exercise to help you identify what you can change, what you can’t, and practice the wisdom it takes to know the difference.

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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.

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Self-discipline is all about that powerful shift in mindset that comes with realizing that we are in control of our lives. There is nobody else to blame, nothing stopping us, and no reason that we can’t start right now to improve our situation. However, as with all things in life, balance is important. There is so, so much you can control—but you can’t control everything!

Wanting to control things that you actually cannot (and should not) control is not self-discipline but an exercise in futility. More than that, it’s a recipe for anxiety and stress. Too much agency, self-restraint, and discipline can start to look like rigid perfectionism. Control freaks are not disciplined or organized—they’re simply anxious.

When you find yourself worrying, take a minute to examine the things you actually have control over. Zoom out and be realistic about your true scope of action, your responsibility, and your role in the way that events unfold. Self-discipline will take you far, but there are times in life where what happens is simply not up to you.

But even then, you have options. You can be aware, you can choose, and you can act. You can't prevent a storm from coming but you can prepare for it. You can't control how someone else behaves, but you can control how you react to that.

The key to managing anxiety and worry is to focus on what you can control and worry about those things only. You will find yourself less distracted, less worried, and better able to focus on what actually matters.

Recognize that sometimes, all you can control is your effort and your attitude. But that’s a lot! When you invest your energy into the things you can control and pull it away from the things you can’t, you'll be much more effective and your anxiety will dissipate. You’ll be able to rest knowing that you are doing all that you can—and what else could you do?

How to Use This in Your Life Immediately

The old saying goes, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I cannot accept, and the wisdom to know the difference.” So, serenity, courage, and wisdom are needed.

The ancient Stoics had a brilliant method for tackling anxiety, overthinking, and rumination. If you find yourself overcome with worry and anxiety, take it as a sign that you need to pause and have a look at your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Take a piece of paper and draw three columns. The first is titled “Things I have zero control over.” The second is titled “Things I have a degree of control over.” The last is titled “Things I have complete control over.”

Now, take a moment to contemplate the issue that’s stressing you out, and pick it apart. Let’s say you’re nervous about an upcoming performance review and are worried about your future job security. Take your time filling out the columns but be as truthful and realistic as possible. You cannot control the performance review that other people give you. You can nudge things this way or that way depending on how you conduct yourself at the end-of-year interview. And you can completely control your overall attitude, response, and future choices. You can control how you frame the situation, whether you blame yourself or others, and what you choose to learn from the situation.

After you’ve spent some time dissecting the situation (you may need to move things a few times after closer consideration), it’s time to act. Remember that you have limited time, resources, energy, and willpower. Remember also that you have values and preferences and goals. Now, with that in mind, how are you going to conduct yourself?

Tear off the first column and throw it away. There’s no use spending a second more time on that—why would you when you know it will have zero impact? Next, look at the final column—this is where you can do the most. Once you have acted to fully maximize on those things you can control, you can then look at the middle column and see how you can steer events somewhat. Commit to concrete action. When you’re done, put the paper away and tell yourself, “I can relax now. I’ve done everything I can. The rest is not my business.”