Illusion of Control
c. 1907 Control over Car by Charles Crombie for Perrier Table Water (Reliable Series) via State Library of Victoria

I’ve had a pretty awful day, my alarm didn’t go off, and I’ve been feeling way behind the eight-ball, or perhaps just in front of it Indiana Jones style. As a result, I have been thinking about the nature of control, or perhaps more accurately, the illusion of control. In some ways, this relates back to my post about what you would do to get want you want, and about whether your goal is the journey or the result.


Throw a stone in any given direction, and you are likely to hit someone who thinks that autonomy at work (or the freedom to control your work) makes you not just happier, but more productive too. Heidi Grant Halvorson suggests that it isn’t the actual control that matters, it is the feeling of being in control that matters. So perhaps it’s more like the ritual of putting on your lucky underpants before you join your teammates on the field because you know you can’t possibly win without them (the underpants that is, though you can’t win a team sport without a team).


In bygone days, you followed bedtime rituals; drinking a cup of cocoa before brushing your teeth, putting your pyjamas on, winding up your clockwork alarm clock and getting into bed. And in the morning, when the alarm went off, you followed your morning rituals; washing your face, making coffee (etc.) and getting to the train station on time to arrive at exactly 9 am ready to start work. Eric Barker explains that the one thing you need in life is more rituals because they help you take control of your life by increasing its savour, reduce pain and procrastination, and make you more confident.


Or does control spring from habit? You will often read advice for things like starting an exercise habit (make it easy to get your gear on and get out the door before your brain tells you to go back to sleep). Or stop a snack eating habit by pandering to your laziness and making it too much effort to get up and get the chips or whatever. Or even by chunking your habits so that each one triggers the next. Leo Babauta argues that even contentment is a habit.

Internal and External Control

All of these things (the feeling of control, rituals and habits) are things that happen in our minds in response to external events that we can’t control. Marcus Aurelius (affiliate link) thought it was vital to understand that we can’t control things outside us and that being the case, we don’t have to let those things upset us. In fact, one of the key things Stoic are famous for is imagining the worst possible outcomes so they can prepare for them, and be happy when they don’t happen. Seneca (affiliate link) (on Anger, Book 3, paragraph 13) suggested that you could fake it ’til you make it; that when you are angry, you must wrestle with yourself to develop a calm face, take measured steps and speak mildly, using your outward presentation to convince your thoughts. And according to Oscar Hammerstein, this works for fear when you whistle a happy tune (the video has sound and starts playing immediately). Logic dictates that this will translate to stressful and chaotic situations, and I often suggest taking a deep breath, holding it for ten heartbeats, and hitting your mental reset button before you let it all out.

The Crux of the Matter

Ultimately, waking at the right time was an event that was within my control, which is perhaps the reason for the chaos. Like most of us, instead of accepting the undesired outcome and moving on, I have spent a good part of the day berating myself. If only I had done this, or if only I had done that. None of which makes any difference now, though had I examined the potential for things to go wrong last night, the outcome this morning would have been entirely different, and I would be struggling for a topic to write about instead.

It’s important to understand the things that you can control, and those you can’t; depending on whose side of the story you are on, King Canute might have needed to understand this when he attempted to command the tides.

The great joy of habits is that they provide a reliable foundation for a consistent day, while rituals offer the opportunity to infuse ordinary actions with meaning  and reward. Put them together and you have the feeling of control, and just like other feelings, when you feel in control you are in control.


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