“Incredible change happens in your life when you decide to take control of what you do have power over instead of craving control over what you don’t.” —Steve Maraboli
Knowing the difference between the things we can control and the things we can’t is a topic that comes up frequently, both in my own self-reflection and in conversations with clients too. It manifests in many contexts and situations but always comes back to a single principles:
We can control our input, but we can’t control the outcome
I can control how I show up in my relationships, but I can’t control what other people think of me. I can control how much time and effort I put into preparing for a job interview, but I can’t control whether I end up getting the job. I can control how diligently I work on a piece I submit to a competition, but I can’t control where I’m placed in that competition.
In all of these situations, we can influence the outcome, but we can’t control it.
This was a huge learning curve for me during pregnancy earlier this year. There are certain things most, if not all, pregnant people worry about: miscarriage, birth complications, the baby’s health, whether baby is early (or late) and so on. These are the big things. They are also the things that, ultimately, I can’t control. I can influence them, but I don’t get a final say on how they turn out—and worrying about them doesn’t change this.
After spending a few weeks obsessing over every twinge and ache, I made a decision: to focus purely on the things I have control over and to accept that, for everything else, “que sera sera” (what will be will be). I discovered that, while I didn’t have control over many of the big things, there was a laundry list of smaller things I did have control over: what I ate, how much I exercised, getting enough sleep, taking supplements, general self-care, minimising stress, educating myself, doing meditation, getting the right vaccinations at the right time, and so much more.
Does this mean I was completely worry free? No, but that worry was tapered by reminding myself to refocus on how I can make a difference, rather than spending precious time and energy worrying about all the areas in which I can’t. Here’s what I learned from this process:
Focusing on what we can’t control often takes our energy and attention away from what we can control
And there’s the rub. Focusing on what we can’t control makes us less effective and potentially leads to the outcomes we fear the most. The more time and energy we’re spending on the things we can’t control, the less time and energy we’re spending on the ways in which we can make a difference.
Focusing on what we can control takes discipline
It’s a practice, rather than a “done once, done for life” scenario. It’s also the difference between massive action and passive action. Floundering around worrying about all the variables and outcomes beyond our control keeps us in a state of helpless passivity. Sometimes it takes discipline to keep moving forward step by step, even when we feel vulnerable and uncertain.
When we focus on what we can control, we don’t worry as much about what we can’t
This was an unexpected benefit of focusing solely on where I could make a difference. Once I knew I was doing as much as I reasonably could to create a healthy happy space for my little resident, the more at peace I felt about all the variables outside my control. Again, this didn’t mean I was free from nerves or anxiety, but that input and effort gave me deeper self-trust.
A reflective exercise
If you’re dealing with uncertainty in a particular area of life right now, try using the questions below to clarify where you have control, where you don’t, and how to focus on what matters.
1. Think of an ongoing unresolved situation in your life. Write a brief outline of the facts and why it feels unresolved for you.
2. What can you control in this situation? Make a list
3. What can’t you control in this situation? Make a list.
4. Being honest with yourself, on which of the above things are you spending most of your energy and attention right now?
5. How can you focus more on the things you can control? What would that look like?
How do you remind yourself to focus on the things you can control, rather than the things you can’t? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.