Build In A Failsafe

Third Key: Remember What We Control

10 MinutesIn Change, Self Management

Far more and far less than we think. Own it.

Our First Key, setting our intentions, is critical to defining the path we want to take each day. Defining the path doesn’t of course give us any control over the obstacles that will appear as we walk the path. Don’t fall for the trap that this means it’s not worth defining the path. By not planning our day,  we then give up the main thing that we control in our day – where we aim to be on our path when our day concludes.  And even if we don’t plan, we will still face obstacles in our day won’t we? But worse, when we clear these obstacles, we will be continuing our day with no idea about what its conclusion will be.

So, defining our path gives us purpose and clarity and creates decisions we need to make.  If we plan and set our intentions over different timeframes, we have taken control of the route we want to take, today, for the week, the month, the year; the path we want to walk for our one life on this planet.

What else can we control?

We can control how we feel about the path, the attitude we take along the path, our perspective about the path, the actions we take or choose not to take along the path, the effort we put in to moving along the path, who we encourage to walk with us (but not whether they choose to come with us).

We control what we do/don’t read on the path, how much time we spend on TV, tablet or phone screens, or surfing the net, how much time we spend on social media, how much time we spend with our family and friends in our ‘free’ time, what music and podcasts we listen to, which sports teams we follow and what sports we play, how much exercise we take and what we eat and drink and along the path.

We control how kind we are to ourself and others as we travel, and how often we say ‘thank you’ or ‘I love you’ – we are in total control of how we choose to express our feelings. We can control when and if we ask for help, who we choose to make the effort to build relationships and friendships with (but not how they respond to this), how often we smile, what we celebrate along the way, how often and if we choose to worry, whether we choose to reflect on the previous days/months/years on the path, whether we do or don’t judge other people we come across on the path.

We control what we pay attention to in our lives. We also control how we respond when we meet the obstacles that arise in our lives every single day, whether or not we try again when we meet them, and whether or not we recalibrate anything or everything on this list when these obstacles arrive. Which they will.

In short, we can control all the things that relate to us and our own actions and thoughts. Reading this non exhaustive list above, it feels like we can control a lot.

What we do not control is anything that relates to anyone or anything else.

We do not control our family members, our intimate partner, our children, our friends, our boss, the internal committees or boards that affect us, our team members. We do not control who are our family is.

We do not control market conditions, macro economic influences, broad consumer trends, any corporation or governmental decisions that impact us. We do not control the transport systems or the state of the roads or the traffic on the roads, the wifi or mobile or cloud networks, the weather, the environment or animals.

We do not control the neighbourliness or otherwise of our neighbours or the helpfulness or otherwise of call centres or systems.

We do not control inanimate objects like all the various parts of the place we live and when they choose to fall apart or break, and we do not control the inner workings of technology and machines and the timing of their breakages or glitches, including our car and our computer and phone.

We do not control who calls us or doesn’t call us back, who emails us or doesn’t reply back or the timing of when they reply.

Many of these things are large influences in our lives and this non exhaustive list of them might make it feel like there is a lot we do not control.

Depending who we are, we may be able to influence some of these things. And we do control how much energy and effort we put into influencing them, when influencing is an option. But we do not control them. The thing we control is our response to these things.

This is the duality – there are many things we cannot control but we are in total control of how we respond to these things, mentally, physically and emotionally.

The reality is that whatever we have planned today, it is unlikely to pan out exactly as we planned. But clarity on our own priorities is vital if we are to thrive in a world that is bombarding us with its needs, to a degree we have never before had to deal with.

And when things happen that we cannot control, the choice we face is the decision we make about how we are going to respond to them. We can throw our hands up in the air “Well, there is no point in doing any business development/checking in with any of the team now. I’ve only got 20 minutes and I planned a three hour slot for this” or we can make a different choice. We can fume about the lack of wifi/sunshine/trains [insert common bugbear here], expending precious energy, distracting ourself with excuses, or we can take a moment to acknowledge our frustration and ask ourselves how and what we want to feel about it and what we are going to do as a result.

It isn’t about ‘positive’ thinking, it is about making choices about what we think and feel and owning these and their consequences. About recognising for all the thousands of things we cannot control, we do control the most useful thing – how we want to think and feel about something and the actions we can choose to take about them.

We can control how we feel and think about our day, when it reaches its conclusion. Extrapolating from this, we control how we feel and think about our lives. Let’s own this, while not pretending that we have much control over anything or anyone else.

Steps to take

1. Set our intentions

2. Remind ourselves that we control everything that relates to how we feel and think about the things that happen to us today. We have choice and agency over this. But creating a new feeling or thought when we have had different default feelings or thoughts takes effort and energy. We can choose whether to expend this energy or not.

3. Remind ourselves there is a huge amount we do not control, even though we may be able to influence these things. Learning not to expend energy on the things we cannot control is an incredibly helpful life skill.


I work with leadership teams and senior leaders on creating environments in which people own and control as much as possible, while accepting the large number of things that they don’t. Together, we develop teams and businesses that are more effective, profitable, healthier and happier places. Let me know if you would like to find out more.

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