Controlling the Controllables

As we have seen so starkly in recent times, there are many elements of our lives that we are not in control of. Therefore, learning to focus on ‘controlling the controllables’ can help our mental health and wellbeing and is an approach that can be used by people, teams and organisations.

Using a model based on Stephen Covey’s Circles of Influence and Concern, you can focus on your life as a whole, your business/work, or a specific element of either. To begin with, write two lists for your chosen subject: one for the things you have influence over and one for the things which concern you but which, ultimately, you have no control over.

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Things you can’t control might include:

  • How others react and behave

  • Government decisions

  • Media coverage

  • The economy

  • Climate change

  • War

  • The weather

  • Natural disasters.

Things you can influence might include:

  • Your health

  • Your career

  • What others think of you

  • Family life

  • Self-development.

Of course, you might argue you have a tiny element of control over very small parts of the uncontrollables, such as being able to vote or taking personal actions to help the environment, but ultimately the bigger picture is likely to be out of your hands. Similarly, the above ‘things you can influence’ aren’t fully in your control, so we can add a third circle for things which are in our own control.

Things you can control might include:

  • Your attitude/mindset

  • Your reactions and responses

  • Your gratitude

  • What you read/watch/listen to, e.g. how much you engage with social media/news

  • What you eat and drink

  • How much rest you have

  • Your levels of practice.

Focusing on the things you can control and influence can improve your wellbeing by ensuring you are doing what you can to live a happy, healthy and fulfilling life. Setting yourself goals within your circle of control can build positive habits, such as exercising regularly, eating well and going to bed at a sensible time. Choosing to avoid wasting time and energy on things beyond your control, and instead focusing on your mindset, gratitude and the successes you are having within your own circle of control, can help to make you happier, boost your productivity, relieve stress and reduce anxiety.

You may wish to use the stop-keep-start model to expand this further. Looking at each item you've listed and starting with things you can control, use this model to map out your actions and intended behaviours:

  • What actions will you now stop doing?

  • What actions will you keep doing?

  • What actions will you now start doing?

This keeps you in charge of the actions that are within your control, and the act of clarifying and writing them down will improve the likelihood of you following through on them. Actions you identify in your circle of influence can be designed to help you expand your circle and increase your influence in those areas.

You may also choose to inform friends, colleagues or family of your commitment to these actions, using this public commitment as an accountability tool to ensure you stick to them. You can also ask these people to pull you up if you stray and help direct you back on track.

Focusing on controlling the controllables still requires effort and won’t automatically change your life. You may also still require the benefit of some of the outside ‘concern’ factors going your way from time to time. However, it does put you in charge of setting the path you wish to follow, and of completing the actions you need to take to have the best chance of achieving your goals.

Download a template worksheet here and use the blank circles to map out your own circles of control, influence and concern, then consider the actions that will enable you to control the controllables.

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