How I’m learning to let go of control, using a rock

As of this week, I have a rock on my desk. It’s right in front of me, and I’m using it to remind me of how little I control in my life, how uncertain and unpredictable life actually is, and how insignificantly small I am. Here it is:

However, before I explain how this rock does all of that, I want to start with this assertion:

In life, I seek control. We all do.

I follow a schedule, I have a routine, I track my habits, I track my nutrition, I have a daily planner, I have a weekly task list, I log my exercise, I count my steps, I control my breath in yoga, I calm my thoughts in meditation, I set alarms to wake up in the morning, and I calculate the time I spend on different things.

On the surface, they’re all healthy activities. However, it’s insanely uncomfortable if these things don’t go according to plan, which tells me that they’re all just manifestations of the same impulse: To feel like I’m in control. And that’s actually what messes me up.

Here are two examples of things that happen to me quite often:

  1. If I wake up late, and I don’t exercise or get to my morning routine, I get really irritated. If I’m late for any of my daily habits, I feel rushed, I feel frantic, and I get tense. I use language like, “My day feels so derailed.”
  2. Sometimes, I don’t do meal prep because I’m tired at the end of a work day. Instead of feeling relaxed, though, I feel despondent and stressed about the fact that I had something else planned for tomorrow night, so pushing it out messes up tomorrow’s plans. I feel grumpy and lethargic. I catastrophise the fact that I won’t have dinner, or that the food I bought will go mouldy, or that my meal plan will be thrown out of sync. I use language like, “I feel so behind.”

I’m sure various versions of these two things happen to everyone, but notice that both of these reactions are based on completely arbitrary things. The routine I didn’t do? I set that up. The meal prep I skipped? I scheduled that. Why, then, do those things have such a huge impact on my mood?

I’m learning that it’s because we are so conditioned to seek out certainty, that anything unpredictable feels uncomfortable, scary, and untrustworthy, and we try our damndest to avoid it.

The illusion of certainty

Our lives are designed to be certain. We rely on trust and certainty to carry out daily life as quickly, and efficiently, and productively as possible.

We trust that our doctor’s diagnosis is accurate. We trust that our bus driver’s license is valid. We trust that the food from our grocery store is uncontaminated. We trust that our bank’s transactions are secure. We trust that our cars are made without any faults, and won’t just explode when we start the engine.

But have you ever actually checked if any of those were true? Probably not. I know I haven’t… 

We take risks all the time, but we are able to take those risks for granted because life would be absolutely unbearable if we couldn’t. It lets us outsource that worry to someone else. And it lets us spend our focus on other things: Our work, our passions, our relationships, etc.

This is great. Don’t get me wrong. It’s actually really important that we can trust all of those things to be true. But it’s really important to understand that those things have been designed like that. In reality, life is far more unpredictable, and we don’t control as much as we think.

The illusion of control

It was psychologist Ellen Langer who first described this mindset as the Illusion of Control, “the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control events.”

A well-known study on this involved participants pressing buttons they thought were linked to lights, and being asked if they could control the lights. The participants had varying degrees of control, depending on how the buttons were wired to the lights. However, even when their choices made no difference at all, the research showed that, in every case, participants reported having more influence on the lights than they actually did.

And this isn’t just true in studies. In fact, the world is full of buttons that don’t do anything. Some buttons, like the touchpad on your macbook pro, don’t actually “click” unless they’re switched on. They just mimic a click because that’s what you want it to do (switch your laptop off, and try it; you’ll see what I mean). Other buttons, like some pedestrian lights and elevator callers, aren’t even connected to the system they seem to interact with.

We feel better when we feel like we’re in control. We like predictability.

The problem is that, in reality, there’s actually very little in the world we can control — and wanting everything to be planned and organised is part of the problem, not the solution.

We can influence things, we can predict things, we can even imagine things that eventually do happen, but there are few things we can actually control.

How having a rock on my desk helps me let go of control

Ok, let me explain this rock…

I was listening to Jenny Odell, author of How to Do Nothing, speak to Dan Harris on his podcast.

She was talking about how she escapes the need to always do things, and always fill her time productively. It’s a way for her to not feel like everything needs to be tracked, measured, or optimised. And she taps into that by going out into nature, and watching birds, following bees, contemplating the plants and the landscape and the rocks…

But the rocks are what caught my attention: Rocks are a product of millions and millions of years of processes and materials interacting with each other, none of which we had any influence on at all. Whether we like it or not, we cannot control a rock.

Just think about that for a second: This little tiny rock (or even that big huge mountain) came out of millions, if not billions of years of stuff happening, completely unrelated to my life, my existence, my schedule… The world, and this rock, carry on regardless of whether I achieved this week’s tasks or not.

So, when I look at this rock on my desk, I think about life on a geological timeline. It’s a scale I can barely comprehend, and that makes it easier to see how insanely, and cosmically microscopic I am.

This isn’t meant as a nihilistic, carpe diem, “nothing matters anymore” alternative to habits and routines. Both of those things are still great and I still do them! Rather, it’s meant to be a reminder for myself that missing a day of my routine, or loosening my schedule a little but is OK, if not completely natural. That control I think it gives me isn’t real if I just zoom out even slightly, and look at my impact on the timeline of this rock, or even of the timeline of this universe.

Here are some small, daily practices I’m trying, in order to become more comfortable with letting go of control:

Don’t set any alarms: My boyfriend does this a lot, and it’s inspiring me to try it more often. Weekends are easy, but if I don’t set an alarm on a weekday — when there are things I “need” to do — I’m able to give in to my biological clock. So what if I’m 15 minutes late to work, or start my schedule an hour later than normal? Next year, I will have forgotten about that completely. If my body needs sleep, I want to let it rest. I’m handing over control to my brain.

Eat when I’m hungry: Mealtimes are constructions of the Industrial Revolution. “Skipping breakfast” is a societal taboo, and can cause more stress than necessary. I’m trying to listen to my body more: I eat when I’m hungry, and don’t try stick to a strict regimen. This makes me less stressed about taking lunch at 12 or eating dinner at 7pm sharp. I’m handing over control to my gut.

Only schedule one or two things a day: I have a tendency to bulk up my calendar with hour-by-hour to dos. Everything has a time, and a day. So, I’ve started setting tasks I want to get done in the week, and not worrying so much about the exact time and day I do them. This lets me be more open to unforeseen things, and more flexible in getting those tasks done. I’m handing over control to whatever happens that day. (Actually, I think I might turn this into its own blog post soon!)

Spend time doing nothing: Instead of using free-time to do more stuff, I’m trying to lean into being comfortable with not doing anything at all. Every day, I try carve out some time to just sit and do nothing. To just let time pass, unoptimised. It helps me give in to just letting go of the feeling of always being busy and always needing to be on time, on track, on schedule… I’m handing over control to time.

If the loci of control I seek serve me, that’s great. But the minute I notice that I’m serving them, I think about the rock on my desk. Glancing at this little geological artefact every so often helps me let go of control a little, and face the unpredictability of life with a little more gusto, and a little less anxiety.

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