Many years ago I was sitting in the office of a friend of mine. He has had an amazing business career and is now the President of a Fortune 500 company. His Monday morning ritual was intriguing and educational for me. He starts the day by dumping a mason jar full of small pieces of paper onto his desk and reading each message aloud. They say such things as, “government regulation,” “interest rates,” “taxes,” “ethics of my suppliers,” and so forth. These small papers contained all of the things that were outside of his control and that he could do nothing about. He spends about 15 minutes on this exercise, and then replaces the papers in the jar and places the jar back on the shelf. I wondered why he would put himself through this exercise. He explained that over the years he has recognized that there are many things outside of his control that he can do nothing about so why waste time worrying about them more than a few minutes. His time is better spent working on the things he can control.
My experience over the years working with successful individuals is that they spend 80% or more of their time focused on the things they can control and less than 20% on the things they cannot.
For example, within our control is our attitude and frame of mind. Other examples include commitment, behavior, emotions, and how we react to others and everyday life events. The trick, then, is to focus on those things we can control. In addition, we can look at the items outside of our control and ask ourselves, “What can we control about that issue?” Let’s take the weather for example. We cannot control what the weather is going to be each day and it is obvious nobody can accurately predict it. But what about the weather can we control? We can live in a certain area of the country, we can carry an umbrella, and we can dress a certain way.
Now, let’s put this into a business context. One statement I hear often is, “So-and-so department does not communicate well enough.” Now, we have previously established that other people are outside of our control. We cannot make others communicate with us so why spend time focusing on this? We only have so much energy to give and this will waste what we have. But, what about the communication is in our control? Perhaps we can communicate effectively through emails, voicemail, and the ancient method of personal conversation.
Let me give you a personal example. I was asked to speak to several groups of union workers about working through change. They were about to strike and management felt we could avert this if we had good, open discussions. My first session was to be held when the graveyard shift ended—at 3:00 a.m.! So, we gathered in a large room and I started my training. All at once, the group turned and faced the other direction so I was speaking to their backs! Now, was this in my control? Absolutely not. And with this group my options were slim. I thought, “What can I do about this?” I packed up my stuff and went to the other side of the room so that I was facing the group again. This was something that was in my control.
A few simple questions will help us navigate this concept. When an issue arises, ask:
Is this inside or outside my control?
What is inside my control about it?
What is one small step I can take to make this successful?
So when faced with our everyday work and the challenges that arise, let’s focus on those things that are inside our control that we can do something about. As we do, I am confident that we will see our energy drain decrease and our productivity increase.