“Take control of your life.”
“Let go of what you can’t control.”
Two exceedingly wise and simple maxims underpin the teachings of several of today’s business and spiritual leaders. Follow these rules, they say, and you’ll start winning. But these “totally zen” pronouncements rarely come with an instruction manual on when to use the light touch versus the iron fist.
Before starting weeks of hustle that leaves you with a luxurious graveyard tan, before writing out your worries on little strips of paper to burn in a ceremonial beach fire at dawn, ask yourself a question: “Is this within my control?”
How to focus on what you can control
Then ask these seven questions to determine whether to fight it or forget it.
1. The Sniff Test: Is there a chance?
Start simple and ask:
- “Is there a chance I can achieve this?”
- “Do I have, or can I find, the required resources?”
- “Does success rely on someone else, and if so, can I influence him?”
Former superstar CEO and Chairman of General Electric Jack Welch took that stagnant juggernaut and increased its value 4,000%. He credits that success to seeing truth in all situations. “Face reality as it is, not as it was or as you wish it were,” Welch said.
Once you’ve asked the obvious questions to focus on what you can control, dive deeper.
2. Do I want it badly enough?
If the answer is no, don’t waste your time. Tony Robbins teaches that 80% of achievement is psychological (our “why”), and only 20% is mechanics (the “how”). If you can inspire yourself to act, the “how” will take care of itself.
When aspiring entrepreneurs call into his show, Gary Vaynerchuk loves to challenge them about their hunger. “How bad do you want it?” is usually his first question, because it’s a litmus test for probable success.
And you have to give him credit: He holds himself to his own standards. Several years ago, Vaynerchuk failed to convince Ben Silbermann to let him invest in Pinterest, which stung financially. The reason he failed? “I just didn’t want it bad enough,” he said in an interview.
If you’re hungry, go hunting. If not, let it go.
3. Are my emotions telling me I’m focused on what I can control?
Think about the decision at hand. What emotions come up? Ask yourself: “Do I feel miserable or empowered?” While negative emotions can feel bad, they do have a benefit. Both the good and the bad are messengers, and they are telling you to fight for it or forget it.
Mark Manson, bestselling author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, writes, “If you’re miserable in your current situation, chances are it’s because you feel like some part of it is outside your control.”
Aha! Misery might just be a message that something is outside your control. You now have two options: Remove yourself from the situation and focus on what you can control or stop trying to control it.
4. Am I attached to the outcome or loving the process?
One woman fills her thoughts with making her first million, the other on making 50 sales calls each day and being present in conversations.
The first puts her attention on an outcome she can’t directly control, the other focuses on what she can control: on her actions. Who succeeds? (Yep, that’s rhetorical.)
Why is Nick Saban considered one of the greatest football coaches of all time? Yes, because he led his teams to a string of national championship wins, but how did he do it? Instead of asking his team to focus on the outcome (winning), he asked them to focus on the process.
“You can’t worry about end results,” Saban said. “It’s about what you control, every minute of every day.”
Do you focus on what you can control or what you can’t?
5. What’s my attitude?
“And if I adjust it, will it affect the outcome?”
Attitude is a rare example of something that’s always 100% within your control. If you think that attitude is some liberal bunk with no place in the “real world,” consider Marcus Aurelius. One of the most powerful men in history, emperor of Rome for nearly 20 years and someone who knew something about worldly matters, he wrote,
“You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will have strength.”
Negativity, despair, hate, excuses… every ounce of energy wasted in that mode is an ounce robbed from doing the work.
6. Do I spend my time focusing on what I can control?
By extension, “What do I think and talk about most of the time?” Are you focused on the economy, politics or your competitors’ behavior? Or have you given up clever Facebook diatribes in favor of focusing on what you can control, such as reading a brilliant business biography or polishing your résumé?
Kodak’s spectacular demise was a result of spending its time working on things outside of its control: propping up a dying film and paper photo industry. Kodak invented the digital camera in 1975, and conducted a study in the 1980s that said digital may one day replace film—but that they had about a decade before that outcome. It did invest in digital, but as a means to continue to get people to print photos—their digital cameras still required film.
The company spent its time working with an obsolete technology, and predictably made itself obsolete.
7. Have I done my best?
This last question invites us to do two things:
- Unleash massive action on the world.
- Stop expecting hard work to always lead to victory (it doesn’t).
We can improve our own work ethics, so decide what you want to accomplish, and then hustle to make it a reality.
If we still fail, the cause may have been outside our control. You can then save the energy that might have gone into self-flagellation for the next hustle.
Seth Godin’s mantra is, “This might not work.” The subtext here is that the wise approach their work understanding that it’s impossible to control every outcome, and instead of wasting time bellyaching about failure, they focus on learning from it.
Get good at identifying which problems go into the “can control” and “cannot control” categories. You’ll get more done, and carry a whole lot of zen with you, if you focus more on what you can control.
This article was updated August 2023. Photo by Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock