One of the easiest ways to move from overwhelm to action is to learn the art of ‘controlling the controllables’. Emmy and AACTA Award-winning producer turned creative sector coach Ellenor Cox explains how this philosophy works and some easy steps to apply instantly.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or that life seems to be spinning out of control, applying the following philosophy can very quickly bring about a sense of calm and clarity.
Stop focusing on things you can’t control and start focusing on those you can. Athletes have used this strategy for years and it’s great to see it gaining more widespread traction as its one of the most effective tools that I know.
The first step to ‘controlling the controllables’ is to identify those things that are within your control and those that are not.
Examples of things that are beyond your control:
- Other people’s opinions, actions, emotions or beliefs.
- The past.
- Natural disasters.
- When people die.
- The weather.
- The traffic.
- Who your family are.
Make a list of all the things that are overwhelming you at the moment and then divide them into the controllables and uncontrollables.
Your list of controllables may look something like this – and should be where you put your focus:
- Your opinions, actions, emotions, and beliefs.
- Your mindset.
- How well you take care of yourself.
- How hard you work.
- How you treat other people.
- How you spend your free time.
- Who your friends are.
Once you identify the uncontrollables, it might still take you some time to get used to not trying to control them because the need to control stems from fear. That fear might look different for everyone. It could be the fear of being wrong, of getting in trouble, being ridiculed, judged, attacked or shamed. Everyone will have their own achilles heel around fear.
When you look at your uncontrollables list, do you notice there are some things you try to control more than others? The areas you try to control the most are those in which you carry your deepest wounds and fears.
Observe how you feel when you try to let go of control in one of these areas. If you notice fears coming up, then the trick is to work on those underlying fears in order to release control. Look for ways to control your mindset and what you choose to think and believe. As the famous philosopher and writer Viktor Frankl wrote:
‘Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’
Depending on how deep your conditioning goes, changing your mindset may take effort. Focus first on easy and actionable controllables that will enable you to see change and improvements almost immediately.
Learning how to prioritise tasks in order of importance is a great way of knowing where you should and shouldn’t focus your time, energy and effort.
You could use the analogy of rocks, pebbles, and sand in a jar. Imagine you have a large jar, a handful of rocks, a few dozen pebbles, and a couple of handfuls of sand. How can you fit all the items in the jar? If you put the sand in first, you won’t have enough room for the pebbles and rocks. There’s only one way to do it: put the rocks in first, the pebbles second, and finally, pour the sand into the gaps between the rocks and pebbles.
The jar is your life, the rocks are your biggest and most important tasks, and the pebbles are the things that are important but not urgent.
The sand represents the short, ongoing tasks of day-to-day life, such as sending an email or paying your bills.
Choose friends wisely
You may not be able to choose your family, but you can choose your friends and acquaintances. They say you are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with, so you’d better choose wisely because the people around you can bring out either the best or the worst of you.
Another place to create some instant control is around the information you consume. The world can start feeling overwhelming very quickly if you aren’t intentional about the media you engage with. If you tend to obsessively check the news or social media to find out about the latest disasters, that could be the reason you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Compulsively checking the news is an attempt to control the outcomes of events that are beyond your control. Instead, focus on what you can control — the information you consume. Instead of watching the evening news, try ten minutes of meditation. You will immediately notice a difference in how you feel.
A person can choose to be positive or negative, to be a creator or a complainer, to take responsibility or avoid responsibility. They can choose to build on what they do have – their strengths and assets – or moan about what they don’t. They can choose wilful intelligence – rather than wilful ignorance – and find solutions to challenges. They can choose to work hard to succeed or they can choose to sulk. Each choice has consequences, both for themselves and other people.
People love to feel in control. Sometimes, however, this simply means focusing on controlling the controllables. People can then aim to do their best in a situation. Strangely enough, this can produce a great feeling of liberation.