Note: I prefer to replace the word “control” in the great advice below with “guide” or “guidance.” Sometimes it’s not about controlling, but just gently steering, like moving a rudder just a quarter-inch in a strong gale, until the wind stops and all is calm and you no longer need to steer or control, but just let go and enjoy. —Neil
To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one’s family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one’s own mind. If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment, and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him. —Buddha
When we’re thinking about how we spend our time, we can think in concrete terms—about specific types of time expenditures, and we can think in more abstract terms—about things that occupy our time in a variety of ways. The quest for control is an example of the latter.
By control I mean the active governance of people and situations for the advancement of desired outcomes. The quest for control is what we deal with most of the time, since real control is fairly elusive. (Though we hate to admit it, the reality is that most of us are in far less control of affairs than we would like.)
Unlike many of the topics we’ve previously covered, the quest for control isn’t inherently good or bad in the multi-faceted scheme of spending our time wisely. In some cases, we should probably be spending more time in pursuit of control. In others, we’re wasting our most precious resource. This post is an exploration of the importance of pursuing control, but only when it matters.
There are two primary areas of life that warrant our active governance of affairs for desired outcomes:
1. Our Thoughts
The quest for control of our thoughts is, in my view, one of the most worthwhile pursuits in life. It’s a good idea to deliberately schedule a lot of time for this…forever. As the Buddha said, we must discipline and control our minds to achieve true happiness. But controlling the mind is a tall order. The good news is that there are three concrete things we can do that will get us plenty far.
• Study how the mind works. This is the first step. At some point in our history, humans mastered the tasks of survival enough to find time to think about thinking. Thus was born philosophy. Over the centuries, our understanding of how the mind works has grown by leaps and bounds. Now, along with the works of the great philosophers, we have the benefit of evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience to shed light on how our gray matter leads to our experience of life. We don’t know it all, but we know enough to make real progress toward controlling our minds. We know about how we perceive our world, and we know about the ancient purpose of our emotions. Getting a good base in that knowledge is a very good start. So the beginning of our quest is somewhat academic. Fortunately, we live in a time when this kind of information is easily accessible. Google and Amazon are your friends on this. (I also cover a lot of this in my book—Healing The Unhappy Caveman: Why The Human Mind Was Not Designed For Happiness And What YOU Can Do About It.)
• Practice mindfulness. Far from academic, this isn’t something you read and think about; it’s one of those things you do…as often as you can. The idea is to be aware of what you’re thinking at any given moment. Obviously, it’s impractical to do this continuously—we can only really pay attention to one thing at a time, so we’re standing still if we’re introspective and reflecting every minute of the day. Nevertheless, we can install a subroutine in our mental programming that checks in on our thoughts in a consistent way. Some people use meditation to promote mindfulness. For them, meditation is like a reset button, reeling it in when the mind runs away on its own. For other people—myself included—it’s more of a manage-by-exception thing, something we do when we sense ourselves getting off track. Regardless of how you do it, paying attention to what you’re thinking about—on the reg—is essential to controlling your mind.
• Dismiss the useless. When we start paying attention to our thoughts, we notice that some thoughts don’t do us any good at all. These thoughts are “not useful” and should be immediately escorted from our consciousness. (One of my favorite bloggers—James Altucher—has a post on this—The Power of Negative Thinking.) I’m a big believer in the idea that our thoughts determine our emotions. If I’m thinking about someone who has wronged me, I get angry. On the other hand, if I think about a tender moment with one of my kids, it makes me immensely happy. So the key criteria for determining whether my thoughts are useful or not is how the thoughts make me feel. If they make me feel bad, they’re often not useful. Of course, if I’ve done something wrong, it’s important to reflect on that and adjust my point-of-view and actions accordingly. But many thoughts that make us feel bad are utterly worthless, and the act of pushing them out of our minds is actually a lot less difficult than most people think. Just try it. The next time you’re upset or down in the dumps, examine what you’re thinking. I guarantee that if you look hard enough, you’ll see what is upsetting you. Then, just decide to stop thinking about it. Replace it with something you want to think about. Just do it once, and you’ll know you can do it. The muscle is there. You just need to exercise it, to exorcise bad thoughts. NOTE: I recognize that sometimes we have problems that are beyond the simple act of not thinking about them. However, the fact is that many reactions to “problems” are irrational in nature. We freak out because we think we may lose our job. We dwell on the potential calamity and we make the situation out to be far worse than it is. When we rationally examine the situation, we find that losing a job can be an opportunity. We find that our attention should be on our plan—which is useful—not on how fucked we’ll be if we get canned. Albert Ellis wrote an amazing book on this called A Guide To Rational Living. I highly recommend it.
The nice thing about the quest for control of the mind is that it doesn’t really take a lot of time. The upfront studying is the most of it. From there, it’s little seconds here and there. Totally worth it.
2. Our Health
This is one area of life where we really can exert a great deal of control. Sadly, the quest for control of our health is largely ignored by far too many people. In decades past, the reason was ignorance—the masses simply didn’t have access to the information they needed to make good day-to-day choices. The problem now, however, is a mix of information overload and apathy. There’s a great deal of information out there, but we do not yet have a reliable way of curating it. Most of what gets to us is bought and paid for—by some person or group with a vested interest in our believing one thing versus another. So we’re forced to choose between confirmation bias (it fits what I already believe) or total cynicism (everything is a lie). Not very helpful. No surprise, therefore, that more and more folks just don’t care. Too bad because modern life, for those who don’t care, plays out on a massive multimedia stage catered with shitty food, surrounded by plush seats, no sunshine, screaming fast wifi, battery chargers for all manner of mobile devices, and pills aplenty for what ails ya. These trappings have their place, but as it is with so many other things—it’s the dose, not the drug that kills you. So, for those who do believe control of our own health is possible, here are a few areas upon which we can and should focus.
• You are what you eat. I am pleased that more and more people seem to be taking food seriously. I didn’t until a few years ago. I ate like absolute shit for most of my life. I have no way of knowing what illnesses lurk around the corner for me as a result of literally not eating anything green for 35 years. All I can do is exert control on the present and the future. With all of the viewpoints on nutrition out there, it is impossible to know what’s right. (And it’ll change next week anyway.) So my approach is to keep it simple. Eat close to the source and minimize the number of ingredients. Avoid long chemical names in ingredient lists. And keep it real—take butter over margarine and pure cane sugar over high fructose corn syrup. All this synthetic, processed food has baggage, and I’m more and more convinced that our bodies simply can’t handle it without malfunctioning.
• Move. The human body is a work of art, a work of kinetic art. It was designed to move, to have the dexterity, agility, endurance, and strength to put into action the creative explosion that is consciousness. To put such a masterpiece in an office chair by day and a Barcalounger by night is an atrocity. In the old days, the expression “a guy’s gotta eat” meant you had to bust your ass for your subsistence. Nowadays, for most people, it just means you have to put in enough ass-in-chair time to afford to consume your prescribed portion of the American dream. I can’t knock it. I’m as guilty as the next guy, but the direct connection between activity and health is beyond dispute. So I keep it simple. Get outside as often as possible, and not just lounging by the pool or at the beach. Explore and play outside. That’s a good general rule. In particular, I try to get in 3-5 high intensity workouts per week—jiu jitsu and/or running. The key is to jack the heart rate up really high and keep it there for 5-10 minutes at a time. Do that a few times over thirty minutes to an hour and you’re golden.
• Avoid stress. No need to spend a lot of time on this one. Despite the lack of state-sponsored awareness campaigns, we all pretty much know that stress is a killer. No matter how busy we are, we simply MUST find time to blow off steam and keep stress at bay.
If we focus our efforts at control on our thoughts and our health, we’re using our time wisely. Everything else we may consider controlling should get a high degree of scrutiny. There are many things that cannot or should not be controlled, such as the people in our lives. And other things perhaps can be controlled, but the effort associated with doing so is so great as to completely defeat the purpose. In any case, a good general rule is to adopt the sentiment of the serenity prayer, but in the context of time—don’t waste time on the things you cannot change; have the courage to spend time on the things you can change; and have the wisdom to know the difference.