“Control is never achieved when sought after directly. It is the surprising consequence of letting go.” ~James Arthur Ray
I have always been a bit of a control freak, and if I’m not mindful, it can suck the joy out of my work and my passion.
I like tasks done a certain way, which means I don’t always do well when it comes to delegating to others and can end up overextending myself.
I want things to be done on my timeline, which means I may feel a need to micromanage tasks I have delegated to decrease the potential for delay.
And I sometimes feel a need to know where things are going, which means I often need to remind myself to stay open to new possibilities.
In short, I like to feel that everything is going according to plan—my plan—so that I leave very little to chance.
Chance can be a scary place. It’s the realm where things could go wrong because you didn’t steer, compel, or manipulate them to ensure that they went right.
It’s the place where anything could happen because you weren’t clear or pushy enough to make things happen as you visualized them.
It’s a space where things are unpredictable, random even, where you don’t feel you have a say or a choice.
These are things I’ve thought before.
If you have a controlling instinct like I do, it can be difficult to ascertain when you’re being too heavy-handed, causing yourself stress in the process, and when you’re simply being proactive and taking responsibility for your life.
It’s a thin line between empowering yourself and taking your power away.
On one side, you know you’ve done your best but accept that other factors contribute to your outcome; on the other side, you cause yourself immense anxiety trying to foresee and eliminate those factors.
It can feel terrifying to simply let things happen, particularly when the stakes are high—when you care about something so deeply that it feels like a piece of you.
But ironically, trying to control things can actually limit their potential.
Imagine you stood in front of a flower all day, trying all kinds of fertilizer to push it to grow faster. In addition to trying too many things, minimizing the effectiveness of any one, you’d essentially rob it of sunlight while casting your overbearing shadow.
The fear that it might not grow would all but ensure that outcome.
So how do we know when to step up and when to step back? How can we ascertain when we need to do more and when we need to trust more? What’s the difference between shaping the future and trying to control it?
These questions have been particularly relevant to me now, as I am months behind the scheduled launch date for a new project, largely because of things beyond my control.
On the one hand, I know it’s not unreasonable to expect things delivered on the agreed-upon timeline; on the other hand, I know stressing out won’t actually accomplish anything.
If you’re also trying to find the middle ground between pushing and allowing, you may find these tips helpful:
1. Set and communicate expectations, but accept that things may not go to plan.
This may entail expectations of yourself—what you need to do to quit your job in six months. Or it might pertain to people you work with—what you want them to do and when.
Without some kind of plan, a goal stays in the realm of “someday,” which is a surefire way to push things off. But having a plan and being rigid with it are two different things.
Unanticipated factors may come into play. You may learn something new that changes your direction. You may encounter some obstacle that alters your timeline. Or, someone you’re working with may discover something in the process that compromises what they’re able to do and when.
Expect the unexpected and anticipate that things may veer off course. Then, if and when they do, know this is part of the plan. You don’t need to stress about it or fight to avoid it so long as you haven’t given up.
2. Know the difference between letting things happen and letting things go unsaid.
This is a big one for me. Though these two traits aren’t exactly complimentary, I have both the controlling and people-pleasing instincts. So I may feel anxious when things aren’t working out as I anticipated but also afraid to voice my concerns when someone else isn’t doing what they said they’d do.
Trusting in the future doesn’t mean we stay quiet when someone we’ve entrusted repeatedly fails to follow through. It means we take responsibility for aligning ourselves with people we believe to be dependable and competent, and then remember that belief when we’re tempted to push.
If you don’t trust the people you’ve aligned with, ask yourself: Should I get additional help? Or work with someone else?
We can’t control what other people do. We can only control who we choose to trust. We can’t guarantee a specific outcome. We can only do our best to enable an effective process.
3. See the goal as shaping you.
When we fixate on a destination we need to reach as quickly as possible, at all costs, we end up motivating ourselves with the mantra “Keep doing.”
At least that’s how I’ve operated in the past. I’ve had my list of action steps, I’ve thrown myself into completing them, and then when I encountered obstacles, I focused on getting past them.
I’ve recognized that I didn’t leave much time for learning from those obstacles and allowing those lessons to shape my desires, intentions, and efforts.
It’s a tiny shift in mindset, but when you see the goal as shaping you, in addition to you shaping it, you’re then free to see problems as opportunities.
Every setback gives you an opportunity to improve how you deal with challenges. Every misunderstanding helps you strengthen your ability to work with others. Every delay gives you a chance to revisit your intentions and ensure your choices are aligned.
And through it all, you learn to focus on the present and grow where you are right now, regardless of where you’re headed.
This is how we give our all—not by pressuring ourselves to make things happen tomorrow but by doing our best with what’s happening today.
The surprising consequence of this shift in mindset: the better we respond to what’s in front of us, the more effective we are in creating what will be.
4. Release the fear within the process.
When I’ve been most controlling with my goals, it wasn’t just about my drive to get things done. It’s also been connected to fear: If I don’t push, things might not happen, and these things have to happen.
It’s great to be passionate about our visions, but attaching to them with fear is a surefire way to create stress and minimize joy.
The alternative is to accept that if we keep going, good things will happen—both now and tomorrow—even if we can’t predict or control exactly what they are.
The future we create may look completely different than we visualized, and the process may evolve in ways we didn’t anticipate.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be disappointing. It could end up being far better than we knew to imagine.
That’s the beauty of releasing control: When we let go of how things have to be, we open ourselves to how they can be.
We cause ourselves stress when we attach to an outcome and push to get there as quickly as possible. Our power isn’t in controlling the future; it’s in shaping it by using the present wisely.