It’s common for people to worry about things they can’t control, causing avoidable mental stress and anxiety that has tangible negative results. Luckily, we can stop worrying about things we can’t affect by defining what we can and can’t control and devising a strategy to change what we can and cope with what we can’t. The best approach is to use the 8-step process below along with an actionable workbook that tracks your progress.
The eight steps to stop worrying about things you can’t control include:
The first step to stop worrying about things you can’t control is to clearly define what’s actually worrying you and why. You can’t fix what you don’t know, and the only way you can overcome your worries is to get to the root problem. You can do this by searching your past and your future for events or indicators, clearly defining root causes you can address with real action.
This is because people are typically worried about something in either the past or future, causing feelings of anxiety, stress, jealousy, or depression. These feelings are amplified when we don’t know where they’re coming from and why. Then, we become increasingly worried about the feelings, causing the feelings to further amplify, thus continuing a downward spiral.
Identify the root problems of your worry in the past and present:
About half of our negative feelings come from past events. When we worry about the past, we’re typically feeling things like guilt, anger, shame, regret, resentment, and more. This is because we can’t change the past. It already happened, and is therefore something we worry about that we also can’t control.
Think about something that makes you angry. When did the root cause occur? Almost by definition, it had to have happened in the past for you to be angry. Therefore, when we worry, think, and dwell on the past, we’re focusing on something we can’t control, causing undue negative feelings.
Rather than worrying about the past, use it as a learning experience. Have you had negative experiences in your life that cause you to worry? Of course, you’re human. However, rather than viewing the negative events, well, negatively, look at them as stepping stones and trials necessary to grow and evolve on your way to becoming a better person. View your past objectively, rather than something to worry about.
The other half of our negative feelings come from future events that haven’t yet happened. Of course, by definition, anything that may or may not happen in the future is outside of our control. And yet we worry about the future, often, which causes us stress, anxiety, and fear.
Think about it again and identify a time when you felt anxious or nervous. Again with near certainty, I bet it was about something you were worrying about in the future. Again, this is something you can’t control. When we worry about the future, we let our mind consider all possible outcomes, often dwelling on everything that can go wrong.
However, considering all possible future outcomes isn’t a bad strategy, and is something you should do objectively so it doesn’t cause you to worry and therefore feel stressed or anxious. This helps you create a roadmap for your life, setting manageable goals and avoiding pitfalls, giving you control and direction and fewer negative feelings that cause your mind to spiral.
Notice that in neither case are you worrying about the present moment. For this reason, defining what’s worrying you in the past and future will help you separate the two and live more in the moment, where there aren’t any direct negative feelings (because you either worry about something that’s going to happen or did happen, and rarely about something happening at the time).
In step one we defined what was worrying us in the past and future. We drilled down under the branches and found the root cause of our worry and therefore our negative feelings of anger, guilt, stress, anxiety, etc. Now, break down the events, people, or themes causing you to worry into two categories - things you can control and things you can’t.
There’s no point in worrying about things we can’t affect, and focusing on things you can control actually reduces worry by increasing agency over your life. In fact, often the things we can control, when added together over time, help us actually shape and change the things we can’t control.
For example, perhaps someone at work is retiring and you want his/her elevated position, causing you to worry and stress. If this is the case, identify what you can/can’t control. You can’t control who gets the promotion directly, that’s for the hiring manager to decide. You can, however, focus on stellar work performance and making incremental changes that make you a better candidate for the position.
In this way, you stop worrying about who’s going to get the promotion and focus on what actually matters. Worrying about the pay bump only works against you, while worrying on the small stuff, i.e. hitting your sales goals and adequately preparing for leadership meetings, is actually a positive thing that works in your favor.
Once you’ve identified and categorized the things that are worrying you and before you come up with a plan to stop worrying, make sure you speak with trusted people close to you. It’s hard to examine your life and your mental state when you’re “inside the fishbowl”, if you will. Often times you don’t have the perspective to even identify what’s worrying you, let alone figure out how to overcome it.
To help, bounce your ideas off friends and family, explaining how you feel and what you think is causing you to worry. Start to hammer out a rough sketch regarding the specifics of what’s worrying you and how you might deal with it. Ask for advice, but take what they say with a grain of salt - they’re stuck in their own fishbowl too and will judge your situation based on their beliefs, and not yours.
Still, perspective is beneficial when trying to deal with negative feelings like worry. It often lifts you above the unwanted feelings and lets you look down upon them objectively, like a scientist trying to figure out a problem rather than someone stuck in the throes of life. Further, simply talking about your feelings out loud helps reduce your worry as well as helps you better identify/define what’s ailing you, why, and how you might deal with it.
Here’s where it gets fun. Up to now, you’ve been doing the dirty work of sitting in your negative emotions, considering them, feeling them, and figuring out what and why you’re feeling that way. Now, you get to figure out how to overcome the things that are worrying you, decreasing negative emotions such as anger, stress, and anxiety. Your plan of attack should have specific ways to overcome the things you both can as well as can’t control.
Your plan of attack to overcome your worry should include the following:
Most of the things you can control are stepping stones to get (or avoid) the things you can’t. This is a key point to make and understand. While you might not be able to guarantee your business will get acquired by a larger company, you can focus on making it a world-class organization any company would be eager to acquire.
For this reason, start by identifying the things you can’t control. They are typically things you’re trying to avoid or achieve, and are worried you’ll either get it or not, depending on what you’re worried about. In this way, the things you can’t control are “goals” of sorts, things you either want to run towards or away from. Achievement of the goal is to either successfully avoid or achieve.
Once you’ve identified these things, figure out the smaller things you can control that will push you in the direction you want to go. You might not be able to control the end result or goal, but you can often affect the steps to get there, starting with the very first step.
So, to plan for the things you can control, outline the steps needed to achieve or avoid the thing you’re worried about. Then, come up with a cohesive plan that goes from step A to Z, small step by small step, focusing on the thing right in front of you. The key here is to focus on the process - the minutia. Over time, that minutia compounds into increasingly larger control over your life.
This is a little trickier because by definition, you can’t control these things, and this lack of control causes you to worry and stress. However, successfully defining the things that worry you outside of your control is a positive first step to planning to overcome this worry. The next step is not to directly try to change these things, but actually cope with their existence in your life as well as come up with a contingency plan in case what your worried about happens.
Look, the things you can’t control may or may not come to pass, and they may or may not leave you unscathed. Regardless, you can’t affect whether or not this happens or what the outcome will be. So, while focusing on the small things you can control, simultaneously work on strengthening your mind and becoming content with your present life-state.
Key things you can do to accept the things you can’t control include:
In addition to this, you’ll want to objectively devise a contingency plan in case the thing you’re worried about actually comes to pass. For example, if you don’t get the promotion you were worried about getting and money is tight, what are the steps you need to take to increase your income in both the short- and long-term?
You don’t have to worry about it, but a lack of planning may prove disastrous if you don’t at least consider the negative outcome and its consequences. This, of course, will also increase the agency you have over your life and actually work to reduce your worries and anxieties, rather than increase them.
Once you have a plan devised for the things you can and can’t control, the next step is to translate those plans into a daily routine that’ll help you use the things you can control as a roadmap to avoid the thing you’re worried about or achieve the thing you’re worried about missing out on. You should therefore devise a morning routine, a workday routine, as well as an evening routine.
Implement the following routines to overcome your worry:
This is typically where I do my mindfulness work and meditation. I spend the mornings first clearing my mind of the clutter I can’t control, and then defining the things for the day that I can directly affect, as well as my plan for doing so. It’s here that I write in a gratitude journal, meditate for 15 minutes, and yes, catch a half-hour of ESPN to warm up my brain.
Think of your morning routine solving two purposes. The first is to focus on the present moment and stop worrying about the past or future. The second is to prepare yourself for the day at hand and for the things you can directly impact, forgetting about the things you can’t.
Your workday routine is typically where you focus specifically on the things you can control. If you want that promotion but know you need to focus on stellar work performance, here’s where you implement your daily, monthly, and quarterly professional plan to push you in the direction of that promotion you want and are worrying about.
Workday routines come in many shapes and sizes, but I like the idea behind Paul Graham’s “maker vs manager” model. In this strategy, days and weeks are broken down into periods of deep work or “blue sky” work and periods of task-oriented work. Flipping between the two is typically what causes mental exhaustion, so picking specific days or times of the day in which you do one or the other is a great approach to affect the things you can.
The biggest takeaway here is that regardless of your workday routine, you want to be highly intentional about it. Your entire workday should be planned out with a calendar or scheduling tool. It’s the only way you’ll be able to remain focused on the things you can control.
The last routine to consider is your evening routine. This is when I typically go to the gym and read, although I know people who do both in the morning. As a component of this, schedule out your bedtime and how long it takes you to wind down. Your evening routine is all about reflecting on the day that happened, what went well and what didn’t, and what you can do tomorrow to directly affect the things in your control.
Of course, a plan is never complete unless you track progress towards your goals. For the purposes of this article, our goal is to overcome our worry, specifically in regards to the things we can’t control. So, as you implement your plan, continue to track your negative feelings and general worry, identifying if it goes up or down as you focus on changing it.
This is largely a qualitative assessment unless you track specific biomarkers, but you can still do it with some degree of reliability. For example, journaling is a great way to spot emotional trends. If you notice that your feelings have improved consistently over the past weeks by reviewing past daily journal entries, you’ll know your plan is working. If, however, the converse is true and you continue to worry, then you know you need to go back to the drawing board.
As you plan, implement, track your progress towards not worrying, it’s important to be honest with yourself and continuously improve on what matters. What this means is to find ways to increase your focus on what you can control, better cope with the things you can’t, and try each and every day to be increasingly happy with your life in its current state, even if you have to fake it at first. Be sure to constantly ask yourself, "how to stop worrying about things you can't control?"
From there? Shut up and suck it up. You’re worried about things - we all are. Still, that doesn’t give us license to wallow in our own self-pity, feeling perverse satisfaction soaking in our negative emotions. No, there’s no time for that. While it’s important to be honest about the things that are wrong and work to improve them, it’s also important to focus on the positive, ignore the negative, and get on living while you still can.
The irony here is that by doing so, you’ll actually decrease your worry and therefore your stress, anxiety, guilt, anger, etc. Fake it ‘til you make it, right? Regardless of if you want to suck it up or not, just do it. I promise by focusing on the task at hand and not worrying about the rest, you’ll be better off for it.
Negative feelings like stress, anxiety, self-doubt and fear all come from things that may or may not happen in the future. By definition, you often can’t directly affect the future, but you can affect incremental steps right in front of you. For this reason, stop worrying about the future by focusing on the tangible steps needed to achieve your future goals.
Remember that negative feelings like anger, guilt, and shame all come from the past. When we worry about the past, we’re worrying about things that we can’t change and letting negative emotions linger longer than they should. Focus on the past as a source of learning rather than a source of shame to stop worrying about it.
Overall, you have the ability to stop worrying, or not. It's ultimately up to you. When wondering how to stop worrying about things you can't control, remember to follow the eight steps above as well as rely on an actionable, guide, workbook, or accountability partner.