Out of Control

This past week, I had a wonderful exchange with Maggie, an administrative assistant at a Fortune 500 company. In one email, Maggie said the following, which I found quite compelling.

The rest of my life feels completely out of control. My children are demanding, as are my bosses, and the demands change all the time. The kids are constantly making messes at home, undoing any house cleaning that I do. I seem to be learning a new software suite every month. I wake up some mornings feeling completely frazzled, while other mornings I feel completely wonderful.

One of the few times I feel genuinely in control of my immediate situation is when I’m shopping. I control what I buy, and when I leave that store, I feel that I’ve exerted control over that purchase. That sense of control feels very good. It feels like a bubble against the craziness of the rest of my life.

I think Maggie hit upon a very big element of why people today have a hard time getting a grasp on their spending and resent any suggestion of change in their spending habits. In the eyes of some, the ability to purchase is one of the last pieces of controllable freedom in their very chaotic life.

I can certainly see how my life was much like this for many years.

I would often feel very relaxed when I would go into a store or a coffee shop. In here, I was no longer responsible for children. I was no longer responsible for server uptime. I was no longer responsible for figuring out strange demands from clients.

A store became something of a place of solace. While I was in there, I would feel as though I was in control of what I did. I decided whether or not to make a purchase. I decided how long to stay. I decided whether or not to order another coffee or buy a second book. It was wholly my decision, which contrasted with most of the rest of my life where it felt as though the decision-making power was out of my hands.

Of course, such a perspective often developed a weird, negative relationship with the rest of my life. Because I had that brief solace, I would often feel more capable (at least in the short run) of dealing with day to day life. I could go back to work and make it through another day or two (even though I enjoyed the work, it was incredibly stressful at times). I could go home and handle a crying baby or whatever else was going on.

At the same time, though, I was spending money on unnecessary things, often money that we didn’t really have. I would often bust out the plastic in order to buy a new book or a video game.

That spending was actually prolonging the things that I had no control over. With every dollar I spent on something unnecessary, the tighter I became tied to the difficult pieces of my life.

With every unnecessary purchase, it became harder to even consider moving to another job, let alone another career path.

With every unnecessary dollar, it became harder to look at broad ways of improving our home life (like a larger home, for one).

My purchases were tying me to the very out-of-control things that seemed to define my life.

Every time I got a bit of a short-term perk from feeling in control because of a purchase, I contributed to extending the overall out-of-control feeling in the rest of my life.

I see this all the time in the lives of people around me, too. I know many people in my hometown area who “unwind” by drinking a few beers or buying something for one of their hobbies (like a new ATV). Their lives and the world around them are chaotic, but in those moments, they feel much more in control of things. They’re the only ones involved in the choice to have another beer or to ride around on that ATV.

Somewhere along the way, I made the choice to abandon that control cycle. I didn’t want to continue to feel that large swaths of my life were out of control, with me just along for the ride.

The first step, for me, was to look for areas of my life that I could control without spending money. For me, the big thing was to get organized. Much of my big interest in GTD was simply gaining a sense of control over as much of my life as possible. Similarly, whenever I encountered things in my life that I didn’t understand, like new technologies or new world events, I went to the library to learn more about them.

What I found was that the more in control of my life that I felt, the easier it was to make good spending decisions. I no longer felt like stores or coffee shops were my protective bubble against the chaos in my life. Instead, my home office area became that bubble – and I often found that I could stretch that chaos free zone out into various aspects of my life, from grocery shopping to child care to, eventually, my professional work.

The more good spending decisions I made, the less chaotic my life became. I felt more in control of my money. I gradually felt more in control of my professional life. We were able to move into a larger house, which helped with a sense of control over our personal lives.

What can you do if your life feels out of control and spending sometimes feels like your only solace?

First, adopt some personal organization tactics in your own life. Spend some time learning about things like GTD and voluntary simplicity. Cut back on some of the activities in your life.

Second, define a new area of solace in your own home. Make one room in your home a place where you feel like you can retreat and get your mind and spirit under control. For me, it was a home office.

From there, modify your spending habits and channel the money you save towards bigger life changes. If you’re spending far less than you were before, it becomes much easier to walk away from a high-stress job or to hire other forms of help to contain some of the edgier aspects of your life.

Life is too wonderful to go through feeling as though you’re completely out of control and simply riding a wave into tomorrow.