Being in charge has benefits. When you’re in charge, you can set the priorities. You can boss people around. You can do what you want.
We love being in control. Our brains are actually wired to equate an increase in control with a better outcome. We think that when we’re in charge, we’re more likely to get what we want. And if we’re not able to call the shots, we probably WON’T get the outcome we’re hoping for.
So when you’re not in control, then what? Should you just give up? Let it go and hope for the best?
That all sounds very zen and mature, but most of us aren’t really able to do that. We like that feeling of control too much. So what can we do to get what we want when we aren’t in control?
You Can’t Stop It from Raining
First, make sure you’re focusing on a problem that’s actually fixable. As Bill Burnett says in the book Designing Your Life, “If it’s not actionable, it’s not a problem. It’s a situation, a circumstance, a fact of life.”
When I was 26 years old, I was diagnosed with cancer. For the first several days, I walked around in a fog. What should I do? Was I going to survive? Would I need surgery? Would I need chemo? How much was all of this going to cost? How was I going to tell my loved ones? Who would break the news to my baby sister, who adored me? On the third day, the fog lifted. I knew exactly what to do. I needed to find the best surgeon in the state.
I realized that my problem wasn’t that I had cancer. I mean, having cancer is problematic, for sure! But I didn’t have the ability to cure my cancer, so I couldn’t make that the problem I focused on. Instead, I made my problem “How do I survive cancer?” With that problem in my mind, I started my research. I found the best surgeon in the state, we agreed on a plan of action, and treated my cancer.
Do you see the difference between “I have cancer,” and “How do I survive cancer?” It may seem like a small difference, but by focusing on something actionable, I gave myself back control in a situation where I could have just felt sorry for myself without any power.
If You Can’t Call The Shots, Send a Text
When you focus on something actionable, you’re doing something else – you’re taking a small step toward a goal. Have you ever heard the riddle “how do you eat an elephant?” One bite at a time! The only way to get overwhelming tasks done is to start small. When you aren’t in control, they only way you can start is by starting small, because you don’t have the power to do anything big.
That may sound frustrating, to only be able to take baby steps. But there’s a reason why it’s actually a really good idea. Doing something, doing anything, helps build up our sense of personal power. It’s a process called “self efficacy,” where we slowly build up a belief that we have the ability to play an active role in our destiny. By choosing a surgeon, I took control over something having to do with my cancer. I can’t control cancer, but I can control that tiny piece of it.
Come and Get It
If you’re in a situation where you’re not in control, start by noticing the real, actionable problem you’re facing. What can you actually do something about? Not just what’s frustrating or annoying or scary. But what’s fixable?
After you’ve identified the problem you can actually influence, break it apart into small chunks. What’s the first small thing you can control? Accomplish that, and then the next small thing, until the path in front of you is clear.
It may be uncomfortable, but you should be in situations where you don’t have all the control. If you’re only ever playing in sandboxes where you’re the boss, then you’re playing too small. Get out of the tiny sandbox, head to the beach, and use these techniques to help you get what you’re going for, no matter what stands in your way.