Learning to Let Go of What I Can’t Control, and Setting Goals for the Things I Can

Earlier in the week I mentioned that I’d been having some restless feelings. Feelings of longing for more, yet not exactly know what that “more” is or how to get it. I had a really good conversation with my husband about this which resulted in us working through an exercise that he had read about in one of his leadership books.

I was a little skeptical of any leadership exercise. I consider myself a pretty practical, well reasoned person and I wasn’t sure how much this experiment could offer me in terms of perspective. And initially, this exercise was more frustrating than helpful. However, when it was all said and done, I walked away with some very tangible goals for my life while also letting go of some of the frustrating things that I can’t change in my immediate future. Let me explain…

The exercise was derived out of the author’s desire to help people conquer learned helplessness. This is an important thing to remember, as some of the things we get the most frustrated by are actually things that we have the power to influence in a positive way. Then, of course, there are plenty of things that we simply have zero control over, and as frustrating as this may be, there is nothing we can do about it.

Learning to Let Go of What I Can't Control, and Setting Goals for the Things I Can

To do the exercise, all you need is a notebook and a pen. You divide a piece of paper into two categories. On one side you write “Things I Can’t Control,” and on the other, “Things I Can Control.”

Step One: Write down all the frustrating things in your life that you can’t control. Things like: your mortgage, a health issue, a particular family/spouse/child issue, financial emergencies, etc.

Step Two: Share, in great detail, why these things frustrate you. Get it all off your chest! This step is important because, as the author states, sometimes the reason why you are kept up late at night thinking about these issues is because your brain needs you to understand just how serious these frustrations are. So go to there; be brutally honest and share just how upsetting it is that your furnace broke down or that your co-workers talk about you behind your back, or that you are constantly dealing with a chronic health issue. This stuff is a big deal! It’s ok to feel frustrated by these issues. Here is the thing, though, you only get five minutes per issues to complain. Then move on!

Step Three: Put the list down and walk away for 24 hours. Yup, that’s right! You got all of that off your chest, now give yourself a breather before you go any further.

Step Four: Return to your list the following day and review your frustrations. Reiterate why they are a major source of stress in your life. (Note: If you are like me, then simply returning to this list a second time after already getting this off your chest is already starting to help you let go.)

Step Five: Circle the list of things you can’t control, and move on. Literally. You’ve faced these stressors honestly. Called them out by name. And had an honest to goodness grip-fest. Now move on. No more complaining about things you can’t change. Period. (Note: This doesn’t mean that if you finally receive your invoice for your broken furnace after this exercise that you can’t discuss it with your husband. It does mean, however, that you can’t complain about it. You’ve already done that.)

Step Six: Create a list of things you can control in your life. These should be things that drive results. These are the things that you are now going to make your focus day in and day out. So, for example. You may not be able to control financial emergencies, but you can become disciplined in creating an emergency fund. You may not be able to control your chronic health issues but you can do the things that make you feel better, or temporarily relieve pain and discomfort. (Or avoid the habits that make you feel worse.) You may not be able to control how others view you and talk about you behind your back, but you can remind yourself daily that other peoples’ opinions of you speak more to who they are, and less to who you are. Does this make sense?

From here, you “work the list,” or make the list work for you. I took this to mean that my “can control” list would reflect the goals I need to set in my life. Not only would they be realistic and attainable since they are dealing with issues I can control, but they are also rooted in something positive about my life. Here is an example of how I’m “working my list.”

I can’t control that being a stay at home mom naturally disconnects me from the projects, tasks, and duties that a 9-5 job would require on a daily basis (and I miss that stimulation). However, I can control the projects that I choose to pursue from home. This idea has been very freeing to me. No, I may not have a stimulating work environment to assign me projects, but that also means I can do whatever I want! After thinking about this for awhile, I’ve given myself three new goals for this coming year that keep in mind what I can control:

Learning to Let Go of What I Can't Control, and Setting Goals for the Things I Can

  1. I’m going to shoot a minimum of one roll of 35 mm film a month. I’ve loved photography and shooting a film camera ever since my first photography class back in 9th grade. I love how much control you have with a 35 mm – setting the aperture, adjusting the speed, and of course, the sound the camera makes when you take the shot. I love, love, love being in a dark room and developing my own film. That dream is something I can’t control right now, but pursuing my passion of taking great pictures is something I can do! Plus, because I’m a stay at home mom, I have the liberty to pack the kids up and go on long walks to see what interesting subjects we can find any time I want! (Note: One thing I’ve noticed about this exercise is that by time you get to the goal setting part, you start to realize just how much control you have over things that really do matter to you. Talk about a mood booster!)

2. I’m going to learn how to make soap. I’ve always wanted to know how to make soap and I’ve had a few failed attempts over the years. I’m not talking about the hand soap I make; I’m talking about real, cured, bar soap. I reached out to a friend who has her own business making, among other things, really fantastic soap. I asked if she would be willing to teach me and she said yes! I’m looking forward to this project for two reasons: One, it is something I’ve always wanted to learn. And two, this will be a great winter project when I’m stuck inside with a newborn. Again, I can’t control that I’ll need to be indoors a lot this winter. I can control how I use my time during that period!

3. I’m going to revisit French. I love the French language. I took three years of it in high school and while it didn’t dampen my love for it, I did realize that my dreams of becoming a translator were a biiiit far fetched. I did really well with understanding others speak the language, and could read it very well. However, I struggled with writing and speaking it myself. But, I’ve always wanted to know a second language and I don’t care how practical or impractical learning French may be – it’s what I want to learn! So as intimidating as it may be, learning French is my third goal for the year. To be more specific, I would like to be able to understand spoken and written French by the end of this year. Learning to speak and write it fluently will come in time.

And that’s it! I have to say that I’m really, really excited about these goals. I believe that they are really tangible and accessible. They are goals that work with my current life situation, and speak to the things that matter to me. They will require very little money, and are things I can do at my own leisure.

I can’t wait to see what all comes out of my “can control” list this coming year. I’m committed to focusing on those issues, and simply trusting God with the things in the “can’t control” column. It truly is a waste of energy to spend so much time thinking/complaining/etc about things we can’t control anyways!

What about you? Have you been inspired to try this exercise? I’d love to hear how it goes!

2 thoughts on “Learning to Let Go of What I Can’t Control, and Setting Goals for the Things I Can

  1. This is a really interesting idea. I’m on the other side of the coin from you – I hate the restrictions that are placed on my by working outside the home! One of the first posts I wrote for my blog was all about controlling what you can control, so you can cope with the things you can’t control. Living like that really helps me survive! 🙂

    1. This exercise helped me realize just how much I complain about things I can’t control, and that is downright silly and counterproductive! There are plenty of things we can focus on that we do have power to change, influence, etc. Those are so much better to focus on! I’ll check out the blog post you mentioned; I’d like to read that!

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