When our lives feel out of our control, it tends to make us anxious, worried, and depressed, and can decrease motivation. We feel as if life is happening to us, and we’re just reacting to what life throws at us. On the other hand, when we feel in control of our time and our careers, we feel confident, motivated, and happy.
The bad news is that there’s a lot we can’t control in our lives: Traffic, illnesses, the weather, the proverbial death and taxes.
Luckily, even though much of life is uncontrollable, there are ways to gain control over various parts of it so that we get a sense of authority over our lives.
1. Set your morning routine. Instead of sitting down at the computer first thing in the morning and merely reacting to “urgent but not important” tasks all day, such as answering e-mails as they come in, set a definite morning routine.
I was one of those get-up-and-check-email-all-day people until my coach at The Yoga of Writing retreat in New Mexico gave me a morning yoga practice. For a while, I would get up early and do a 20-minute yoga practice that made me feel centered all day. Now, I get up a couple of hours before my husband and son, go out for a walk or a run-walk, take a shower, and read inspirational books before getting started with the day. This routine helps me clear my mind for the day and focus on those tasks that give me the greatest bang for my buck.
2. Time your day. For one week, keep a time log of your days. This helps you weed out unproductive uses of your time (like reading Blogging Project Runway every day) and gives you a sense of control over how you spend your days. In her book 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, author Laura Vanderkam points out that we all have 168 hours in a week, and tracking our hours helps us figure out how to make the most of what really is a lot of time.
3. Make a list. Get everything you need to do out of your head and onto paper. This past year I posted an extensive Q&A with David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, on the Renegade Writer Blog. He recommends doing a mind dump of everything you can think of that you need to do. All those to-dos are cluttering your mind and keeping you from focusing on the most important task at any given moment. Put the first step for each of these to-dos on separate lists for different areas of your life, such as “To Call” for when you’re near the phone, “Errands” for when you’re in the car, and “Computer” for those tasks that need to be done when you’re at your computer. This will help you feel in control of all those little tasks that were previously clogging your brain.
4. Take a shower already! This is especially relevant for the self-employed or stay-at-home parents: Nothing makes you feel less in control than being unshowered and unbrushed at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Take a shower in the morning and put on some nice but comfortable clothes. If you’re a woman (or a guy, if you’re into it), you can even put on a bit of makeup and some jewelry. This will help you face your work day feeling put together and ready.
5. Revamp your day. Make a list of every task you do in your day, such as writing reports at work, getting the kids ready for school, and cooking dinner, and then brainstorm ways to revamp and improve those processes. Then experiment with the new way of doing things to see if they work better. We often do the same things over and over again out of habit, even when they aren’t the best methods, and looking at those habits with a fresh eye will help you come up with ways to improve them. For example, my husband and I used to fight with our toddler at dinnertime because he wanted to play instead of eat, and he never wanted to eat what we were having. Now, we let him snack as he plays — we serve up healthy foods like fruit, veggies, yogurt, mini sandwiches, and cheese — while we eat a quiet grown-up dinner.
6. Delegate it. If there’s something you’re not good at, or that you hate, find someone who does it better and delegate to them. This will give you a sense of control because you’re consciously choosing what you will and will not do in your life. For example, if you would rather drive spikes through your forehead than garden, mow, or shovel snow, hire someone to do it for you. When we lived in New Hampshire, most years we hired a snowplow driver to do our driveway. Well worth the cost.
7. Make a schedule. Instead of doing tasks whenever you think of them or whenever you happen to have free time, which perpetuates a sense of being at the whim of others, schedule important tasks into your day. For example, perhaps you can schedule a half hour of exercise at 1 pm. Or maybe you run errands like grocery shopping and mailing packages for Friday afternoons.
8. Set up an admin day. It’s hard to feel in control when you’re spending all day putting out tiny fires as they come up. Designate one day of the week, or certain hours of a day, to clear out administrative tasks like signing the kids’ report cards, going through the mail, scheduling home repairs, shredding documents, and paying bills.
9. Beat the clock. Here’s one from Steve Pavlina’s book Personal Development for Smart People: “Estimate how long a task will take to complete. Then start a timer, and push yourself to complete it in half that time.” For example, if it normally takes you two hours to clean the house from top to bottom, see if you can do it in one hour instead. You may be pleasantly surprised by how much you can do — and how well — in half your usual time.