Levels of Control

Every day we are faced with many problems ranging in severity such as:

  1. “I don’t like the way my boss yelled at me today”
  2. “It’s pouring cats and dogs out there today!  And I was supposed to go to that concert tonight! Just my luck..”
  3. “I don’t feel like doing my workout this afternoon”
  4. And many more…

Each problem that we encounter can be categorized into a specific group.  These groups, as expressed by Stephen Covey below, are defined by the level of control we have over them.

“The problems we face fall in one of three areas: direct control (problems involving our own behavior); indirect control (problems involving other people’s behavior); or no control (problems we can do nothing about).” – Stephen R. Covey

It is very helpful to step back and assess each situation you face with these areas in mind.  Let’s look at the examples above and see where each of these problems would fall and what, if anything, we could do about them.

Problem 1: “I don’t like the way my boss yelled at me today.”  This is a situation that could be caused by multiple things but likely has something to do with A: Your job performance, B: Your bosses attitude in general, or C: a combination of both.  If A is the major cause that ticked the boss off, then this is mostly a direct control problem.  First reflect on yourself in these situations, “Was my boss right to be upset?  What can I do to better meet their expectations?”.  Regardless of if you did something wrong or not, I don’t believe that yelling is ever the answer to resolving an issue.  If you know you are in the right, then perhaps the cause is more related to B.  Perhaps your boss is just having a very bad day, or family issues.  Maybe something in his personal life has him on edge.  If this is the case, then it is more of an indirect control problem and you may need to just accept the criticism and move forward or if you are close with your boss, address it directly and see if there is something else that is really going on.  If after reflection, you realize that it is C, a combination of both issues that is contributing to the event, then you should recognize this and take appropriate action.

Problem 2: “It’s raining today and I was supposed to go to a concert tonight! Just my luck..”  This is an obvious no control situation we have on our hands.  Letting ourselves get upset and tense over something like the weather is a true waste of our time and energy.  There are so many things in our lives that we can control, we should not spend any of our precious moments in grief caused by things we can’t control.

Problem 3: “I don’t feel like doing my workout this afternoon.”  This is a direct control problem.  Finding the motivation to exercise, especially after a taxing day at work, can sometimes be very difficult.  It is these kinds of problems however, that you have the most control over and should spend most of your effort trying to address!!! Why spend your time worrying about what your boss said or what the weather is like when you could be using that energy and brain power to convince yourself that the long-term benefits of regular exercise are much more valuable than the short-term discomfort it will provide.

In all of the situations we find ourselves in, we have control of our response.  For the problems that are within our level of control to make a difference, we should focus on what we can do internally to fix them or prevent them in the future.  For those that are truly outside of our control we should follow the advice of the old prayer:

“Lord, give me the courage to change the things which can be changed, the serenity to accept the things that can’t and the wisdom to know the difference.”


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