Ever look around and think, “Everything feels out of control?” This is very common, especially when we’ve experienced a significant life event (e.g., a serious illness, a new housing situation, a new baby). This feeling can also take over when we attempt to get things in order, but someone else quickly undoes our work. Ultimately, we can end up feeling discouraged and frustrated. So, what can we do?
There is an old phrase that can help us navigate these overwhelming situations: “Control the ‘Controllables.’” I love this mindset because it acknowledges the balance we are constantly striking between taking action to make things better and finding contentment in our current situation. As much as we would like to think that we have the power to control all our circumstances, we honestly do not. We operate in a world where our sphere of influence is limited by external forces such as:
- Hours in the day
- Work responsibilities
- Regulations and restrictions
- Demands of care receivers
- Weather conditions
- Actions and opinions of other people
- Physical and mental health status
When we are beleaguered, it is easy to fall into the habit of blaming others for what is making us unhappy. Unfortunately, this approach can end up making us feel even more powerless, deterring us from further attempts to make things better. Fortunately, while we cannot control everything, we usually have the ability to make at least some choices in most situations. By taking charge of the “controllables” in our lives – no matter how small they may be – we empower ourselves to positively impact our daily lives.
I was reminded of this concept by a personal experience I had last week.
I had made an appointment to meet with a roofer to discuss a leak we had been having in the roof of our porch. I had scheduled to meet with the roofer at 9:30am, before I headed out to my client appointment for the day.
The night before the appointment, I wrestled with whether to take my shower before the roofer arrived or after he left. If I showered after the visit, I could sleep a bit later and still have time to shower and exercise before he came. At the same time, I realized that if he was running late, I might be hard pressed to get showered and off to work on time. I had no reason to believe that he would be late, but in my experience, this happens frequently.
In the end, I decided that I would be more at peace if I set the alarm early enough to get everything accomplished before the roofer arrived.
As it turns out, I was so glad I did! The roofer was delayed. I will give him credit for texting me and letting me know he was running late and on his way. Still, he showed up about 45 minutes past our scheduled time. Had I delayed my shower, I would have run out of time.
To me, this was an example of “controlling the controllables.”
I had no control over:
- the existence of the leak
- the damage the leak was causing
- when the next heavy rainfall would come
- when the roofer would arrive
- how long the consultation with the roofer would take
I had control over:
- when I scheduled to meet with the roofer
- the time I got out of bed
- how I used my time in the morning
Of course, I realize that some people reading this may not have control over their own time in the morning (I hear you parents!). Nonetheless, in my case, this was what I could control. By doing the “hard work” of getting up earlier, I was much more relaxed as the minutes I spent waiting for the roofer ticked by. I had given myself enough margin to minimize stress. It was a small decision, but it made for a better day.
The principle here is to do what you can to make your life better, even if it doesn’t make your life exactly as you would like it. Taking control of some aspect of our lives is feels good, and often gives us the patience we need to endure those situations over which we have little to no control.
Let’s look at a few examples of things we can and cannot control.
We CAN control what we do to prepare for the day ahead before we go to bed (e.g., clear the sink, prep lunches, pack our bag, set out clothes to wear, charge devices). We CANNOT control what awaits us when we get up (e.g., pet accident, sick kids, lack of electricity, work emergency, weather advisory).
We CAN control whether we put things away after we have taken them out. We CANNOT control whether others sharing our space will do the same.
We CAN control what we choose to remove from our space. We CANNOT control what others choose to release. (Although, if asked, we can certainly offer a perspective.)
We CAN control whether we take on a voluntary role. We CANNOT control all of the obligatory responsibilities that are put upon us.
We CAN control how much gas we keep in our tank. We CANNOT control the traffic in which we may burn fuel.
We CAN control what clothes we keep in our closet and dressers. We CANNOT control fashion trends, aging bodies, and social pressure.
We CAN control how we react when criticized. We CANNOT control how others choose to speak to us.
We CAN control when we arrive for appointments (in most circumstances). We CANNOT control whether others show up.
Are you getting the idea?
Of course, just because we theoretically have authority over a variety of tasks does not mean that following through is easy. In fact, when it comes to organizing and productivity, many people struggle with decluttering, time management, focus, follow through, and more. That is why there are professionals to help in these areas, especially when a situation is severe or pressured by impending deadlines. Seeking and receiving the help we need is actually one of the ways we exercise control.
I’m reminded of a verse in the Bible where Paul tells his readers in Rome: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:28) In other words, do whatever you can to maintain peace. In this example, this may include using kind words, choosing not to retaliate when harmed, offering to help resolve conflicts, etc. Notice that it doesn’t say, “Make sure everywhere you go there is peace.” That would be an impossible command to fulfill.
All we can do is take responsibility for what is “ours.”
The good news is, when we do this, our admirable actions often have a trickle-down effect on others. This is especially true with children. I’ve noticed that one of the best ways to encourage family members to declutter and maintain order is by doing these things ourselves, quietly and without a word.
If you feel like everything is out of control, I encourage you to consider what small action you can take to make life better.
Can you think of a “controllable” over which you would like to take control?