When I don’t have control of my life I get upset.
Writer, Thomas Oppong, unexpectedly sent me into contemplation mode:
No matter how much you love work, if you lose total control of your time and freedom to express yourself creatively, you will end up miserable.
This is how it feels to be a writer. You want to express yourself creatively, but you can’t always when you are renting an audience you don’t own. Owning your creativity is one of the best feelings you can access.
As a writer, building an email list is one way I’ve found to get back my creative freedom. The next step is to build a newsletter you own. The final step is to set up a group chat, where the content is consumed based on a person’s curiosity, not an algorithm.
I’m on a journey to get back control of my life. Here’s how I’m doing it and you can borrow pieces of my strategy.
The #1 Thing You Must Control
When you don’t own your time, you don’t fully own your life.
Some of my time is traded away for money. I allow my time to be taken away because I need shelter. Where I live (like most civilized countries), the property prices are out of control. You can be the CEO of a major company and still have little chance of owning a property that has a tiny amount of land, and is a reasonable distance from your office.
I am trading time for land. It is ridiculous.
It’s the first time I have said that to myself. Maybe you are subconsciously doing the same thing. Owning land is the <insert country name> dream.
I go to an office and get told what to do with my time. Attend this meeting. Complete this forecast. Scratch Joe’s back and tell him how good his department is. Meanwhile, upstairs in my mind I think about writing. My creative mind doesn’t switch off. Every conversation I have becomes an idea for content. There is no escape, except focus 100% of my time into writing.
As long as the bulk of my time is a controlled experiment, I feel out of control. It’s a sharp realization when you have it. Change is coming for me based on this epiphany.
Time is the currency of your life. You decide how to invest it.
Tame the Monkey in Your Mind
The monkey wants to speak. The monkey wants to throw tantrums. The monkey is frustrated he didn’t eat enough bananas. The monkey is your mind.
Your problem is you overreact. We’re trained by social media to react to every little thing. That’s what the heart and like buttons are there for. You can choose not to react.
Experiment: Commit to two hours where you don’t react to anything. You see the stimulant. You let it in. And you take zero action. You move on and read a book, throwing cold water on the potential fire.
Non-reaction helps control your mind.
Then do this:
Direct your mind to a more useful task — reading, writing, a conversation with a friend, time with your partner.
When your mind is being useful it doesn’t have time or bandwidth to deal with the irritable stimulant.
Find a Way to Prevent Email Invitations
I don’t control a lot of my schedule. Anyone who has my work email address can insert meetings at their leisure. Sure, I can decline them. But if the person really wants me to attend then all they need to do is look up my manager and send them an email.
My day is spent playing game of thrones with random people who insist on meetings. Most meetings are designed to sell me a product, service, or idea that is unhelpful to the work I’m being paid to do.
Experiment: Try not replying to meetings. Don’t accept and don’t decline. Ignore the email follow-ups. Play dumb if anyone asks you what happened, because the hundreds of work emails you get are easy camouflage for a variety of excuses.
The harsh realization I had is if I want my outlook calendar back under my control then I can’t work a 9-5 job.
Maybe entrepreneurs, freelancers, and gig workers all do what they do to simply gain control back of their chosen calendar app. It’s a watered-down version of the laptop dream without all the picture quotes, and it could explain a lot.
The Person You Are Most Unkind To
When you talk down to yourself in your head you lose control.
If you could hear the conversations people have with themselves you’d be horrified. I can’t wait for Elon Musk to place a chip in my brain that records the audio from my thoughts. I want to play it back so I can see how much of an asshole I can be to myself at times. You’re no different. You are your harshest critic.
You drop the biggest f-bombs on yourself.
You’re taught to have empathy towards others and be kind. I like this idea. What is far more important is to start with yourself. If you can’t be kind to yourself then you won’t have a chance of being kind to others.
Your thoughts control your life. Tame your thoughts by improving your self-talk.
Experiment: next time you are pissed off, write your thoughts down as they happen. The next day after you’ve cooled off, read the thoughts back to yourself. Once you can see your self-talk and play it back you can improve it. You can’t fix what feels invisible.
Play a Game of Reverse Your Emotions
You control your emotions. You can play a game when you select an emotion to an event that has occurred in your life.
- Is this rejection anger or helpful feedback?
- Is this breakdown in romantic relationship their fault or me taking a look at myself in the mirror shaped like their body?
- Is this happiness or a love of material objects?
- Is this feeling of joy free or does it have to be paid for?
The emotions you label as negative are often the most helpful ones. Negative emotions are just learning.
Gain control over your emotions by relabelling them.
Schedule Rather than ‘Feel Like’ Doing Exercise
I have a confession to make: In the last 12 months my exercise routine has gone way off track. When the gym shut because of the pandemic I became a lazy ass. I haven’t done weight training for ages. My girlfriend says my posture has taken a beating. I stand tall like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Like an alcoholic who has fallen off the wagon, I’ve formulated a plan. The reason I lost control of my fitness is that I relied on ‘feeling like it.’
Unless you are a navy seal…who feels like doing grueling exercise that leaves you standing in a puddle of your own sweat and gasping for air? Not me. I’m a basic bitch. I’m on the road back to exercise. The solution I’ve found is to schedule exercise so you don’t rely on willpower. When exercise is scheduled and you forget about how you feel it becomes a habit.
A habit simply means automation.
Discover Mental Fitness
When Thomas Oppong mentioned mental fitness in his story I was a little lost. I don’t currently do mental fitness…unless you count reading books. So I did what geniuses do: I googled it.
My local government, of all places, had the best tips. It turns out mental fitness is stuff I’m already aware of.
- Exercise for 30 minutes a day. “Physical exercise delivers oxygen to the brain. This can help to improve your memory, reasoning abilities and reaction times.”
- Read often. I knew that already. But part two of the advice was to read widely. I always read non-fiction books. Mental fitness is about reading books you wouldn’t normally read.
- Eat Vitamin B because your brain loves it. (They said eat dairy, too, but I disagree with this advice as a person who eats a whole food plant-based diet.)
- Stretch yourself mentally. Notice the advice didn’t say play candy crush or other games that make you more addicted to your not-so-smart phone. The suggestions were to learn a language, play a board game, or do a crossword.
- Spend time relaxing. Part of your mental fitness is preventing cortisol from harming your brain. Relaxing helps you reduce cortisol and level-up your mental fitness.
- Add another hobby. Learning something new helps create new neural pathways in your brain. This is how you rewire your brain and get away from the entrapment of boredom.
Own the Trajectory of Your Life
This is going to sound crazy: micro-decisions control the trajectory of your life. If the trajectory of your life is way off, or you feel like you’re heading down a dark path, you don’t need a one-off transformation.
The answer is to change the micro-decisions you make.
When you’re life is off-track and you know it, it tears you apart inside. You can alter the course of your life by making a subtle change.
Read one chapter of a book not an entire book. Take the stairs not the elevator. Delete facebook’s assortment of casino apps from your phone. Make a phone call and say a simple sorry. Ask a stranger for a tiny opportunity. Do a micro act of kindness and give something to a person who can never thank you. Buy a free $3.50 coffee for a person in the queue at your coffee shop.
All of those suggestions are micro-decisions — and that’s the point.
Cheatsheet for Gaining Back Control over Your Life
Some of you love to get to the solutions fast. Here’s my cheatsheet.
What do I want?
Why do I want it?
Where is most of my time spent? Am I happy about it?
Where does the most joy and fulfillment come from?
What is the meaning of my life? (In other words, what is one thing I do that helps others?)
Questions lead to curiosity. Curiosity makes you think. Thinking helps you see where you’ve lost control so you have the opportunity to gain back control.
When your life feels out of control it’s a sinking feeling. Each part of your life can be split up into areas of control: time, schedule, mindset, emotions, self-talk, physical fitness, mental fitness, and overall life trajectory.
Add micro-decisions to each area of your life you feel is out of control. Micro leads to practical, sustainable changes. Micro changes help you gain back control of your life so you can enjoy the alive time you have left.