Control the controllables

You miss the train and now you’re going to be late to your meeting. How do you react?

For most of us, tempers rise and negative self-talk takes over.

This is just great. I wasn’t even late. And of course, today is the one day the train is early. It’s never on time. But of course, today it is. The day I have this important meeting. My boss is going to flip. It’s going to be one of those days.

We carry on like a sleep deprived six year old coming down from a sugar high (something I recently witnessed at a cafe). 

I mean, missing a train can be annoying, but is it really something we should let ruin our day? Does it really warrant throwing our toys out of the cot and screaming for mum?

The sunk cost fallacy

Once the train has been missed, it’s a sunk cost. Something that has already happened, that we cannot change. It’s happened. It’s gone. It’s sunk. So we should let it go and ignore it.

To worry about something that has already happened is to worry about something that is outside of our control. It’s as irrational as worrying about whether it’ll rain in 14 weeks time on your birthday or your golf weekend. We cannot control the weather, just like we cannot control the train being early.

Think about how ridiculous this is. To worry about something we have absolutely no control over. To let something outside our control completely ruin our day. It’s so preposterous (great word) that I put it in bold and carried on writing like it ain’t no thing. 

Yet we worry about things we cannot control all the time. The train is only one example. Have you ever worried about:

  • Whether someone likes you?
  • Whether you’ll get noticed?
  • That comment someone made about your work?
  • Whether the price of houses will continue to rise?
  • More importantly, whether the price of smashed avocado will continue to rise?
  • Who’s going to win The Bachelor?

Yeah, thought so.

Focusing on what we can control

Rather than worrying about things we cannot control, what if we instead focus on things we can control? For some of us, we can control more than we might think. For others (*cough* control freaks *cough*) it’s likely less than we think.

There are the obvious things like what time we go to bed at night and leave the house in the morning. Or what we eat dinner and who we decide to eat it with. However, one thing that often gets overlooked is the control we have over our reactions.

Consider this posture from one of my favourite books in recent times The Obstacle Is The Way:

“The only guarantee, ever, is that things will go wrong. The only thing we can use to mitigate this is anticipation. Because the only variable we control completely is ourselves.”

So what if we accept that things will inevitably go wrong? What if we accept that we should spend our energy on how we react to situations? And what if we saw the opportunity in something going wrong, rather than immediately seeing the negative?

Read the now legendary Thomas Edison story. At the age of 67, he woke to discover his plant being burned down, destroying half his life’s work. The reaction? He calmly turned to his son and said “Go get your mother and all her friends. They will never see a fire like this again.” 

What a boss.

He certainly didn’t throw a tantrum like my housemate did when he realised he’d missed the finale of Ninja Warrior.

In the missed train scenario, what if instead of spiralling into negative self-talk we paused, took a deep breath and told ourselves: Not to worry, I’ll call my boss, tell her I’ll be 10 minutes late and now I can use the extra time to clear out my inbox.  

With all due respect 2metre, you’re not Thomas Edison, and neither am I

That’s a fair point. I suppose what I’m getting at is we spend a lot of time in our own heads. We worry. We think. We hypothesise. Yet most of the time the things we’re worrying, thinking or hypothesising about are completely outside our control.

So next time we find our temper flaring, anxiety building or frustration brewing, just stop. Take a deep breath and ask:

  • Is this a sunk cost?
  • Can I control the outcome?

If the answer is either yes to the sunk cost or no to control then let it go. Youtube “yoga music” and relax*. Give yourself a break. Cut yourself some slack. And when you’ve done that, consider what opportunities this creates?

We cannot expect to control every aspect of our life and always get things our way (#sorrynotsorry). Instead, we should focus on controlling the controllables. And yes, I realise that’s not a word. 

*Seriously, I have a friend who swears by this.

9 thoughts on “Control the controllables

  1. Hey @2meterPeter! congratulations on keeping your blog going, I very much enjoy reading you! And looking forward to meeting up in NYC! Cheers Simon

  2. Hi Peter,

    Love this article in particular, i hope you don’t mind my recommendation to Mum. She called me with excitement to let me know your latest was up.
    Mum went on to explain how she should’ve taken your sunk cost approach to the time she bought a packet of Arnotts Monte Carlo biscuits and half the packet was broken. She was so worked up at the time she wrote a letter to Arnotts explaining she didn’t have enough biscuits to share with her friends during afternoon tea. She never heard back from Arnotts with a voucher or an apology… Mum should’ve quickly moved on at the time.

    Have you had a similar experience like this where you should’ve moved on?

    Liana 🙂

  3. Hi 2Metre. My daughter Liana recommended your blog and I have to say that I’m impressed by your pragmatic, commonsense approach to life, particularly for such a young man. You truly are wise beyond your years. The next time I’m left stranded on the platform I’ll have your words of wisdom ringing in my ears. Love your work. Wendy.

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