What You Can Control

My two oldest children have reached the age where they consistently bring home a bag full of school work. Most evenings, they have homework in two or three different subjects.

My oldest child is pretty efficient with his homework. His view is that if he just gets it done, then he can go do something fun without any worries. Mom and Dad aren’t going to bug him about homework tonight and his teachers won’t bug him about it tomorrow. All of that goes away if he just gets down to business.

In contrast, my middle child is a bit more resistant to homework. She doesn’t think it’s fair that she’s still doing homework when her older brother is already done and her younger brother doesn’t even have any.

Last night, we had a bit of a heart to heart talk about homework and what’s “fair.” We spent a lot of time looking at the homework situation from the lens of what she can’t control and what she can control.

So, what can’t she control? She can’t control how much homework she receives from her teacher. She can’t control how much homework her brothers receive, either. She can’t control how efficient they are at getting their homework done.

What can she control? She can control how efficiently she gets her own homework done. She can control how hard she focuses on the work itself and not only how fast she gets it done, but how well she gets it done. She can control whether she actually learns as much as she can from the homework or whether she just tries to get it done and out of the way. She can also control whether she gets mad and upset about her homework or her siblings’ lack of homework.

If she chooses to do her homework efficiently, she’ll be done with it faster and have time for other things. If she chooses to do her homework thoroughly and with a high level of quality with an intent to learn from it, she’s going to find that her classroom time is much easier and that she understands not only the topic but the world better. Furthermore, if she chooses to not be upset about her siblings’ homework load or lack thereof and instead chooses to just focus on what she has on her plate, it will get done a lot faster.

Those are the things she can control. It’s almost completely useless for her to spend her energy worrying about the things she can’t control.

Surprisingly, she seemed to really take this to heart. She sat down and did her homework, paying almost no attention to her brothers (who weren’t trying to disrupt her, I might add; they were just downstairs playing a game and she could occasionally hear them). She stayed mostly focused on her homework and asked me a few thoughtful questions along the way – the kinds of questions where you can tell that she’s thinking about it rather than just wanting the answer to be given to her.

At the end, when she was putting her stuff away, I asked her if she understood it, and she did. I asked her if her teacher would be happy to see that completed assignment, and she said yes. I asked her how much impact her brothers’ homework levels had on any of that and she thought for a second and said, “None.”

And as she hung up her bag, I boiled it all down to one sentence. “Whenever you’re frustrated or angry or upset, just stop for a second and ask yourself what exactly you can control here.” I paused and then said, “You can always control your emotions. You can usually control how you spend your time. Other people? Not so much. So don’t let ’em bother you. Roll with what you can control.”

Roll with what you can control.

One of the biggest challenges of personal finance is how much of it seems like it’s completely out of our control. We can’t control the personnel decisions of our boss. We can’t control whether cancer will strike us or our family members. We can’t control the weather. We can’t control the ups and downs of the stock market. We can’t control whether or not our car starts in the morning.

Those things happen, they have a pretty big financial impact (as well as a huge impact on other spheres of life), and we simply have to deal with it and roll with the punches.

At the same time, there are many things in our life that are controllable, but it is sometimes difficult to do so. We want some particular item. We desire someone. We dream of a particular career. Those things are at least somewhat within our control, but getting there from here is prohibitively difficult, or else the reverse is true and controlling and tamping down that desire is really hard.

Between things that are wholly outside of our control, things that are within our control but are challenging, and our own impulses that nudge us in the wrong direction, it’s often easy to fall into a state where we’re just swept along by the moment, living paycheck to paycheck, working for the weekend and existing for today. We get upset at how unfair life is, angry with what others achieve that we haven’t been able to achieve, and cynical about how the deck is stacked against us.

I think every single one of us falls into that line of thinking at some point or another. It’s particularly easy to do this on one’s financial journey, when so many events outside of our control can alter our destiny and, at the same time, our base instincts and desires can often knock us off the path, too. It can make it all feel hopeless, like someone walking along a rain-slicked ledge on a dark and stormy and windy night, when even the slightest misstep or even an unpredictable wind shift can knock us right back down to where we started.

Here’s the thing, though: if you fall into that trap of believing it’s all outside of your control, you will never achieve lasting financial success. Rather, financial success comes from recognizing what elements of life you can control and putting your efforts toward those, while also recognizing what you can’t control and minimizing your efforts in those areas. The same thing is true for success in many areas of life.

Spend your energy, emotions, time, and thoughts on things that you can control and influence. Don’t spend your energy, emotions, time, and thoughts on things you can’t control or influence.

This really breaks down into three pieces.

Separating What You Can Control from What You Can’t

Take a good, long look at the things in your life that you devote your time, energy, emotions, and thoughts to. Which of those things can you actually control in any meaningful way?

You can’t control the actions of others. You can influence those actions sometimes, but in the end, you can’t control what other people do. You can’t control what your boss does, but you can influence your boss to think highly of you. You can’t control what your child does, but you can influence your child to make better decisions.

You can control how you respond to the actions of others. You may not be able to control the emotion of your response, but you can certainly control how you act on that emotion. You control how you use your time and energy in response to the actions of others, and even in advance of the actions of others.

You can’t control natural forces. You can’t control the weather. You can’t control cancer. You can’t control a sudden illness. Those things are completely beyond your ability to control.

You can control how you prepare for the possibility of natural forces. You can control whether or not you’re living a healthy lifestyle, which maximizes your ability to fight disease and your ability to be supportive to others in your life. You can control whether or not you winterize your property before winter arrives. You can control whether or not you have an emergency fund. Assuming you have one available to you, you can control whether or not you fund a health savings account.

You can’t control big expenses, especially unexpected ones. Some expenses are a fact of life. Food, clothing, shelter, medical costs, and other living expenses have to come from somewhere. Sometimes unexpected expenses are going to seemingly fall from the sky. Multiply all of those things if you have dependents (again, that’s somewhat under your control, but sometimes that choice is already made before you realize the full consequences of it).

You can control how you prepare for those unexpected expenses. You control how carefully or how frivolously you spend the money you do have. You control whether you put aside money for the future. You control how seriously you take your job and how intensely you work to move up the ladder or to start your own business (though, of course, you can’t control what your customers think or do and you can’t control what your boss thinks or does – all you can do is influence them somewhat).

You can control your thoughts. You can control your actions. You can use those actions to somewhat influence the actions of others. That’s about it. Everything else consists of things you can’t control.

Curbing Your Responses to What You Can’t Control

When it comes to things completely outside of your control, it’s not very beneficial to you to exert time, energy, emotion, or focus on those things.

You can’t control the weather, so don’t get upset when the weather doesn’t turn out as you would like. Instead, simply accept the weather for what it is and then look for what you can most effectively do under those weather conditions.

You can’t make your toddler not have an emotional meltdown at the store. Instead, accept that your child does not have emotional control yet and then look for ways to teach your child that kind of emotional control.

You can’t make your boss be the ideal wonderful boss you would like him or her to be. Instead, accept your boss for who he or she is and spend your energy figuring out how to build a good relationship with who your boss actually is.

You can’t make your car start every time you want it to. Instead, accept that your car isn’t starting and ask yourself calmly what you can do next to get to where you need to go, then later move into figuring out how to avoid such deep reliance on an unreliable car.

In general, actions based on emotion in response to something you can’t control are awful choices. Getting mad at your car is completely useless. Getting mad at your children when they don’t have the cognitive development to really process what they’ve done wrong is worse than useless. Bursting into tears because your boss is treacherous might make you feel good for a moment or two, but doesn’t do anything to actually help the problem. Getting upset because of a past event is useless because there’s literally nothing you can to do change it.

When you feel an emotional response to something out of your control coming on, check that response and cool down that emotion. When you feel angry or upset and are about to do something on the wave of that anger, like yell at someone or throw something, stop. Breathe. Count to ten. Walk away from the situation for a bit and just say, “I need a minute here.” Emotional action is not going to do you any good. At best, it’s going to be a misuse of your energy, time, and focus, poured down an avenue that’s not going to help you improve things. At worst, it’s going to make the situation worse.

When you know you can’t control or change something, let it go. Rather than having emotional responses to that event, just let it go. Focus on what you can control. Focus on what you can change.

It’s worth noting here that I’m not saying to ignore your emotions. I’m simply saying don’t take action based on those emotions while they’re strong. Let the passion fade a little, then consider your possible actions. Acting when you’re angry or upset or excited is likely to result in you doing something that you’ll regret later on.

Taking Positive Action on What You Can Control

Remember, the things you can control are your own actions, your own thoughts, and your own emotional responses to situations. You control your body. You control your mind.

Throughout any given day, you are given countless choices about what you might do with your time, your money, your energy, and your focus. You decide how you will spend that money. You decide how you will spend that time. You decide how you will spend that energy. You decide how you will spend that focus.

If you make a lot of bad choices, choices that are not in alignment with your big long-term goals, you’re going to get bad results.

If you want to save for the future but then proceed to spend lots of money on clothes and entertainment and hobbies and meals at restaurants, you’re not going to save much for the future. The choices to spend money on clothes and entertainment and hobbies and restaurants are choices you made of your own free will. Yes, there may be other factors in your financial state, but a healthy part of that state are the choices you made, and you can make better ones.

If you want to lose weight but you eat enormous meals or snack all the time or drink calorie-rich beverages, you’re not going to lose weight very quickly if at all. Again, it comes down to choices.

Yes, some choices might be hard – very hard. If they were easy, then everyone would make those choices.

What about the things that are somewhat under your control, like the behavior of your children, your boss, your employees, or your customers? It is well worth your time to learn about how you can best use what you can control to be a positive influence. You can’t fully control your kids, your boss, your employees, your customers, or anyone else in your life, but you can influence them in a positive way.

There are, of course, very different ways to influence the people around you depending on your relative situation. The key thing you can do is recognize what you can influence and what you can’t and what things you can do to maximize your positive influence.

For example, I can’t control my children’s inner lives, but I can offer them a good role model and good discussions about how to make good decisions and a good set of guiding principles and rules to follow. Those things are things I can do, things that are likely to help them become a fully formed independent adult. There are other things I can do that are likely to have a different kind of influence on them.

Spend your time, money, focus, and energy on the things you can control: your actions, your thoughts, and your decisions. Try to minimize or eliminate your responses to things you can’t control.

Final Thoughts

This split between things you can control – basically, the thoughts of your mind and the actions of your body – and the things you can’t control – basically everything else – is an absolutely important split to understand when it comes to your own personal success. To put it simply, when you waste time and energy and focus on things you can’t control, you’re taking away time and energy and focus from things you can control.

So, what can you control that’s related to personal finance?

You can control how you spend money on almost everything beyond the bare essentials for life.

You can control whether and how you save for future goals.

You can control how you think about your spending choices, whether you choose to think of things you might buy or desire in a strongly positive or negative way, and whether you think of saving for the future in a positive or negative way.

You can control how you spend your time and whether it’s spent doing things that can influence your spending decisions, like social media or cable television versus a walk in the woods or a thoughtful book.

You can control how you use your time, whether it’s in service of instant gratification and pleasure in the moment or building a good long term future for yourself.

You control those things. No one else. It’s up to you to let go of the many other things you don’t control and bring your thoughts and energy and time and focus and, yes, money to bear on the things that you do control.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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