We want to feel as though we are in control, or at least that we can exercise some level of influence over what happens in our lives. Of course, there are always limits to our ability to control the events and circumstances we face. Yet, decades of research show that we are happier, healthier, and more productive when we feel as though we have some control over what is happening to us.
Unfortunately, over the past months we have endured the pandemic, teaching and learning disruptions, a stressed economy, political turbulence, and other forces that have left us feeling bewildered. So much of what we have experienced feels beyond our personal control. It has confined us, disrupted our routines, separated us from loved ones, and created uncertainty in our lives and futures. In short, it has left us feeling more stressed and less in control.
Yet, as difficult as the past year has been, it pales in comparison to what some people in the past have had to endure. Consider Nelson Mandela, who endured years in a South African prison. Still, he emerged from prison to lead a national movement and eventually become president of the same country that imprisoned him. Viktor Frankl spent years enduring horrible conditions in a German concentration camp. He not only survived, he used the experience to inform his philosophy and writing about the importance of purpose and hope. Frankl became a powerful international voice that influenced thinking on resilience and life success. During times when they outwardly appeared to be at the mercy of others, Mandela and Frankl maintained a sense of control in their lives that readied them for what came next. Despite their experiences and circumstances, both men claimed their personal purpose and had significant positive impacts on the world.
What can we learn from the experiences of these two people and others like them? We all have the ability to exercise some level of control, regardless of our circumstances. The question is: How can we claim our strength and use it during times like these? Here are five powerful and controllable strategies you can employ right now.
Where we choose to focus our attention and energy matters. We can focus on what we can control rather than being preoccupied by circumstances we cannot. Remarkably, the same set of circumstances can feature both elements beyond our reach and elements over which we can exercise control. We can fret over what we cannot control, or claim control where it is available. The perspective we choose can make a significant difference, even within the same set of limits and opportunities. For example, we might focus energy on organizing our space rather than mourning having to work from home. We can schedule our day rather than allowing the day to aimlessly unfold.
When we set goals, embrace our aspirations, and focus on what is important to us, we gain a sense of control. When our purpose extends to serving, helping, or supporting others or a cause greater than ourselves, our feelings of control and sense of purpose become even more powerful. Clarify and act on what has meaning and purpose for you and a feeling of control will follow.
Having patience can be a challenge in uncertain circumstances. Yet, patience can help us to remain engaged even when progress does not come as quickly as we would like. Setting deadlines for the end of negative circumstances over which you have no control can work against feelings of power and hope. Focusing on an outcome without setting rigid timelines usually is a better strategy. General Stockdale, a Vietnam prisoner of war, recounts that captives who focused on surviving until they were freed, regardless of when it might happen, were more likely to survive than prisoners who set deadlines for when they believed they would be freed, only to have the dates come and go without release.
Choosing to do what you can, even when you cannot control every aspect of a task or challenge can be empowering. Waiting to react often reduces available options. Being proactive even in difficult circumstances can increase confidence and help us to prepare for what lies ahead. Meanwhile, avoidance of difficult or uncomfortable actions can undermine our confidence and increase stress. Find something you can do now and act. Create some momentum for what lies ahead.
Times of difficulty and challenge can tempt us to give up and abandon our hopes and goals. We can make excuses that the time was not right or the stretch was too great. Yet, the greatest opportunities often surface when we choose to act and refuse to give up on what is important to us. Disruption is often a path to opportunity, but only if we are willing to persist until we find the answers we need.
We cannot always control what happens to us or limits our ability to determine what happens around us, but we can always control how we respond. We can feel helpless and out of control, or we can choose where to focus, how to think, and what to do to reclaim control in our lives.