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Taking Control of What You Can Control

During these challenging times it's easy to find yourself worrying about the future.  Many of you may be working fewer hours or no hours at all depending on your specialty.  In a recent survey, over 40% of medical professionals stated they were working fewer hours and were worried about their economic future.

While there is reason to be concerned, there is only so much you can do about it.  This has some similarities to the social distancing we're being asked to implement into our lives by staying at least 6 feet from one another.  We can help limit the spread of the virus, but we can't totally control it.

In a similar perspective, we can look at our lives in aspects we can control and others we have no control over.  We call it the Circle of Control, which is illustrated below.

If you were to draw circles around your life they'd look something like this illustration.

The first circle, at which you stand in the center, is your circle of control.  There are many things in your life you can control to a certain degree.  Things like waking up at a certain time each day, getting in your car and driving to work, answering your phone when it rings.  These are all things you can do or not do, based on whether you want to or don't want to.

The next circle is the circle of influence.  These are people and things you can influence with your behavior and decisions.  You can influence your spouse and your children to do things or not do things.  You can influence the patients you see to take your advice, therapy, or prescriptions you may prescribe.  However, they ultimately decide what they want to do.

The outermost circle is the circle of no control.  These are things such as how rapidly the COVID-19 virus is spreading or state and federal policy to slow the spread.  This also includes just about everything you see on the cable news channels. 

There are far more things in this outer circle than any other circle, but despite it taking little argument to suggest this is true, we often find our thoughts and conversations focused on this circle that usually leads to more anxiety and stress. 

In fact, we'd suggest that the more you think about the outer circle stuff the higher the anxiety level you probably have in your life.

Change your focus.  Lower your stress.

If you want to have more control of your thoughts and finances during these challenging times we would argue you need to start by changing your focus.  While it's not possible to completely avoid the outer circles, by centering your thoughts on the inner circle you'll fill your mind with things you can control, making less room for the stuff that's out of your control.

Start the exercise with a sheet of paper and a pencil.  Then draw and label the three circles.

Next, start brainstorming what goes through your mind on a typical day lately and place it in the appropriate circle.  What is filling your mind?  Here's an example to help get you started.

Take note of what you can control.  You'll likely have some similar things as us such as controlling what you spend, and what you watch and read.  No one is forcing you to spend more or watch more CNN and Fox News!

The goal of this exercise is that once you've identified some of the key elements you control and don't control, you can devise a plan for spending more time in the center circle and less in the outer.

Some suggestions for doing that might include:

  • Take control of your spending by creating a zero-based budget.
  • Look for things in your budget you can eliminate temporarily if you anticipate less income coming in.
  • Spend time each morning journaling about the good things in your life.
  • If you haven't already, start an emergency fund to cover up to six months of living expenses.
  • Read inspirational books.
  • Listen to music.
  • Walk or take a bike ride.
  • Play games with your children.

You might also consider doing less of these things:  

  • Checking the latest market conditions.
  • Looking at your investment balances.
  • Listening to political talk radio.
  • Watching cable news.
  • Scrolling through social media feeds.

Victor Frankl, a Nazi concentration camp survivor, and author of Man's Search for Meaning, wrote some fitting words for the moment we're living through.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

You have a choice to fill the "space' between your ears.  Something is going to fill it regardless of what you do, so why not take control of it and fill it with what you can control.  By doing so there will be less space for the other stuff.


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