Focus on Things You Can Control That Matter

"The more we value things outside our control, the less control we have."

-Epictetus

You’re frustrated. You lose it and start yelling as your blood pressure climbs. Later on in the day, you feel a little bit embarrassed. You realized that you lost your cool over something that was stupid to lose your cool over.


Does it sound familiar? Have you ever gotten mad at something that you realized later you shouldn't have gotten mad about? If you're anything like me, you have.


Walking through the skyways on our way to lunch, my friend Mark tells me about Curtis’s promotion. I don't feel happy for Curtis. I can't help it; I feel some weird mix of jealousy and anger. Why does Curtis deserve a promotion? I'm just as qualified as he is. Where's my promotion?


Naturally, I changed the subject to talk about how the world is unfair to me. It was easy to gossip about Curtis. Gossip is easy. But halfway through the conversation, I realize that gossip is easy because it's cheap.


Later on in the day, it occurs to me that I was a complete ass. I turned what could have been a great lunch with one of my closest friends into a complaining session. I got angry and envious. And for what? Curtis' promotion doesn't impact me. Curtis and I don’t even work for the same company. Curtis’ career is outside of my control; I can't do anything about it, and wouldn’t want to if I could. Yet here I am, wasting my time and energy on things that are both outside of my control and things that don't matter (not in any way that impacts my well-being anyway).


What does matter is my relationship with Mark. Choosing to have a pleasant conversation with Mark over lunch was in my control, but instead, I chose to focus on the wrong things.


I don't believe I'm unique. It's easy to worry about things that don't matter. It’s common to get upset over something over which we have no control. Even though getting clear about things that matter to us in the things that we can control can be difficult, it's worth it.



Things That Matter


I proposed we can do for ourselves is to get crystal clear on what we want out of life. That is to say, getting crystal clear on the things that matter to us. Without reflection, it's easy to spend our resources in ways that don't really matter. It's easy to let ourselves ruin our day by getting upset over something that happened during the commute, or the speed of a checkout line. In the grand scheme of things, those things really don't matter. What matters are things that impact you. What matters are the things that are important to you, including what you want out of life and your personal values.


It's far too easy to experience negative emotions over things that don't actually matter.



Things You Can Control


There's an old saying that if your problem has a solution, then why worry about it? And if your problem doesn't have a solution, then why worry about it?


In Christianity, the Serenity Prayer has you ask God for the serenity to accept the things you can't change, the courage to change things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference.


One of the most important tenets of the ancient philosophy of Stoicism is the dichotomy of control, or understanding what is within our control and what is not in our control.


The idea of focusing on things we can control is not new; it's quite ancient. Yet so much of our energy is spent worrying, dwelling, and otherwise feeling bad about things that are outside of our control.


It takes some practice, but getting clear about the things outside of your control and things inside your control will help your overall well-being.



Things That Matter...But You Can't Control


There is a strong case that there are many things that matter to us. The trick, then, is to get very clear about whether or not these things are within our control. Many things are quite obviously out of our control, like the state of the economy, what rate of return we get in the markets, what interest rates are, or what the unemployment rate is. These things may matter to our long-term Financial help, but we quite literally have no control over them.


Other things that matter to us aren't directly related to our money, such as what our boss or coworkers relate to us. While this may matter, we don't have control over other people's opinions of us.


There are some things for which we have partial control. You might be up for a promotion at work, for example. But while you have control over how much you've invested in your skills, how prepared you were for your interviews, what questions you asked in the interview, and whether or not you followed up with thank you notes, you don't have control over the outcome. You don't have control over who else was in the candidate pool. You don't have control of the interviewer’s mood at the time of the decision. Therefore, you don't ultimately have control over whether or not you get the promotion.


We might find ourselves in situations where something happened that we should have prevented or mitigated. We might have made a mistake, for example. Or, something could have happened to us that we could have insured but didn’t. In these cases, because we might consider them errors of commission - that is, errors that were a direct result of our actions - it might seem like it's in our control. However, these things occurred in the past in the past is outside of our control. What is in our control is whether or not we learn from the past so that we don't make similar mistakes in the future.


If it is outside of your control, you can't do anything about it, then give yourself permission to not worry about it.


Things You Can Control...But That Don't Matter


Just because we have control doesn't mean it matters. It's important to ask ourselves whether or not things actually matter. So the server brought you the wrong entree; is that worth getting angry about?. If somebody cuts you off in traffic, does that actually impact your life? Did somebody accidentally bump into you while you were waiting in line? It doesn't matter.


We control how much of our time and energy we’re giving to social media, but there's a strong argument that it doesn’t matter. We have control over how much time and attention we give to financial news outlets, who are in the business of promoting fear and selling advertisements. It just takes a moment to realize that the stock market's day-to-day movements don't matter to you, nor the daily news reports.


If it doesn't matter, don't worry about it. Spend your time, energy, and attention in better ways.


Things You Can't Control AND Don't Matter


Sometimes, you'll hit the jackpot and stumble upon things that both don't matter and are outside of your control. This should be the easiest to let go of, but if you're like most people, you'll find that gossip is addicting.


So your neighbor just bought their third new car in 4 years. Your friend just went on a really expensive trip. Your sister-in-law just bought a brand new house in a fancy neighborhood. I have news for you; their actions don't matter to you and are outside your control.


These things are not worthy of your attention.



Focus Your Attention


Focus your attention, time, energy, and money on that sweet spot. You have the ability to pay attention to things that will bring you joy and peace. Focus on things that both matter to you and that are inside your control. You can control your savings rate, what you spend your money on, your life aspirations, when you retire, your exposure to risky investments, how much insurance to buy, and how to spend your time. These things matter to you and are worthy of your time and attention.


Focusing on what matters increases your confidence, and increasing your confidence increases your satisfaction. Focusing only on what’s in your control will give you peace.



You have my permission to stop wasting your life worrying about stuff that doesn't matter or things you have no control over. Design a life that you'll be happy and proud to live. Align your use of money with what's important to you. Your time and attention are limited resources; don’t give them away.


You only have one life. Live intentionally.



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Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences

Viktor Frankl: Man's Search for Meaning

William Irvine: Guide to the Good Life

William Irvine: The Stoic Challenge

James Lindsay: Life in Light of Death

Massimo Pigliucci: How to Be a Stoic

Carl Richards: The Behavior Gap

Simon Sinek: Start With Why

Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski: The Worm at the Core

Irvin Yalom: Staring at the Sun


Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at or thought about while writing this article. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced my thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.


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