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Nice Work

Finding control without being controlling

It’s normal to seek a sense of control during difficult times. But too often, we look for it in the wrong places — like trying to control other people.

Mountaintop view with large boulders in the foreground and green mountain peaks in the background. In the middle, below, you can see a small lake peeking out. The sky is hazy with clouds and sun.
View from the top of Traveler Mountain, looking down at South Branch Pond, in Baxter State Park in Maine.

This time last week, I was in the mountains of northern Maine, taking a long hike in a remote state park where my phone didn’t even attempt to get a signal.

It was gorgeous: blue skies, mountain peaks, lake views. And it was exactly what I’d wanted: to disconnect from work, to get off the internet, to close all the tabs in my brain for a few days.

Only, I wasn’t having a good time. I was freaking out.

See, I hadn’t read much about the trail we were taking. I knew it would be almost 11 miles long and include some steep climbs. But what I didn’t realize was that miles and miles of it would be scrambling hand over foot up rocky, exposed ridges — the kind of terrain that’s been tough on my left knee ever since I had ACL surgery a couple years back.

By the time I realized how much this was straining my knee, we were a solid four miles in — on a trail so steep, the park rangers recommend you only take it up because descending it is so treacherous. Turning around didn’t feel like a good option — but continuing felt so unknown: What if I can’t do this? What if I injure myself seriously? What if I can’t finish before dark?

Pretty soon, I was full-on panicking — which is pretty unhelpful when your heart and lungs are already working overtime.

“It’ll get easier, right?” I kept asking my partner, desperate for reassurance. “I don’t know,” he’d reply each time. “It might not.” Then I’d pull out our map again, and try to gauge how far we’d gone — as if staring at the little dotted trail line one more time would give me the certainty I craved.

It did not.

What finally did calm me down: focusing on what was within my control.

I asked to take a break. I ate some snacks to keep my energy up. I hiked a little more slowly to avoid making a misstep and hurting myself. I reminded myself that I had many, many hours before nightfall, and I was allowed to use all of them if I needed to.

It was a powerful reminder of something that’s been on my mind throughout this pandemic: when humans feel powerless, they tend to look for something to control. And who hasn’t felt powerless lately? After all, so much has been out of our control these past years: vaccination timelines, school reopening plans, other people’s pandemic behavior, the trajectory of the latest variant.

There’s nothing wrong with looking for a sense of control right now.

The problem is that we often look for it in the wrong places — obsessing over the map, instead of focusing on our own two feet.

At work, that often looks like micromanaging: refusing to delegate anything, making everyone do things your way. It can also look like smothering: constantly “checking in” and “touching base,” to the point that your team feels surveilled instead of trusted. While these behaviors can give leaders a sense of control (at least briefly), they do so at the expense of others. Not great.

Here’s a healthier place to regain a sense of control right now: set a new boundary.

  • Identify your values and current priorities. If you were truly focused on them, what would you stop doing? How can you get that off your plate?
  • Is your most important work sidelined by endless meetings? Block time on your calendar for deep work first, and let meetings happen in the leftover space.
  • Go through the recurring meetings on your calendar, and ask yourself which ones you truly need to be in. What can you decline or delegate?
  • Set a shutdown time in the evening, and create a ritual to support you actually shutting down.
  • Make a new routine, and prioritize protecting it — like taking an afternoon walk every day at 2pm.

“Boundaries” might feel like a big deal — and they are! — but the specific boundary you set here doesn’t even have to be something major. It just needs to help you remember that you’re not powerless — that you have choices in life, even when lots of things aren’t in your control. And the more you practice setting small boundaries, the easier it will be to set bigger ones.

Oh, and my hike? Once I calmed down, things were fine. We got back to the trailhead around 4pm, with hours and hours of daylight remaining and plenty of snacks still in our packs. All I needed was to stop worrying about mastering the mountain, and start focusing on what I could control instead.

This post originally appeared in the August 6, 2021, edition of our newsletter, Nice Work. Subscribe here.

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Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Sara Wachter-Boettcher

I help folks in tech and design build sustainable careers and healthy teams. Author @wwnorton @abookapart @rosenfeldmedia. More at www.activevoicehq.com.