13 Mindful Practices to Help You Focus on What You Can Control

Think about the last three things you ruminated and worried about recently. 

How many of them were in your control versus those you had no control over? 

Trying to control what you can’t control and worrying about the unknown sets you up for a lifetime of anxiety and disappointment. 

It’s hard to release control and allow life to unfold – especially if you believe you can “think or worry your way” to your desired outcomes.

It sounds condescending to say, “just let it go,” or “stop obsessing.” 

But to paraphrase the “Serenity Prayer,” you can learn to accept the things you can’t control, gain the courage to change what you can, and develop the wisdom to know the difference.

“There is freedom waiting for you, on the breezes of the sky. And you ask, ‘What if I fall?’ Oh, but my darling, ‘What if you fly?’ – Erin Hanson, Poet/Author

What Does It Mean to Focus on What You Can Control?

Another throwaway line we hear too often is, “You can only control what you can control.” 

That low-hanging fruit assumes several things. 

  • We are fundamentally aware of what we can control. 
  • We have the perseverance to control it. 
  • We’re emotionally distant enough to complete the cycle logically. 

Controlling what you can is an action. A person takes steps within reason and resources to protect, prevent, or prolong a life event. There are no “buts” or “what ifs” in tangible controlling.

Trying to control something outside your reach is anxiety.

It also means tossing any hope of superhuman power aside and being honest with yourself about what is actually within your control.

“Control freaks” and “Type A” people tend to think they have more control potential than is possible. 

We can even gaslight ourselves into believing that worrying about something enough provides a positive result, getting even further from the boundaries of things within our control.

Things You Can Control vs. Things You Can’t

We aren’t going to tell you to stop worrying. That’s a human trait based on fight-or-flight responses and a primal desire to survive and protect spaces for loved ones.

We often find blurred lines between what we can and can’t control, and it’s just a matter of taking the bullish topic by the horns and creating action instead of emotions.

  • Relationships: We can’t control how other people act and treat us, but we can control how we respond to their actions. 
  • Money: We can’t control the student loans we racked up in college, but we can control how we manage our money and plot our career paths to increase pay.
  • Fears: We can’t control global warming, but we can responsibly use the abundant eco-friendly options at our disposal.
  • Health: We can’t control hereditary health risks, but we can use the information to create an ongoing healthier lifestyle and understanding of advancing treatments for those health concerns. 
person playing in the waves focus on what you can control

13 Shifts To Focus On What You Can Control

Too much worrying and anxiety could wreak havoc on your heart, mind, and emotional regulation.

Science has proven that worrying too much about what you can’t control can actually distort your ability to wield control when you need to.  

1. Get Real with Yourself

It’s time to have a tough talk with yourself about why worry is running your life. Expand on the list we started with to examine all the things you’ve worried about in the past week or month.

Could you control it? Did you take production action? How much time did you waste worrying about something you couldn’t control that could’ve been put to better use? 

This process is used to help you identify patterns and crutches you use, not to create more tension or control issues. You have to know where your fault line is before you can take the next step. 

“You always seek to control others when you are not in full ownership of yourself.”

– Cicely Tyson, Actress

2. Get Rid of Crutch Words

Ban yourself from the “buts” and “what ifs” permanently. With an infinite number of things that can go wrong, you’ll never be able to control all the variables.

When you can’t have something, you’ll cling to the hope of getting it even more. 

  • “I really want to lose five pounds, but I never have time for lunch.” 
  • “What if I can’t keep up with new job demands?”
  • “I tried to train the intern, but she’s insufferable.”

Instead of crutch words, state the worry and then ask, “What can I do about it?” 

3. Get Control of the Schedule

Some of the best controlling advocates recommend scheduling time to worry. That’s right, put “obsess, ruminate, and overthink” on your calendar if it makes it more appealing. 

man sitting in a rock looking at the sky focus on what you can control

If you’ve told your brain that you’ll have time to worry about those things later, you’re more present in the moment where you are controlling so many things.

The most important part of the scheduled worry is to set an alarm and end the session. 

4. Get Over Yourself

Even when control isn’t life or death, we can still find ways to nitpick and dissect other people’s behavior. You can control who you delegate a project to, but you can’t control that she didn’t do it 100% the way you would.

This type of controlling behavior might be under things you can control, but it also blurs the line when facing something you have no control over. 

Make healthy and beneficial decisions about what energy you give in any controllable situation. When you feel control slipping away in items like this, “Stop expecting YOU from people.” 

5. Get In Touch with Fears

When we’re worrying about things we can’t control, it generally goes to the worst-case scenarios. We don’t worry about “what if today I get promoted and have a work-from-home schedule with unlimited PTO.”

Our anxiety craves control over bad things, hoping to right the wrong or avoid hitting the iceberg. 

“You cannot control what happens to you, but you can control your attitude toward what happens to you, and in that, you will be mastering change rather than allowing it to master you.” – Brian Tracy, Motivational Speaker

If you know you’re afraid of storms, put the energy into survival packs and volunteering at storm shelters.

If you’re ruminating about how this relationship isn’t going to work out, face your abandonment issues or fear of intimacy instead of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

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6. Get Psychological

Another throwaway line can be “seek professional help” as a Band-Aid to our woes, which isn’t a bad idea. We understand some people aren’t ready for that first step.

However, researching topics like cognitive behavioral therapy or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) can help you understand that therapy offers practical experiences to retrain your brain, not just a talk session. 

7. Get Google Smart

With so much online information, we can ask Google some confirmation bias questions like “Why am I such a control freak?”

You know the answers will list all the things that make you feel bad and hopeless (aka “out of control”). Instead, change the narrative to “Help me let go of controlling everything.” 

In a quick experiment, we found that the first one tells you everything that could be wrong with you, while the second starts with actionable steps to take immediately. 

8. Get Working on Self-Love

Much of our desire to control things comes from a void inside where self-love, confidence, and imposter syndrome fester.

Even if you can manipulate the outcome of a situation by controlling it or worrying enough about a situation that you feel like you controlled it, you still aren’t exercising healthy boundaries of controlling what you can. 

Confident and self-aware people have healthy boundaries with loved ones, work, and themselves. 

9. Get Okay with Not Knowing

Think about how many people say, “I don’t watch the local news. It’s too depressing.” They have become okay with not knowing what is going to happen. They avoid certain worrying elements or disturbing stories to live in their own safe spaces. 

man relaxing on the chair focus on what you can control

File it under the “It is what it is” saying and just let it be. Anticipation can be exciting, but it also carves out room for anxiety. 

10. Get Outta There

You can choose to remove yourself from situations that could be triggering or troublesome. You can also forgive yourself for relinquishing control to give yourself inner peace. 

If you know hosting a New Year’s Eve party will ruin the holidays because you’re worried about a snowstorm, your crazy friend Brad showing up drunk, and stains on your brand-new carpet, is it really a Happy New Year? 

Just because you can control something doesn’t mean you have to, especially when you know you’ll likely make up 101 things you can’t control and worry about them. 

“Not my circus, not my monkeys.” – Unknown sage advice for letting go of something you can’t control

11. Get Literal

When you’re in that over-active imagination space and your brain is firing on all cylinders, use it to define and explore what you’re feeling. Being “anxious” has a subset of emotions underneath it. Look the beast in the eye and talk it down off the ledge. 

Let’s use an example of being ghosted by a new beau. Yes, you’re anxious, but you can’t control him to contact you. What are you?

You’re scared he thinks you’re unlovable. You’re worried he was hurt since he last said he was hiking. You’re mad he promised never to do something like this.

You’re insecure because he said you were amazing. (P.S. You Are!) Then you can control your activities based on real emotions, not the overwhelming feeling of panic. 

13. Get Reminiscent

What if you could add up all the time you have spent worrying about things you can’t control that worked out just fine? Would that be hours? Days? Years?

A 2020 study showed that the average 20-something loses 26 days a year to worry or anxiety. Over 50 years that adds up to 3.5 productive years. 

It’s a gut punch when you look at it that way because think of all the memories and activities you’ve lost thinking about something that wouldn’t make a difference either way.

Use those years to make a difference in things you can control. 

Why Do We Tend to Focus on Things We Can’t Control?

Is it ironic that so many of the reasons we focus on things we can’t control are because of things that are out of our control, to begin with?

At the root of our personality is the Locus of Control, a learned pattern from childhood where we believe that we control our destiny or are merely victims of circumstance. 

That’s a great jumping-off point to other reasons: 

  • Mental Health Issues: Anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and others can impact the wiring and chemistry in our brain, lacking regulatory chemicals that foster worrying and anxiety. 
  • Personality Disorders: Narcissists and histrionic personality disorder sufferers have adapted to controlling and concerning levels of control. 
  • Trauma: Whether it’s a violent situation or a degrading moment in front of the second-grade class, our untreated trauma can grow anxious tentacles that deceptively convince us that worrying will protect us from another trauma. 
  • Environment: Many habits and influences from childhood can be carried into our control-seeking adult life. 
  • Trust Issues: For people who have been neglected or betrayed several times in their life, control becomes a survival tactic to avoid more danger.
  • Willpower: It’s so much easier to complain about something than fix it, right? 

Final Thoughts

The desire to control everything can seep into other aspects of our life, like mental, physical, and sexual health. It takes willpower, dedication, and a good support system to get your mind out of the controlling mental cycle.

Take it one step at a time and set realistic goals. 

Things happen in our lives and sometimes, we can't control them. Learn how to focus on what you can control in this post.