How to Focus on What You Can Control: 10 Tips for Success and Happiness

When life is overwhelming or you’re having a very stressful week then it can feel like you have no control.

Like you’re a small ship being tossed around on a violent and chaotic sea.

No fun for sure.

At these times I find it helpful to first just focus on breathing deeply and slowly. And to pay attention only to my breath going in and out for a minute or two.

This calms my body down and greatly slows my mind from spinning around in circles.

After that I try to refocus. On what I actually can control. On what I can do to improve upon a situation and move forward.

And in today’s post I’d like to share the tips and habits that have helped me the most with doing just that.

I hope you’ll find something here that helps you out too.

Now, first things first. Let’s have a look at what you can and can’t control in life.

Focus on what you can control

A woman thinking about something while riding the train.

A handful of the most common things someone can control are, for example:

Your actions.

What you take action on or don’t. Your daily or weekly habits. What path you choose as you move forward.

Your communication.

What conversations you choose to engage in or walk away from, what words and tone of voice you use to communicate and the energy you bring into a conversation.

Your priorities.

How you allocate time to different tasks at work, how you choose to prioritize relationships, money and energy in your private life and the balance you set – or at least influence – between work and home life.

Your boundaries.

What you accept and do not accept from others (and yourself too). What you are not willing to put any – or as little as possible – energy into to have more of it available for what truly matters to you.

Your self-care.

This is one that I and many others sometimes neglect and don’t set off time for. But looking after your health and body by for example working out, eating reasonably healthy, getting enough quality sleep and taking time to recharge and for your hobbies are vital for long term happiness and success.

Your attitude and perspective.

How you deal with and learn from a setback and if you take action again or get stuck in inaction. But also what attitude and perspective you bring in during conversations, day to day situations and larger life events or forks in the road.

Your personal growth.

How you aim to develop as a person, what goals and dreams you are working towards and the things you want to improve about yourself.

What you receive and give.

What information and viewpoints you let into your mind from people and other sources. And how you contribute and help out in the lives of others at work, in school and in your private life.

What you cannot control

A few of the things someone can usually not control are:

What other people do and say.

And how they react, respond and behave. Their opinions, their successes or failures and how they feel and think about you and me.

The past.

Learn from it and perhaps find a new view of it, but realize that you cannot change what happened.

The future.

You can influence it by what you plan, say and do but trying to control it tends to only lead to worries, anxiety and conflicts.

Huge and unpredictable forces in the world.

Huge global events like recessions, birth and death, the weather, delays and accidents and so on are outside of your control.

These two lists can, in my experience, be very helpful in themselves to find clarity in what’s controllable when you’re under stress and to reduce confusion, anger or perceived helplessness in many situations.

Now, on to 10 more tips and habits that have helped me out.

1. Keep in mind why it’s essential.

You have limited time and energy each day and week. Choices need to be made about what you focus on. 

It’s natural to think and feel and even dwell for a while about a negative situation. But after a while you need to shift your focus to control what you can control or all that thinking will drag you down into inaction and into feeling powerless and negative .

I’ve found that one of simplest ways to remember to keep this in mind is to create a reminder.

Back in the day when I was a big overthinker I had a whiteboard on my wall that reminded me to not overthink. It said: “There is no problem”. And it was usually right, even though my mind thought otherwise.

These days I simply keep a document in my phone with current reminders and thoughts that I look at at the start of each day. 

2. Question the situation you’re in.

If you wind up in a situation that seems negative ask yourself these questions to find more clarity:

Will this matter in 5 years? Or even 5 weeks?

This one can help you to zoom out and see things from a wider and calmer perspective. It’s easy to get stressed out about something you shouldn’t pay much or no attention to really.

Is this my problem or situation to resolve?

Or is up to someone else? Remember, you cannot control what someone else does or doesn’t do. Yes, you can help out in some situations but that doesn’t mean that the situation is under your control.

Is this current situation even something I can control? Honestly?

Think it through and don’t default to trying to control any situation you are in because that adds stress and zaps energy.

How have things usually gone in the past with similar situations?

Did they resolve themselves in time and were you worried for no good reason? Or were they honestly under someone else’s control and nothing you could affect much in the end? Look to your past to find patterns and to not make the same mistakes too many times.

3. Find what you can do about it and take action.

The next step after you’ve come to the conclusion that the situation is something that’s important in the longer run and you can do something about is to figure out what that action may be.

Perhaps you already have an idea or two.

If not, ask yourself:

What is one small step I can take today to get the ball rolling and to start improving upon this situation?

Write that down on a piece of paper or in a document on your phone.

That is often the easier part. The harder one tends to be to take action on your small start of a plan.

Here’s what helps me so I don’t get stuck in procrastination.

Break that small step down into a tiny step.

If the small step is to take action for 10 minutes then break the start of that small step down into a tiny step that only takes 2 minutes to get to done. Then complete that.

Change your mood.

If you don’t feel like taking action or it feels too hard then one thing that helps me is change my mood. Simple and relatively quick ways to do that are:

  • Go out for a walk in the fresh air.
  • Work out.
  • Take a shower.

Tell yourself: if I only get this small or tiny step done today then it will have been a good day.

Because it’s true, compared to if you procrastinate all day with busy work that doesn’t really move you forward.

4. Keep moving forward.

With your small win in your back pocket take a bit of time to think about your start of a plan. 

How can you make it into a more full, step-by-step plan to help you with this situation you’re in?

Sit down with a pen and paper, use the momentum and confidence you’ve now built up and keep moving forward to take control of your life.

5. Reminder: there’s always some part you can control.

Even if someone makes a bad decision at work that you have no say over or random stuff just happens that leads to a setback for you.

It’s easy to forget that even in such situations you can control your words, actions and attitude towards it. You can make the situation worse by what you say or keep stewing and stay angry. Or you can take control and move on and let the situation go or look for a path forward for yourself at least.

Use the list of things you can control at the start of this post for inspiration when you at first feel like there’s nothing you can do about a situation to find something small you can still control and then build on that.

6. Consider what and who you let into your mind.

If you spend a lot of time with people and other sources of influence like social media, TV, podcasts or books that make you feel negative, frustrated and like you don’t have a lot of power over your life then that will likely affect your mood and view of the world and yourself.

So ask yourself this to help yourself to set healthier boundaries:

What are the top 3 sources of negativity in my life?

Then ask yourself this question:

What can I do to spend less time with these 3 sources this week?

It could be to not see someone (or to see them less), to delete a few sources in your social media stream or unsubscribe to podcasts or newsletters.

Then spend the time you’ve now freed up with the most positive, supportive or helpful people and sources in your life and on vital things for well-being like hobbies or resting and recharging.

7. Don’t push self-care away to “someday”.

If you feel there is a situation – or maybe a few of them – right now that isn’t under your control then self-care is important to prioritize getting your mind away from your challenges and to feel better again.

So don’t neglect that. Don’t push it off.

I’ve found that the days when I think that I don’t have time to exercise or to get out and get some fresh air, sunlight and a walk are the days when that matters and helps the most.

Self-care will improve your recovery, recharge you with new energy and I find that it gives me a healthier outlook on the situation I’m in.

Besides working out and going out for a walk a few of my favorite ways to use self-care is to:

  • Let it out and talk to someone about it. This can help me to gain a more level-headed and grounded perspective again and allow me to see my options for what I actually can control and do something about.
  • Take time to just relax. Maybe read or watch something I know will make me laugh and help me relax so I can bounce back.
  • Find something to look forward to. This can be a helpful way to think about the future and to feel better again. So dream about a trip or a concert that’s coming up soon in your life. Or contact friends and plan for a dinner together or an evening down at the pub.

8. Know how to say no.

If you have a hard time saying no then it’s easy to get stuck in other people’s plans and to feel like you have little say over things. 

This can definitely, in my experience, make you feel like you don’t have as much control over your time and life as you’d like and like you’re less powerful than you actually are.

So in this section I’d like to share my favorite tips for getting better at saying no. And you can find a whole post with 10 tips for saying no here.

Focus on why you’re saying no.

Not to be mean or disappoint someone. But to set a healthy boundary for your life to free up time and space for your own goals and what matters the most to you like your family or your health.

Kindly disarm and keep your no short.

You can first say that you appreciate the kind offer. And then follow that up with honestly telling them that you, for example, don’t have the time. You don’t have to over explain, I’ve found that it tends to make some people pushier and more stubborn. 

If you feel a bit guilty then that’s OK.

But feeling guilty doesn’t mean that you have to act on that emotion. Just be with it and accept how you feel right now and soon that emotion will lose power and become smaller and smaller.

9. Learn how to let go.

If the things you can’t control keep bouncing around in your head then that will take away plenty of energy and your focus from the things that are truly important.

So learning to let go of those things are very helpful for success, for your well-being and to focus your energy in the right place.

Here’s a few of my favorite tips for getting better at letting go. I also have a post about letting go and moving on here.

Accept how you feel.

As I mentioned above about feeling guilty, if you just stay with how you feel – maybe frustrated, angry or disappointed – and let that fully in and accept it then that emotion will lose steam and become smaller. And so letting it go – instead of it clinging in your body and mind – becomes easier.

Talk about it.

As mentioned in the section on self-care, talking a situation over with someone can be helpful to gain a healthier perspective. And sometimes it can help to just vent to someone about a situation to be able to let it go more easily.

Journaling about it, to just write it out on paper or your laptop can also be a way to vent, find a new viewpoint and let go.

10. Make gratitude a daily or  weekly habit.

Tap into gratitude to shift from a negative and disempowered headspace to feeling more powerful again and to focus on things that are positive and under your influence.

You can do that by using a gratitude journal each day. For example, in the morning or before bedtime.

Or you can set a reminder on your phone to focus on gratitude for just a minute or two a few times a week.

5 questions that are helpful for gratitude in this case are:

  • What’s one small thing I can be grateful for in my life?
  • What’s one thing I can be grateful for about the people in my life?
  • What’s one thing I can be grateful for about myself?
  • What’s one challenge that I am grateful to have had because it made me stronger?
  • What are 1-3 things that I can be grateful for to be able to control in my life?

Try these questions out and see which ones resonate the most and work the best for you to feel more positive, empowered and in the driver’s seat of your life.


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About the Author

Henrik Edberg is the creator of the Positivity Blog and has written weekly articles here since 2006. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Gothenburg and has been featured on Lifehacker, HuffPost and Paulo Coelho’s blog. Click here to learn more…

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Sandy

    Absolutely brilliant..You’re insights has reminded me, just why I’m such a big fan and why I’ve subscribed to your newsletters for so long.
    Thank you, your words of wisdom gave me much needed advice. I wish I had these tips months ago and didn’t lose a valued friend over my thoughtless actions.
    But on a positive note…better late, than never.
    Thanks :)

  • Cydni Raven

    Thank you! Excellent ideas for feeling more in control of my life. Awesome advice Henrik!

  • S. Williams

    Thanks. It was really helpful for me to read your suggestions. I will definitely include some of them in my routine.

  • Anonymous

    very good for me, thank you

  • 11 detailed and helpful pieces of advice, thank you. Those will surely help me and others overcome the fear of failure, surpass difficulties, and obstacles. To succeed and be happy, we must truly engage in healing work and learn what is necessary to maintain our energy and take the right actions to move forward, addressing issues. There won’t be a quick switch from facing challenges to having them disappear and achieving desired results. Be courageous, patient, enjoy, and progress.

  • t. mathney

    Thanks for your wisdom. I know I am a big overthinker! I find it leaves me feeling drained and anxious. It’s not always easy to let go of the things that weigh us down and keep us stuck. I appreciate the reminder to slow down and consider if I have any control over a situation. We all need to take the time to be grateful everyday.

  • Thank you for a great post, Henrik. So insightful and full of great tips! I love the wisdom of accepting how you feel. When we start to fight with our minds and emotions on top of everything else, it makes for an anxiety-rich circumstance. Accepting how we feel doesn’t mean giving up. It’s simply acknowledging information. And that information can often inform how to make the best choices.