Focus on What You Can Control

Insights from a concentration camp

If you haven’t read Viktor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search For Meaning”, you should. Frankl, a trained psychiatrist, writes about the psychology of imprisonment in a Nazi death camp during the second world war. He describes how he found beauty in the most horrid of circumstances. The most memorable part of his book for me was his contrasting observations of the psychology of survivors and those who tragically, perished. He describes how survivors had an ability to find small joys every day, whether in savouring a single pea found in their soup broth, watching a sunrise, or sharing a smile with a friend. By seeking and choosing to enjoy minute moments of joy, survivors were able to focus on what little they could control control: their emotional response.

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Frankl believed that we are not controlled by our emotions and have access to a deeper consciousness and higher intelligence. We have the ability to guide, temper and channel our energy and emotional responses. I like Frankl’s concept of a “space” between stimulus and response. When we honor that space, we control and shape the outcomes in our lives. Instead of being overwhelmed by an often uncontrollable big picture, we can choose instead to focus on whatever small steps and actions we can take within our sphere of control.

Focus On What You Can Control

It’s easy to stay positive and hopeful when the bills are paid, your marriage is thriving, you’re physically healthy, and your mental health is in check. The challenge is to keep your chin up when circumstances are uncertain or negative. One strategy I’ve found to be vital in times of crisis is to focus on what I can control.

I was introduced to this concept by Dr. Bruce Pinel, who was my mental performance coach while training for the Olympics. A chronic low back injury flared six months before the Beijing Games and I was suddenly uncertain if I would ever return to the sport – let alone live pain free again. After looking at my medical imaging, my doctor I told me that my rowing days were over. Nine years of training behind me, I was shell shocked, sitting with Bruce at a coffee shop when he drew a small circle on a big piece of paper and slid it across the table to me.  “Look,” he said, “there are things in life you can control, and there are things in life you cannot control. This circle represents your sphere of control. Everything within it, you can control.  Everything outside of it, you cannot control. You need to focus on what you can control and ignore the rest.”

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Bruce’s advice led me to recognize the following. I couldn’t control that my discs were bulging in my lower back. I couldn’t control the excruciating pain that pulsed through my body. I couldn’t control my feelings of despair and depression. But I could control my response. I could control and choose to focus on the best, most effective steps towards recovery.

Over the next six weeks, I focused solely on healing, and I ignored the rest. I focused on how I moved, rested and cared for my body. I focused how I breathed. I filled my calendar with back to back therapy appointments. I explored supplements to support healing, new modalities of physical therapy and applied innovative strategies and tools to better my mindset. I did all of the above, consistently, from waking to bedtime. Instead of a daily training schedule, I focused my attention on a daily healing schedule. By focusing on what I could control, and taking advantage of the space between emotion and reaction – I was back on the water within six weeks. Quite a feat considering my initial diagnosis of never returning to sport.  

Research shows that the best route to top performance is to focus on what you can control and ignore what you can’t.  Bruce’s advice transformed my journey to recovery and I continue to employ it both in daily life and difficult scenarios.

What can you control, either in crisis or day to day events? Consider the following:

  • Bad weather? You can’t control it. Dress appropriately, and choose to love the feeling of the wind, snow or rain on your skin.
  • Feeling unwell the day of a major sales pitch?  You can’t control how you feel, but you can control how you respond and manage your illness. Take some vitamin C. Sit in a sauna. Take a power nap. Meditate. Do something small that will help you perform the best, and move forward.
  • You’re stuck in traffic on your commute? You can’t control the traffic, so don’t waste time lamenting; instead spend your time wisely. Take deep breaths. Strategize for an upcoming meeting. Make a phone call on your hands free headset. Engage in activities benefit you.
  • Your past? You can control that either. You can learn from it and apply that learning to your future actions, but there’s no reason to focus on it.  The same goes for your future; you can’t control it, so don’t focus on it. Instead, concentrate on the actions you can take today to create your desired outcomes in the future.

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Regardless of circumstance, you control the space between stimulus and response. When our marriage is in shambles, when cash flow is lower than expected, when government or corporate structures shuffle – you have two options.  You can choose to stress, worry and harbour anxiety about circumstances and events outside of your control; or, you can choose to focus your efforts, energy and attention to the constructive actions you can take within your sphere of control, and ignore the rest.  

Reflect on your mindset day today and notice your focus. How can you narrow your focus onto the next step within your control?

Kreek is a Management Consultant, Executive Coach and Keynote Speaker who lives in the Pacific Northwest. 

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