Anybody who has spent any amount of time in the mountains knows one thing to be true:
The mountain doesn’t care about you. It doesn’t care about your future, the loved ones at home waiting for you to return, how good you are, how good you think you are, how much you know, or don’t know.
When you head into the mountains your enjoyment and safety are not it’s consideration. You may love the mountain, but the mountain … Does. Not. Love. You. The mountain does its thing whether that’s ‘bluebird’ days or sudden storms, so it’s up to you to stack the odds in your favour. And that means controlling what is in your power to control.
It means being physically fit, mountain aware, getting an alpine start, layered up appropriately, ready for the unexpected, properly fueled and hydrated, constantly re-assessing the situation, doing things right, and safe, always.
It means being technically skilled in your mountain sport, solid with the fundamentals, understanding what to do in an emergency, practicing it, and having the proper, well-maintained equipment.
The same is true of combat. You can’t control the cold hearted randomness of battle but you can control your planning, preparation, skill and fitness. The best soldiers and mountain athletes I’ve met stand out in how they prepare – physically, technically, equipment choices – and how they move through their environments: deliberately, watchful, on guard.
But most all the same is true of life!
Imagine ‘Joe’ the office worker:
- Stressed out because he had a change of line manager: He used to get on with his old manager like a house on fire, not so with the new one who has a really different style.
- He also feels another colleague has been gossiping about him behind his back to the aforementioned new boss.
- Joe’s train of thought here currently is: “she doesn’t like me; she doesn’t rate my work; I’m sure this other person is saying stuff behind my back which is making things worse; I feel really insecure suddenly; I wish my boss would brief me in a different way so I could do a better job”….and so on.
The outcome Joe wants is this:
“I want my boss to value me, I want them to respect me and my work, I want them and my colleague to stop talking about me, I would like my boss to say approving things about me and my work, and I want them to brief me better”.
These are all good and obvious things to want. The trouble is none of them are under Joe’s direct control. Joe can’t control:
- His boss valuing him: Those are their thoughts and emotions so they sit with them. You can influence, but you cannot control it.
- His colleague talking about him: Firstly he doesn’t know it’s happening for sure, it’s an assumption, and secondly, even if it is you can’t control what is said to whom by whom, or what is taken from it.
- His boss saying approving things to him: He can’t control that either! It would be nice but you can’t make that happen. That’s up to the other person’s free will, personality and management style.
These very reasonable and desirable outcomes that are completely out of his control. That’s a dangerous and stressful place to live. If your happiness rests solely on stuff you can’t control then you are at the mercy of whatever other people’s reactions or decisions are, and that is inherently stressful.
But Joe can control:
- Representing himself well in the meeting.
- Suggestions to improve the briefing process that will mean more clarity for him and more efficiency for his boss.
- Demonstrating his experience and capability with a view to building the relationship between him and his boss.
- Preparing for the meeting in a very different way.
- Showing up at the meeting with a very different energy, with a structured new briefing scale and worksheet to discuss and get feedback on.
- Having a brave conversation about how to give feedback in a way that worked. It meant turning up with a concise summary of previous projects and current status.
Every day we go through hundreds of scenarios, small and big, in which the way we frame them has a massive impact on the overall quality of our lives.
Controlling the controllables is a common phrase in the world of sport but the biggest payoff comes from applying the philosophy in your daily life. Think right now about any area of life that’s currently causing worry or waking you up at night. Hold that in your mind and use that as your example to see if you can remove that stress using this approach.
Where To Go From Here
Modern life is busy and we all have many facets to it with work, home, family, friends, colleagues, partners and perhaps children as well. And over the years, no doubt, commitments have crept in, almost unnoticed, to the point where, whether you know it or not, there are probably multiple versions of you juggling lots of different plates.
So it is no wonder that feelings of stress and being overwhelmed are now commonplace. As humans we have limited physical and emotional energy. So wasting time and that energy on things you have no control over and can’t do anything about is about the worst thing you can do for your health and happiness.
But this is easier said than done and even when you can follow this mantra most of the time there will be still days when you worry about things you can’t control. However, it is something you can actively work on and here are some ways you can go about it.
1. Control Your Mindset
As Viktor Frankl said in his famous book Man’s Search For Meaning, people can always choose their attitude. One of the first Holocaust survivor books, it describes his harrowing journey through the Nazi concentration camps.
“Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”Viktor Frankl
I’ve found one of the easiest ways to achieve this is by focusing on what you do have, not on what you don’t have. This lesson was learned many times over in the military when more often than not situations would quickly escalate beyond the tools you have with you. By focusing on what was available, as well as maintaining a positive outlook, the job always got done.
This simple lesson has since been applied to my daily life on numerous occasions. Focus on the resources that are available to you at the moment, and do the best you can with what you have.
Be fully engaged and in the moment. I am also a strong believer that taking absolute accountability for all that happens to you, good AND bad, is the most powerful attitude you can adopt in life.
This can be viewed as a 3 step process:
Responsibility is a way of thinking and being. When you’re truly responsible, you believe that success or failure is up to you, even if you work within a team or are blind-sided by unforeseen circumstances.
By empowering yourself, you take the actions—and the risks—to achieve a result and get what you want. Rather than waiting for someone to declare you empowered or give you that one lucky break, you make things happen, and answer for the outcomes.
3. Personal accountability
When you’re personally accountable, you stop assigning blame on people and making excuses. Instead, you take the responsibility when your actions cause issues and you learn from your mistakes and adjust your process. When things go well you celebrate, knowing your hard work has made it possible.
Ultimately you always have a choice. The phrase “I had no choice” is false, pure and simple. Just because a consequence is one that nobody in their right mind would opt for, does not alter the fact it is still a choice.
I’m not saying this is easy because it’s not. It’s a simple truth that all of us make mistakes and poor choices. So, always remember that you’re not the first person who has fallen short in the personal behavior department from time to time and you certainly won’t be the last.
“I never lose. I either win or learn”Nelson Mandela
But apportioning blame to other people, or circumstances for your current position in life is one of the biggest barriers to feeling in control or attaining meaningful happiness. Every time you do it you are handing over your control of the outcome, and conditioning yourself to think that you are powerless.
Finally it is worth remembering that whether we feel in control or not is down to the internal monologue we all have going on inside our heads. We are the sum total of our experiences, biases, genes and so developing a monologue that helps you rather than hinders you can be a tricky task.
This is something I ignored for a long time, always choosing to focus on the physicality of actions. But I now firmly believe if you can master this first and foremost, the rest will follow more easily.
The best tool I have adopted to achieve this (and the research seems to back this up) is some form of daily meditation practice. Resiliency can be cultivated from within by how we perceive and react to stressors.
A recent study highlighting the link between mindfulness and resilience found that:
Mindful people can better cope with difficult thoughts and emotions without becoming overwhelmed or shutting down emotionally. Pausing and observing the mind may help us resist getting stuck in our story and as a result empower us to move forward.
Most of life’s stressors are subjective and with mindfulness (seeing things as they are in this present moment), we have the ability to respond with wisdom versus reacting in a harmful way.
There are many ways to start a very simple practice each day such as one of the many meditation apps available. Personally I think the Waking Up app by Sam Harris is great, and I found 10 minutes in the morning was enough to start noticing a difference.
2. Control Your Actions
Feeling overwhelmed and out of control can put you in a state of analysis paralysis where despite your best intentions you end up doing nothing, or you focus your time & energy on things you can do but shouldn’t be doing.
Essentially what this comes down to is the quality of your habits, the small decisions you make, and small actions you perform every day.
What you repeatedly do (i.e. what you spend time thinking about and doing each day) ultimately forms the person you are, the things you believe, and the personality that you portray.
Learning to transform your habits will enable you to build a system where you are more often proactive than reactive. For example you could employ the 4D rule:
Do it, Delegate it, Dump it or Diarise it.
The next time you have a pile of papers, emails:
- If it can be done in under 2 minutes OR it is absolutely top priority and/or time sensitive do it immediately.
- If you need to hand it off to someone else then assign it then and there.
- If it is inconsequential then delete it.
- If it needs actioning but will take longer than 2 minutes then add it to your task list and continue with more important jobs.
This keeps your inbox clean which sounds like a small detail, but how much better do you feel when you feel on top of things and in control.
Another idea worth embracing is the power of routine. Humans are habitual creatures, our habits create our mood and our mood considerably impacts our daily life. Our daily routine is the heart of our habitual character. Without routine you will find unproductivity, impulsivity, and feelings of confusion.
“You’ll never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine”John C. Maxwell
Lifestyle goals like living healthy, reading three books every month, starting a new business venture etc. aren’t reached within one day. In reality, these lifestyles are built by the daily habits that close the gap between where you want to be and where you are.
I have written extensively about the power of building habits and how to go about it and you can read more about it here.
3. Control Your Environment
When it comes to your environment there is a lot you can’t control but there are always some key things that you can. In the mountains you are always looking to carefully choose your route and pick the best weather window. On the battlefield commanding the best ground will give you a huge advantage.
In life I believe there are two major actions you can take control over.
The People Around You
The right people make you feel confident, secure and in control. The wrong people have the exact opposite effect. Who you surround yourself with has a direct impact on the quality of your life. Those around you can either raise you up or they can sap your confidence, drain your resolve and drag you down.
1. Your Partner
This is your PIC. Your partner in crime! Don’t ever settle for less than the best when it comes to this because in theory they will be with you throughout your entire life. That is a huge deal! This is the person you will spend more time on this earth with than anyone else. So if there is one thing you truly want to invest some time and effort into its finding the right person for you.
Choose somebody who shares your values, your hopes, and your dreams. A person that will support you and push you always to go a little further. Someone who above all else makes you a better person. It’s not an easy task, but if you can even get even close to achieving it you’re setting yourself up to make everything else in your life a hell of a lot easier.
2. Your Friends
Our peer groups evolve throughout our lives as we move through different stages in growing up and growing older. Through shared experiences you learn as much about yourself as you do each other. It’s not an easy thing to cut ties with a person or group when you realise they don’t make you happy anymore. But as hard as it is, anchoring yourself with a solid group of friends can be the invaluable support you need when times are tough.
3. Your Colleagues
This is somewhat more tricky since we often don’t choose who we end up working with in our jobs. But you can help to tip the odds in your favour. Choose a company or organisation that you respect, one whose values are in line with your own. This in theory means that its employees are a reflection of what they stand for. And so hopefully you will be surrounded by your ‘type’ of people.
And if you ever decide to strike out on your own and set up a business then revert to point number one if you decide to do this with somebody else. A business relationship will make or break your endeavour! And the same goes for your first employees.
The Information You Consume
I grew up believing that following the news makes you a better citizen. Ten years after having quit, that idea now seems ridiculous—that consuming a particularly unimaginative information product on a daily basis somehow makes you thoughtful and informed in a way that benefits society.
This isn’t an indictment of journalism as a whole. There’s a big difference between watching a half hour of sensationalist coverage versus spending that time reading a 5,000-word article on the same topic. And if you ask someone what they accomplish by watching the news, you’ll hear vague notions like “I need to know what’s going on in the world”.
“Being informed” sounds like an accomplishment, but it implies that any information will do. But none of the material which has improved the quality of my life, given me lasting knowledge, or the ability to hello others has come from the news. And that’s to say nothing of the opportunity cost. Imagine if you spent that time reading books and essays about some of the issues they mention on the news.
The hobby of monitoring the “state of the world” does not actually affect the world, and in most cases it leads to feelings of being out of control. We have inherited from somewhere the belief that having a superficial awareness of the day’s most popular issues is somehow helpful to those most affected by them.
And by ‘popular’ I mean ‘negative’! As the saying goes, no news is good news. Unfortunately, good news doesn’t sell. As humans, we are driven by fear. It’s one of the most powerful human emotions. News outlets understand this, and most of them exploit it.
There is also an extraordinary gulf between having a functional understanding of an issue, and the cursory glance you get from the news. It feels good to make cutting remarks and take hard stands, even when we’re wrong. The less you know about an issue, the easier it is to make bold proclamations about it, because at newscast-distance it still looks black and white enough that you can feel certain about what needs to happen next.
But this doesn’t mean you have to quit what is going on in the world. Instead you can choose your sources carefully and spend your time wisely. When COVID 19 hit many people would spend all day monitoring the news, becoming more and more worried about things out of their control. Whereas in actual fact you could get all of the relevant information about safety and global status once a day.
And if you really want to know more about something, or take action then move away from superficial stories and look to the actual experts on that topic. For most people watching the news gives an excuse to express opinions not of their own making, worry about things unnecessarily and waste time best spent elsewhere.
Controlling the uncontrollables is a skill and something that has to be worked on, it’s not always easy but it is one of the most important things that you can put effort into. And it is something that will pay you back in spades.
If there is something keeping you up at night I can almost guarantee you are trying to reduce your stress by attempting to control what is not actually under your control. Switching your focus to what is controllable won’t make the situation disappear but the difference is you will be far less stressed, and you’ll have a far greater chance of getting the outcome you want.
In a way the hardest part is accepting that you are not in control of a lot of things in life, especially what other people think, feel, say and do. It’s a radical move to release the uncontrollable and to emphatically focus on controlling what is directly controllable by us.
It’s both a subtle shift and a significant one all at the same time. Not only is it the foundation for a successful life, but also a prerequisite for happiness. If you want to master yourself then the first step is to stop focusing on what’s happening ‘to’ you and focus on what you can do within your current circumstances to succeed.
That lesson is probably one of the defining factors that make Special Forces teams so successful. Each member knows that inevitably anything that can go wrong on an operation will go wrong. But they also understand this is not an excuse for the job to fail. Instead you use what you do have control over and make it work no matter what it takes.
Figure out where you are trying to control the uncontrollable, realise that’s inherently pointless, frustrating and stressful, and control the controllable instead.
The Silent Assassin
Stress has become the silent assassin wearing us down day by day without us even realising it: Weakening our immune system, affecting digestive health, destroying sex drive, causing aches and pains and making us tired, unhealthy and unhappy.
When you feel under pressure, overwhelmed, unfocused and low on energy it's really easy to convince yourself that this is just how life is, how everybody is.
But that simply is not true.
Watch this replay of a live chat I ran on stress to discover:
- The battle I had with stress after leaving the military.
- The strategies I used to overcome it.
- What the Limitless 30/30 Challenge is.