Focus on What You Can Control

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
— Reinhold Niebuhr

Life is often overwhelming, distressing, and outright unfair. Most of what’s happening in the world is totally outside of our control. But if you focus on what you can control, you position yourself in the best place possible.

What happens when you focus on things you can’t control?

When you focus on things that are outside of your control, nothing good happens: You’ll most likely feel powerless, helpless, weak. Maybe you feel upset or angry, frustrated, disappointed, anxious or scared. The more you obsess about what you can’t control, the more your mental health and sense of well-being will tank. 

Maybe you feel like things aren’t fair. And even if that’s true, you gotta ask yourself: how does feeling this way help you? It doesn’t!

Most of all, when you focus on things you can’t control, you lose control over that which you can control. Because you scatter your efforts and attention ineffectively, the little bit of energy you’ve got left to make an impact in the areas within your control won’t go far. You’ll end up feeling drained of energy, without having made any progress.

Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.

— Epictetus

As you can see, this is not new knowledge. Quite the contrary: it’s ancient wisdom that we too often forget in our daily life.

Make a list of the things you can control

Take inventory of everything that’s within your control. This will help you come up with an actionable plan on what to do about your current situation.

List of things you can and can't control

Here are some things that are within your control:

Your attitude 

Your attitude or mindset is something you can choose. You can choose to have a positive attitude, even when you’re in dire circumstances. Trust that bad times can lead to good things, even if you don’t understand how it will play out in the future.

Whether you use just common sense thinking, recite positive affirmations, keep a gratitude journal, there are many ways to build and maintain a healthy attitude.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

— Victor Frankl

Your actions

What you do, how you behave, that’s within your control. What action will you choose to take? Maybe you are scared to bring up a difficult topic with your partner, but you muster up the courage and initiate the conversation anyway. How you feel (scared) is out of your control, but how you act (you have the conversation anyway) is within your control.

Your energy

Do you give it everything you got? Do you put in your best effort? Do you do the best you can? One thing I’ve learned in life is that you should say YES to fewer things, but the ones that you do say YES to, you should commit to fully and do your best effort.

Most people say YES way too often, and NO way too rarely, and they end up spreading themselves so thin that they never do anything to the best of their capacity. Don’t live your life like that. When you commit to doing something, do it really, really, well.

Your time

What are you spending time on? Find a routine that works for you and plan your days. Decide what kinds of activities make you a happier, more confident and competent person. What kind of hobbies do you enjoy? Are there any classes you can take to develop your personal or professional skills? Would like to join a volunteering group?

Your diet

What do you eat? Chocolate bars, coke, burgers, and fries? While there are many different opinions about what constitutes a healthy diet, we all know have some idea when we make good vs poor food choices. Stay hydrated. Feed yourself with things that contribute to your health.

Your mindfulness practice: Act mindfully. Be aware of what’s going on within you, rather than blindly reacting to your thoughts and impulses. Let go of the idea that everything needs to be exactly the way you want it to, and instead embrace what is the way it is. 

Your breath

Take a deep breath. And then do it again, and again, and again. Breath is a powerful tool that can help your physiology relax, and bring yourself back into the present moment. Watch the first 3 minutes of this video for a great, very simple breathing exercise that anyone can incorporate into their life:

Your body

Are your muscles tense? Relax them. Do you feel like energy is stagnated or stuck? Get up and move around, wave your arms in the air, dance, move freely. Nowadays so much of what we experience happens only in our minds, but we don’t often embody much of it. But our mind and our body are a unit—and sometimes, simply moving our body can help us process things better.

Take care of your physical health. Give yourself some wellness treatments when you need to—sometimes the right path forward is not to just keep on grinding, but to first take a break and recharge your batteries, so you can return with new vigor.

Your friends

Do you spend time with people who give you energy? Who inspire you? Who help you be a better version of yourself? It’s within your control to choose who you invite into your life, and who you shut out, at least when it comes to your personal life.

Your relationships

While you don’t always have full control over who you spend time with (e.g. you can’t choose your family, nor can you always choose you coworkers, nor customers you might have to deal with), you can control how you relate to and communicate with them. Are you giving and generous, yet set clear boundaries and stand up for yourself? Do you show up as your authentic self, or do you often try to be a certain way to make other people like you more?

Your sleep

Sleep is immensely important for your physical and psychological well-being, as well as your immune system and overall health. Make sure you get a good night’s sleep.

Your mind-food

You choose what you feed your mind. The books and blogs you read, the movies you watch, the podcasts you listen to, what you consume and engage with on social media. All of these are within your control, so choose wisely.

Remember GIGO? Garbage in, garbage out. If what you feed your mind is garbage, don’t expect beautiful thoughts and feelings to come out of it. On the other hand, if you’re on a path of personal growth, reading books that inspire and teach you will elevate your mind and foster more productive thinking.

Make a list of the things you can’t control

There’s also great peace of mind that comes with knowing what you can’t control, seeing it clearly in front of you, and accepting it. You can’t control what the weather is going to be like tomorrow. There’s no point in fretting about it. 

Other people

You can’t control anybody else. You can’t make them like you, admire you, love you, you can’t determine their opinion of you. If you believe the critics when they tell you you’re good, then you have to believe them when they tell you you’re bad. Third party validation.

Your family

You’re born into your family, and some of us are more lucky than others. If you’re tight with your family: good for you! And if you have a troubled relationship with your family, if you have toxic family members, and destructive communication patterns with your relatives, then find a way to shield yourself against their negative impact.

The outcomes of your actions

You can control what you do, but you can’t control what your actions will lead to. The action I’m taking right now is to write this article, and I hope someone will read it and find value in it. But in reality, I can’t control the outcome. Maybe nobody will ever read it. Maybe everyone who reads it will think “this was a waste of time”. Of course, there are things we can do to influence the outcomes—but we never have full control over them.

External circumstances and world events

The weather, the traffic, the economic environment. Sometimes bad things happen, and we can’t do anything about it. It’s good to be aware of external factors, but if we can’t do anything about them, why expend our energies?

Politics and pandemics

I feel like this deserves it’s own place. In the initial stages of the pandemic, we really didn’t know how this would all play out, we didn’t have enough information to know what we were dealing with. It hit all of us by surprise, and I don’t think there was anyone who wasn’t at some point feeling anxious about how things played out. Then came lockdowns, mandatory quarantines, and all kinds of measures to stop the spread, and most people went a little jelly in the brain for a while.

We couldn’t control the course of the pandemic, nor what measures politicians decided to implement. But we could control how we behaved in that environment: Would we sit at home all day watching scary news eating potato chips, or would we find some self-care routine that involved healthy eating, exercising, staying in touch with friends and loved ones?

Your thoughts and feelings

Wait, your thoughts and feelings are yours, aren’t they? You’re the one who’s creating them. So aren’t they within your control? 

Well, not really. We all have an out-of-control mind, and sometimes the mind just thinks what the mind wants to think. We replay old thought patterns, and unpleasant feelings come up. Don’t try to control, suppress, or deny those negative emotions.

Be aware of them, notice them, accept them, but don’t be beholden by them. You can allow space for any and all of your negative thoughts and feelings without having to act upon them, without having to become a slave of them. Realize that you can’t always trust the voice in your head.

If you want to do some really deep work, there’s a great self-awareness exercise I do that often helps me understand myself better.

“A rational person can find peace by cultivating indifference to things outside of their control.”

Naval Ravikant

The past

What’s done is done. I don’t know what your past was like, but mine wasn’t always great. I could dwell on that, berate and blame my parents for everything they’ve done wrong, be angry at the system and society where I grew up. But what good does it do? It’s good to understand why we are the way we are, but it’s not helpful to be stuck in a loop reacting to something that happened in the past. Especially because we can’t change it. Stop ruminating about the past. 

The future

There are many things you can do today to make tomorrow better. But ultimately, the future is out of our hands. You can’t control what’s going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. You can work towards making certain things come true, you can set and pursue goals, but what ultimately will actually happen is written in the stars.

Example situation: Defusing a domestic fight

Let’s say you’ve had a fight with your partner at home and there’s a lot of explosive tension in the air. In an ideal world, both of you would be mature enough, and good enough communicators to resolve the conflict reasonably. In the real world, the best thing you can do might be to let the dusk settle first.

You can’t control your emotional state right now, and you can’t control your partners emotional state right now, but one thing you can do: control your actions.

Go for a run outside, head to the gym. For me personally, I like to go down for a swim in the pool—the vigorous physical activity helps shake out the pent up aggression out of my system, and I can then return with a cooler head. Conflict resolution is so much easier when you don’t sit on a power keg.

The power of focus

Knowing what you can’t control, and consciously choosing acceptance is paradoxically very empowering, because it frees you up to focus on that which you can control. Focus on what you can change, and let go of the rest.

To rephrase a popular stoic saying: What’s up to us, is not up to us. You can’t choose what you can control—but you can choose to focus on that which you can control.

You can’t change the waves in the ocean, but you can choose to ride on them, you can choose to have them crash over you, you can choose to get out of the water—it’s up to you.

When you focus on what you can control, you gain control over what you can control. This might still mean that there’s plenty of hard work to be done, but if you pursue a worthwhile goal, it’s going to be worth it.

Got a question or comment on any of these aspects? Let me know in the comments!

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