Much of what we think and believe is an illusion. There is a growing body of science to support this idea. One of the main takeaways from this understanding is the importance of recognizing what’s real and what’s not, and – in the context of productivity and success – what we control and what we don’t.
If we get caught up in illusory beliefs, we can quickly get into trouble: making mistakes, ignoring impending disasters, and allowing wonderful opportunities to evaporate or remain unexploited.
By focusing on what you actually control, you have a chance to maximize your impact on your work and your life, making good use of available resources, pursuing the most fruitful activities, and steering events away from the negative and toward the most positive path forward.
To get you started, here is a list of some aspects of your work and your life you control:
Preparation and Readiness
I’m regularly amazed at the ability of some people to perform at a very high level. Whether it’s athletics, innovation, artistic expression, or anything else, certain individuals are capable of efforts and results well beyond what the rest of us can deliver.
A good deal of this ability certainly comes from inherent talents. But no matter how great your inborn gifts, hardly anyone delivers world-class results without doing considerable work in preparation.
Kobe Bryant, a world-class basketball player, expressed this idea by saying something along the lines of “I can trust myself to make a shot under extreme pressure because I’ve practiced taking that shot thousands of times.”
In addition to endless preparation, top performers also cultivate an elusive quality called “readiness.” This goes beyond full preparation. Readiness involves a willingness, an eagerness, and a level of excitement or arousal that helps set the stage for top-notch action.
Framing and Sensitivity
I’ve lumped these two together because I feel they both reflect attitudinal issues.
Framing refers to the way a person interprets, analyzes, and contextualizes an action or event. Depending on a person’s framing, the same event – say, a brief kiss on the lips – can be received as a wonderful acceptance or a perfunctory rebuff. We frame almost every experience we encounter, and the frame we choose is of paramount importance.
Many of our framing choices are unconscious and automatic. But we can exert conscious control over how we frame certain events and actions. More to the point, we can learn to adjust at least some of our framing to be more positive, motivating, and optimistic.
In much the same way, our sensitivity determines how accurately we perceive many of the signals that others are continually sending about their thoughts, feelings, and intentions, as well as how we feel in response to many of the events and actions we encounter.
If we increase our sensitivity, we can improve our perceptions of other people and the underlying layers of what we experience.
If we thicken our skin, we can endure a lot more of the slights, abrasions, and outright sucker-punches that we routinely receive in the course of every day activities.
But don’t go too far in either direction. It’s important to maintain a viable balance between encountering life as a “delicate flower” and erecting an armor-plated shelter from reality.
Actions and Reactions
These are among the most obvious areas within your personal control. What you say and do are – or at least should be – totally under your conscious control. Since you can’t undo any of this, it’s important to consider the possible impact before you unleash any words or deeds.
Most of us already exert “thought and deed control” to some extent. Even so, almost all of us can probably increase that level of control, and benefit from the change.
Reactions are similar to actions in this regard, except that we often experience emotional and sometimes even physical reactions originating deep inside us – reactions that we too often express before we exercise adequate control over them.
Again, this is an area in which there’s very little downside to exercising more thoughtful self-control.
Interactions are actions, of course. But since they involve other people, I’m treating them as a special case.
Your actions and reactions while building a second shed in your backyard generally won’t have direct and immediate impacts on other people, so you’re fairly free to let loose.
But when you’re interacting with others, every facial expression, gesture, and utterance potentially carries great impact. That’s why it’s important you learn how you appear to others, and – even more important – learn to control yourself during your interactions in order to accurately and sensitively convey what you are trying to communicate.
This is probably the area of your work and your life that you most obviously can, should, and probably do control.
The choices you make – both big and little – largely determine the values you express, the results you generate, and the legacy you leave behind.
Most of us are aware we have this control, and put in a good deal of time trying to make the best decisions we can.
All I can say is this: Keep up the good work, and maybe try to do a little better.
As I suggested, these are areas of your work and your life that are definitely under your control. As such, these are the levers you should reach for first when trying to make situations come out favorably, and when trying to avoid difficulties or solve problems.
Compared with a major effort in areas you don’t control, even a little bit of effort in these areas is likely to bring you a lot more productivity and success.
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