Determining what you can control and what you cannot


We all worry about the things we have no control over in life as well as the things that we can. At least with the things we have control over, we can do something to better ourselves and our situation. But those things we have no control over? We just need to let those go.

However, it’s not always that easy to identify what things are within our control and what things aren’t, and even if we do, it doesn’t guarantee that we can let those things go.

I want you to think for a moment. Has there been something in your life that you had complete control over yet you felt you didn’t and subsequently gave up on it too soon? What was the cost of that? Conversely, has there been something in your life that you had absolutely no control over yet you hung on for dear life when you should have just let it go? Again, what was the cost of that? I think we could all identify at least one scenario for each of these.

Sometimes we give up too easily on the things we do actually have control over, whilst hanging on far too long to the things that we are not able to control. Knowing when to keep going or let go is a useful skill to have but you can only take these actions if you know what is within your influence and that which is not.

In this article, I’m going to discuss how you can identify which of your concerns you know you have absolute control over and those that you know you have absolutely no control over. Once you know what’s within your control, you can make an informed choice as to whether or not to pursue something or let it go. This, in turn, will help to reduce your worries, in addition to the stress and anxiety that come with it.


Stephen Covey (1989) created a concentric circle diagram which aids the process of determining what is within your control, what you can have an influence upon, and what is not within your control.

The circle of concern contains issues that you are worried about yet have no control over. The circle of influence contains things that you have a level of influence over. And the circle of control contains the things that you have complete control over.

The circle of influence, in particular, can expand and contract. If you focus your time and effort on the things that are within your control and influence, your circle of influence increases. However, if you spend time and energy on the things you cannot control, that circle of influence will shrink.

Here’s how you can use the circles to determine what you have control over and that which you do not. This is best done by drawing the circles on a piece of paper and writing each of your worries on small pieces of paper or post-it note so that you can easily move them around.

  1. Write down all the things you’re worried about. Perhaps you’re worried about a party you’ve been asked to attend, your wedding next year, redundancies at work, a friend acting out of character, your ability at playing the guitar, etc.

  2. Place all of these worries in the circle of concern for now. We’ll be moving them around a bit in the next few steps as we determine what you have control over.

  3. Which of those worries do you know you have full control over? Move these to the circle of control.

  4. Look at the worries that remain in the circle of concern. Which of these do you have some influence over? Move these to the circle of influence.

  5. Now, look at the worries that you moved to the circle of influence. Do you actually have more control of those things than you think you do? Could you move any of them into the circle of control?

Michael Yapko (2008), a leading Clinical Psychologist and Hypnotherapist, does something similar to this with his clients. He asks his clients to write down 10 things that they know they have absolute control over in their life and 10 things that they don’t. You can do it this way if you prefer but personally, I like the process of seeing all your concerns laid out in front of you and using the Covey’s circles to help work through them to determine the level of control. It feels like a more gradual process with the addition of the circle of influence.

Yapko would spend time looking at the two lists with his clients, noticing whether there were any patterns emerging, and using this insight to come up with a list of principles that could help them to easily determine what is and what is not controllable in life. I recommend that you ask yourself the following questions to help you understand more fully how to judge what is within your control:

  • When you moved your worries from the circle of concern to the circle of control, how did you know you could control those things? What characteristics do they have? Anything that they have in common?

  • When you moved your worries from the circle of concern to the circle of influence, how did you know you had some level of control over those things, if not all of it? What characteristics do they have? Anything they have in common?

Yapko also set his clients the task of spending 15 minutes attempting to control the uncontrollable, for example, the weather. You can see that this exercise is fruitless. We know 100% that we cannot control the weather. Any time, effort and energy spent on trying to do so is just wasted and could have been better spent on either taking action on the things we do have control over or doing something we enjoy.

The one thing we know for sure that we can control in life is ourselves. We can control our attitudes, beliefs and ideas. We can control our behaviours, how we interact with other people, and how we go about our life day to day. We can control our interests, hobbies, and passions. We can control our efforts, enthusiasm and motivation. We can control our thoughts. We can control what we eat and drink and what we generally do with our body. You get the gist!

What you cannot control, is other people, outside agencies and global concerns. Sure, there may be aspects of these that you can influence in one way or another, but you cannot ever have complete control over them.

Incredible change happens in your life when you decide to take control of what you do have power over instead of craving control over what you don’t.
— Steve Mariboli

So now you can clearly see which of your concerns you have control or influence over, and have a better understanding of why you do, you can start to take some action to help reduce your worries and make some changes.


  • Covey, S. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Free Press.

  • Nash, M. and Barnier, A. (2012). Oxford Handbook of Hypnosis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.