Controlling the Controllables. How To Do It and Why It Works

It’s a familiar performance catch-cry: ‘Just worry about the things you can control.  Control the controllables’. But why is it so effective? There is a growing amount of biological research to suggest that a feeling of control is exactly what we need to get our performance on track.

When we lose control involuntarily – when someone takes away our autonomy or our ability to choose – the effect on our brain circuits and our physiology is devastating.  A loss of control is one of the biggest threats to our internal systems, decreasing our ability to reason, to problem-solve and to generally think clearly. It is one of the conditions that tips our stress scales dramatically.

After all, most definitions of real stress include a lack of control over the stressor.  This is one thing in particular that defines real stress.

So when we feel a lack of control, the resulting stress (and the plunge in our feel-good chemical, dopamine) freezes our cognitive ability – instead of thinking we become reactive.  We also know that this level of stress will increase cortisol levels in the blood as well as other potentially toxic chemicals and hormones that can impact our health, should the stress be applied for a sufficient amount of time.  People in aged care have been shown to live longer when they have choice over their living quarters.

But what is most important is perceived control.  Even though there are many things that we simply cannot control (outcomes often being one of them), if we perceive that we have control over part of the system (eg our inputs) then that perception of control takes away the negative stress.  This has huge implications for how we manage people and the choices that we create for them to be able to have some level of autonomy – even when so many things are uncontrollable.

It also seems that we perform better when we give ourselves the perception of control.  People who say to themselves, ‘I will achieve this goal’ are less likely to perform at their best than people who ask ‘Will I achieve this goal?’ (and answer in the affirmative).  It seems even if we give ourselves more autonomy over our actions then we can perform at a higher level.

So when control is taken away from us, it has enormous effects on our well-being and most importantly, our cognitive function.  We are unable to perform at our best under these circumstances. But when we perceive that we have greater control, our brain function improves as well as intrinsic motivation.  

How can you increase your level of control?  Sometimes it is as easy as planning your day and taking control of your time. Ever noticed how great you feel after you’ve planned your day in the Focus Planner? That’s because you’ve created the perception of control where you were once you were overwhelmed.

Other ways of getting control are making a plan or writing lists. But at Performance Lab – in our workshops and keynotes – we find that the best way of taking control is to stop blaming other people, things or circumstances for your performance. Sure, you may be in a particular situation because something happened, but you only stay there because you don’t take responsibility for your actions. This level of self-accountability is the greatest control we can have.

** Tony Wilson is a Workplace Performance Expert. His insights into performance science and its application in the workplace will make you re-think the way that you approach leadership, culture change, high performance and productivity. Tony has an MBA and a BSc majoring in physiology and delivers workshops and keynote presentations around the globe.

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