Week 3: Vol. 3. Control the Controllable to Maximize Influence

14 Jan

VOL. 3

“It is foolish to guard against misfortunes from the external world and leave the inner mind uncontrolled.”


--Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai


Finding your flow requires many considerations depending upon the Meaningful Life Arena (MLA) you are currently engaged in. But the grand question is: what should be your considerations?

Consider the following: another person’s opinion, current weather conditions, stock market fluctuations, a recent set-back, current political battles, the health of others, people who don't like you, poor managers and leaders, fixed aspects of your mind or body, taxes, getting sick, accidents, carless and unthoughtful people, common mistakes-those made by you and by others.

What do all these things have in common?

If you said “things that bother me or struggle to control” you are right.

We spend a tremendous amount of energy every-day thinking about and processing things that lie outside of our immediate control—assuming that if somehow we think and stew about about them they might right themselves or go away. This wastes energy, depletes resources, and destroys focus—the staple of flow.

While each of us has the ability to influence far more than we ever thought possible (a belief that will grow within you as you build your flow toolkit), most of us do not navigate these challenges well—letting the external world push us around and disrupt our capacity to focus on our WIN (What's Important Now).

A simple yet profound writing on the subject comes in the form of a prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things
I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference...

Known as the Serenity Prayer, this short sentiment gives us a challenge that few master. Three skills are required:

  1. The capacity to recognize, assess, and then accept that which is probable, possible, or impossible to change.
  2. The energy, resources, and intent to influence what is probable or possible to influence.
  3. The the wisdom to know what to influence, when to engage, and equally important: when to "let go".

What Can You Control?

If you waste your finite energy and resources on things outside of your control, you eveutually become exhausted and depleated, giving control to the outside world instead of using those same resources to exercise what you can control such as how you think, feel, and act—the basis for this entire training series.

Take 30 seconds, make a mental list, and ask yourself the 3 questions:

  1. What is currently consuming my attention and demanding my energy that I cannot do anything about?
  2. What is currently consuming my attention and demanding my energy that I can absolutely do something about?
  3. What are those things that are on the fence? I'm not sure if I should give my time and attention to it?

As you process these questions do you have a clear understanding of which items you have control of and those you do not? What about those you are not sure about?
Of course some things on our lists are easy to discern:

  • Geo-political fighting - out of my control
  • Bad drivers - out of my control
  • The stock market - out of my control

Other things become firmly in your control:

  • Being on time for a meeting
  • Choosing how much time to prepare for a test or challenge
  • How you will react to disappointment

While these lists may seem straight forward (although I am sure you can make the rare case for the opposite to be true), many others are less clear cut and deserve critical and thoughtful analysis.

“I worry about my sister’s husband who has cancer,” you might say. Is this under your control or not under your control? This can be taken both ways. On the one hand this is your sister’s family and your ability to change any outcome might be extremely difficult. At the same time you could take action: you could visit with world-class medical professionals and gather important health insights and medical opinions. You could call weekly and give your brother in law valuable advice that you have learned or offer to visit more often. You could go running daily with your sister to improve her mood. There is much you can do to influence the situation. The question is: what is the price of such influence in relation to other current goals. Time and resources are limited so where and how are you going to allocate them?

Within any Meaningful Life Arena we are constantly navigating these questions. Should I manage my attitude in this situation? Should I ignore what just happened? Should I try to do something about what just happened? These questions are swirling around and begging for our attention—every hour of every-day!

Why are these questions so important to address? Because they concern our two most precious assets: time and energy. Every person on earth, despite his/her status or condition, is governed by the same principles and the same time constraints (24 hours in a day). The question remains: how should you spend yours?

When students and professionals review the lists that concern them in relation to what they seek to influence, a debate normally ensues about what is truly within one’s control.

A young woman once told our class that it was completely out of her control to change her looks. Another student challenged her on the notion, telling her that she and anyone else could control things like exercise, cleanliness, hairstyle, make up, clothes, and other factors.

Others mistakenly try to “control”—as opposed to influence—the emotions and beliefs of friends, family members, peers, and others—thus spending much time, energy and resources on things that produce minimal, if any, results. Enter the 80/20 principle.

The 80/20 Principle:

According to this principle approximately 80% of your energy and time produce approximately 20% of your results. The opposite is also true: 20% of your energy and time produce about 80% of the results. So what does this tell you? That where you spend your resources is directly related to the outcomes you will receive.

Known as the Pareto Principle, it is used in economics, business, psychology, and other arenas, to showcase the power of concentrated effort. It supports the idea that while there is much we “can” pay attention to, there are a critical few things we “ought” to pay attention to if results are what we are looking for. In the history of human effectiveness training, this is the central principle you must get acquainted with if you seek to find greater levels of flow and deep engagement.

Paying attention to the right things begins with some conscious awareness and decision making. Consider the following list of time, energy, and resource wasters:

Classic Time and Energy Wasters:

  • Comparing yourself to others
  • Complaining about what “is.”
  • Forcing a particular outcome
  • Getting upset about something that has already happened
  • The responsibilities of others
  • Several days of rain
  • A flat tire
  • Natural disasters

On the contrary, there are important things you really should pay attention to. Things that are under your control; things that produce a high return based on time, energy, and resources spent. Instead of focusing on factors that are difficult or even impossible to influence, you may consider placing your attention on:

Effective Uses of Time and Energy

  • Crafting a personal game plan
  • Developing a personal vision or goal for an important outcome you desire
  • Cultivating a positive attitude by monitoring negative thought patterns
  • Initiating positive, healthy, rational emotions
  • Analyzing important lessons from past experience
  • Seeking the one thing that makes the greatest difference
  • Living by personal values and standards
  • Focusing on the present moment
  • Having faith in the outcome
  • Breathing slowly and deeply from your stomach to manage physical stress
  • Remembering (in great detail) the 10 greatest moments of your life (more about this later!)
  • Studying the lives of great men and women on how they coped with challenge and difficulty

Considering these lists you might begin to ask yourself:

  1. What are the 80% of things that will give me little or no result?
  2. What are the 20% of things that will give me the bulk of my result?

Jim Collins concurs with this notion by making the wise suggestion that each of us should carry, not only our “to do” lists but also our “to don’t” lists. Getting clear on what we “should” pay our time and attention to vs. what we should “let go” of, is vital to our short-term and long-term success.

Staying Within Your Circle

In his classic book, Zen in the Martial Arts, Joe Hyams discusses the idea of recognizing a true threat. With close friend Bruce Lee, the great martial artist with whom he trained and wrote about, Joe describes a time where Bruce was kicking and punching with such fury and proximity that it frightened him. Bruce was startled at his reaction as he was several feet away from Joe. Bruce requested that Joe draw a circle around himself based on his own kicking and punching radius. After doing this, Bruce commenced kicking and punching furiously just outside of this circle. Seeing Joe react with fear, Bruce commented that he had nothing to worry about given that Bruce had not entered his circle. Recognizing the wisdom in this principle Joe lightened up and relaxed, enjoying the aggressive movements that just moments before had generated great anxiety.

When Bruce came closer and pierced this circle, just slightly, he instructed Joe that even though he was in his circle, all Joe needed to do was to back up slightly to create some additional space around himself, thus keeping Bruce far enough away to manage the threat.

This metaphor can be used in a variety of circumstances as we seek to navigate our “true threats.” When someone is bothering you, when a boss is saber rattling, when a child is acting up, when an opponent is trying to psych you out, consider adjusting your circle physically or metaphorically. Ask yourself if you wish to engage the situation or strategically use your time, energy, and resources for something more productive.

During these situations, consider what things you “can” do to influence the situation. Will you say something? Will you take an action? Will you go running? Will you breathe deeply? Will you begin planning a job change? Are these efforts going to be worth it? If so, go for it, but be clear on your goals and measure the results.

Finding your more flow requires that we place our energy, resources, and time only on those things that matter most and that we can "afford" to influence.

Spending your day getting upset about other people’s action, environmental conditions, and the bulk of the world’s problems is no longer an acceptable practice. Instead you need to focus on your WIN (What's Important Now) and fully engage to maximize your capacities to influence yourself within your MLA to make the most positive outcome.

This entire training series is designed to help you do just that!

So as we progress through this Finding Your Flow Toolkit, consider the time you spend in the 80%, begin moving your time, energy, and resources into the 20%, and take special care to develop the wisdom along the way that will help you know the difference.


The next time you are confronted with an issue or situation for which you may wish to engage consider these simple questions:

1. Is this a circumstance I can reasonably influence? If the answer is “no” re-direct your attention toward something within your control?

If the answer is “yes” and you have the capacity to effect or impact the situation to a significant degree, then consider the next question:

2. Will the time, energy and resources I spend influencing this circumstance be worth the investment?

If the answer is “no” focus your energies on something under your control that will produce the greatest impact. These changes in focus often come in the form of personal change: changing your thoughts, feelings, and attitudes about the situation.If the answer is” yes”, then set a Specific, Measurable, Aggressive but Realistic, and Time-sensitive goal.

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